This is one of a series of posts about jobs I’ve had during my time on this planet. You can read more posts by clicking the “jobs i’ve had” tag, and read a lengthier intro to the series in the first post.
I can’t remember now how I heard about this job working for a contractor that provided technical support for Bellsouth DSL lines. Maybe it was on online classified, maybe it was a job fair, don’t know. The important part was it paid $10 per hour, which was good money for a college student in Knoxville. The cost of living is very low there, so that’s like making $15 or $20 in a lot of places.
It was located in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, just outside Knoxville. You probably are aware Oak Ridge is distinctive as having been part of the Manhattan Project and for being a leg on the original Internet. This inevitably led to a few uncomfortable jokes about our job making us sterile, but truthfully the McDonalds I ate for lunch a couple of times per week was more likely to do that.
Everyone had to go through a two-week (!) paid training before they could get on the phones with actual customers. It’s not that I think this was a bad idea, but the trainer was not very exciting to listen to. I think a one-week class would have been better, as the pace was really slow and there was a lot of repeated material.
The class was about half college-aged people and half people in their 30s and 40s for whom it was a real job. Not surprisingly, a few of us college-aged trainees got to be friendly and started making a bunch of smartass remarks. This attitude became contagious, and by the time the two weeks was over everyone was being kind of mean to the trainer (my bad if you’re reading this).
When we finally got on the phones, we all had to choose pseudonyms. Most people picked bland, forgettable names, which was the smart thing to do. One guy went with Justin Tyme. I picked Russell Crowe. Everyone thought that was hilarious at the time, but hearing “how’s Meg Ryan?” six or eight times per week turned out not to be so hilarious for me.
The process to answer 98 percent of the calls for level 1 tech support was heavily scripted and could be accomplished by pretty much anyone who could hear, read and speak. They were severe about making sure you stuck to their process. Even after a couple of months when I could do everything from memory, I still had to go through their questionnaires on screen so they could have a record that I looked at them as I went through the call.
Without warning, supervisors would listen in on calls and then summon me over to tell me what I did right or wrong. They were obsessed with keeping call times down, and I got scolded a few times about calls going long early on. However, it didn’t take long for us to figure out there was a quirk in the system: every time we hit the hold button, it reset the call time. After that, my call time was never an issue again because I could put someone on hold for a split second and they were never the wiser.
Whenever a call was over, you got a period of two minutes or so that was ostensibly to take notes about the call, but which was also a nice breather without having to speak with customers. It only took me 30 seconds or a minute to enter my notes after a call, so I usually got to have a minute to myself.
That minute is what I remember most vividly about the job. On busy days, the ringing phone was relentless, and my minute wouldn’t really be a break because I was full of dread knowing it would inevitably ring again. Most customers were okay, but the longer the waits got, the more likely it was they would be irate, which is precisely when you are out of the required patience to deal with them.
Like any other customer service job, another not fun part was explaining a policy to them that you secretly agreed with them was dumb. For example, at the time Bellsouth offered no support for people who plugged their modem into a router. To offer them support, we had to make them unplug the modem from the router and plug it into a single PC.
It also wasn’t fun having to apologize for products I knew were not very good. At that point Bellsouth had most of its DSL customers on Alcatel modems that only worked if you plugged them into the USB port on a PC and installed Bellsouth software on the computer. The software was buggy and caused a lot of problems.
The worst call I had there was a woman who barely spoke any English and was irate and refused to let me pass her call on to a native Spanish speaker. One of the rules was I couldn’t hang up on a customer unless they were cussing at me and they refused to stop after I asked them several times. I had to just wait for her to shout herself out.
It probably sounds like I’m mostly griping, and I am, but I liked the people I worked with. That made the job bearable. We had a lot of fun playing Unreal Tournament in the break room on the networked computers they had set up in there. And I’d stand around with them outside when they smoked on breaks and we’d snark about customers.
I worked there for about six or eight months before I found another job closer to campus.
See also: Sara’s fourth installment in her Jobs I’ve Had series.