0333-what's the whole fucking point?
Author’s Note: When I wrote this piece I was working in the Customer Service department of a large luxury retailer. I lasted three months. During my second month, I took a trip to a well-known UNESCO world heritage site. Despite this being one of the most Caucasian trips I had ever taken, Black Jesus spoke to my heavy heart during a hike down a mountain. In a matter of days, I had handed in my notice, ready to brave the cold world of temporary employment yet again – only this time, with a renewed sense of my place in this complex world of consumption. We all buy things, we all need and want things, and in the process, we may lose sight of the kind of sacrifices that are made to keep this cycle of supply and demand going smoothly.
I am applying speculatively for the role of Oprah’s wood nymph, because it appears that 15 years of schooling has culminated in a first class degree, £43,000 worth of student loan repayments, and a £21,400 annual salary listening to rich people complain about nonsense. Need something resolved urgently? Don’t worry – our lines are open from now till the hours not even kept by God or licensed medical professionals. Do not despair: there will always be some desperate soul on the other end of the phone, glued to the chair while someone hurls insults with reckless abandon. Where is the over-priced item I ordered 15 minutes ago? Why are there holes in my £400 cotton distressed tee? Why is this bag made in Italy and not France? I want it now. Do it now. Fix it now. More. Now.
I am experiencing the humiliation of working in a call centre of a large luxury retailer. For five days each week, I am stuck to a chair, staring at two screens, navigating six different programmes, uttering the same 12 phrases, and having to update a ‘status’ any time I need to stand up. I think of my demise as a hilarious accident. I latched onto ‘excellent communication skills’, ‘problem-solver’ and several other phrases in the job advert thinking that would make it interesting, not knowing I would later sign a permanent contract to work in a call centre. Call centres are like landing sites for all the aggressions and frustrations of unsatisfied individuals. When the aliens come, they will be particularly perplexed by the call centre. As it stands, ‘over 4% of the UK’s working population’ work in some iteration of the 6,200 centres, translating into over 700,000 positions for desperate people like me. With technological advances, and higher demand for ‘out of office hours’ access to a range of services’, more people are sitting on the end of the line, at all hours of the day, waiting to hear your problems.
No two centres are the same, but each one is notorious for ‘high levels of turnover, absenteeism, employee burnout, and emotional exhaustion’, and I’ve had no trouble figuring out why. At the start of each shift, I receive a break and lunch rota in my inbox, which shows me the exact times of each advisor’s breaks as well as my own. I must take my break at those exact times to ensure that there is never be a moment where the phones are left unmanned. If for some reason I am otherwise occupied, and can no longer take my break at the allotted time, I have to report myself to a manager, and a new break time is allocated based on the times of my fellow comrades. It all makes sense, but it breaks my heart. It is like being in nursery, but with no snacks or colorful things. I feel my agency being stripped away, for the worst possible reasons, and I am the one who signed up.
Retail is bad enough. It’s the business of consumption in an age where we really don’t need to consume anymore. Luxury retail is a whole other kettle of fish. Fountain pens for £27,000, lynx fur jackets for over £200,000, a phone for £15,000. This is obscene, obnoxious, offensive consumption, routinely reminding you that all fingers are not equal. Rich people, and people-who-aren’t-rich-but-buy-rich-people-things make purchases, and when they do, they expect you to move mountains for the highest quality, service and after-care. They expect to exert very little energy. When things go wrong, as they always will, customers and clients display alarming levels of anger, disgust, and eventually rage.
Even when you eventually convert the aggrieved into happy, loyal customers, you’ve absorbed the nastiness. Very few callers preface their anger with ‘I know this is not your fault, and that you are trying to help’, and that’s what I find most worrying. I thought my biggest lesson in all this is that capitalism has given birth to yet another oppressive, cancerous baby; these centres exist because transactions never really stop. I am now understanding the part I’ve played. Before being in this position, I would find myself in a huff because call-lines are closed after 9pm. I would exchange harsh words after being told it would take up to five working days for my problem to be solved. I have been an active participant in the demand for the services call centres provide. A lot of us are. Having to spend the better part of my week in such a stressful environment has inspired me to think about ways we can be better consumers, better customers, or better clients, even as we try to consume less.
While I hate what capitalism has evolved into, I recognise that I must be an active participant in order to acquire the resources that will allow me to do it on my own terms. So for now, I guess I’ll be a conscious capitalist. I read about how to be more sustainable with my food, my skincare, my fashion and my travel, but how can I be sustainable with my emotional energy? This 24-hour life is stressful. I’m learning the importance of being a kinder consumer. A person who recognises that there is someone else at the end of the call, and there are millions in service roles who deserve respect and consideration. Do you find yourself getting impatient with an advisor over the phone? Are you often hostile to customer service reps? Do you go in hot when you want to make a formal complaint? While your problem or need is certainly valid (unless it’s maybe sort of not), don’t forget the other person may be drained, exhausted, fed up, and/or watching their dreams dry up like a raisin in the sun, ultimately just trying to help you. So let’s save the trees, the bees, the open seas and the emotional wellbeing of all the people working service jobs because we just can’t stop buying things.