This post originally appeared on VICE UK
I spent five and a half years of my life drifting through the corridors of a southeast London university that still trades on the fact that a few artists also traipsed through those same corridors roughly 25 years ago. During that time I accumulated a pointless BA and an even more pointless MA. I also spent four years working in the student union shop doling out cut-price Guardians, Mars bars, ten decks of Silk Cuts, biros and Ginsters slices, occasionally worming out from behind the till to replenish flapjacks and bottles of Orangina.
Eventually, my hard work and diligence saw me receive a post-postgraduate graduation promotion to the heady ranks of office management and reception work. I spent a few hazy months half-arsedly ordering toilet rolls and bin bags, guiding lost exchange students to their flats and listening to the rugby team talk about who they spitroasted the night before while waiting for their Wednesday afternoon minibus. As supine as this job was, I was working full-time hours on a zero-hours contract which meant I got no sick pay, holiday allowance, or pension plan. Given that the university I was working for prides itself on being a liberal, open, creative space, I decided to stand up for myself and asked to be given the employment rights of a proper employee, rather than those of what the bosses clearly viewed as student skivvies.
In a microcosmic tale of Cameronian Broken Britain, I was forced to reapply for my own job and then interview for a position I already held. After the interview I went back down to my reception area and awaited a call that'd determine my financial fate. I was told that I was "arrogant and inexperienced" and was replaced by a timid Scandinavian who just happened to be the best friend of the student union president. Said Scandinavian went on to make a monumental fuckup that cost an already overstretched union over £20,000 ($31,000).
Now, if this sounds like the mollycoddled moaning of a cossetted crybaby who had to be torn, screaming, from the bosom of higher education, then I must assure that it isn't. My unceremonious sacking—I was presented with a bar of Dairy Milk as a parting present—led to the best thing that ever happened to me job-wise: I ended up working in a call center.
The obvious effect of unemployment on the soul goes without saying: My days passed in a sapped state of self-pity and financially rooted deep sadness. The occasional solo jaunt to the local Wetherspoons to enjoy a quiet 3 PM pint among other people with nothing to do at that time of day except silently nurse a Doom Bar, their gaze flipping between their hands and the muted telly above the bar showing BBC News 24 with subtitles, becomes a source of regret and shame. That £2.40's never coming back.
So you spend your days hammering out substandard covering letters in a hope to fill the cracks in a creaky CV. Automated rejections and the howling silence of non-acknowledgement are all you get back, or don't. Eventually I crawled back, in a way, to the institution that had got me into this mess, the place that had forced me into a life of trackie bottoms and chickpea curries. I signed up for the University of London temp agency and within five minutes of applying for a job I'd secured an interview. The job description was vague. The interview itself was just as vague. Having told the panel a bit about myself, and endured questions that asked me to identify myself as a type of animal, theme park ride and biscuit, I left the office feeling blankly hopeful. I got home, unpeeled my too small Primark school trousers, got back into bed waiting for 6.45 PM to roll round so I could beg a mate for a pint. The phone rang. Would I like to start work the next day? It'd only be for the next 12 weeks. Just over a tenner an hour.
The next day I sat in my new office in those same too-small trousers with a too-small shirt and suitably sized shoes. I didn't really know what the job was or what the company did. I was greeted by my interviewer, a young Polish woman with a PhD from Oxford in second language acquisition and a passion for horse riding. "This is your phone, Josh. You'll start making calls this afternoon."
I'd accidentally got myself a job in a call center.
And here's where the experiences of myself and Owen Shipton, the guy who wrote the hate letter to call centres on VICE earlier this week, begin to differ. It turned out that I, luckily, wasn't being asked to sell solar panels to the elderly in Norfolk; I wasn't chugging over the phone. What I was doing, I was told, with some pride, was enabling prospective student's to change their lives for the better. It turned out that the company I'd joined specialized in what they termed "Student Lifecycle Management Solutions." In real terms this translates to employing people like myself to ring up students who've either expressed interest in studying at a particular university, or have received offers to study at said institution, and either begging them to apply or accept. In my head this seems completely separate from the low level harassment that most traditional call center employees are asked to engage in on a daily basis for a wage that barely covers the rent at the same time as it perforates the soul.
The clients we dealt with were universities that were experiencing lower than expected place-filling. My first major task, and the primary reason I was employed, was to attempt to convert just over 2000 offer-holders to firm-acceptors in a 12-week period that involved making around a hundred calls a day. A few days into the job I was whisked just outside of London to visit the client's campus in order to build the real world rapport necessary to persuade 17-year-olds to click a button on the UCAS website and embroil themselves in a backbreaking amount of debt they'd never be able to pay off. I was shown gyms, music studios, the bar. I was run through the library as if I'd been mad to ask to see it in the first place. I met with haunted looking recruitment and admissions staff. Car park spaces were prioritized in conversation over student success rates or the quality of academic research being conducted at the university. I left with a rucksack full of prospectuses and a sense of trepidation.
It turned out that my client was, according to the Guardian league table published two weeks into my tenure in the call centre, the worst university in the United Kingdom. This took the pressure off me.
This was as close to heaven as one can get in a dark office off Old Street
So there I sat, day after day, turning up at 10AM in Darkthrone T-shirts and Vans, swigging Relentless and troughing down on croissants from the Sainsbury's over the road, headset on, my Client Management System humming in the background ready to log the info from the calls I'd make with a minimum amount of fuss. I'd methodically work down that day's call list in Excel, stopping every minute or so to check Twitter. I'd usually ploughed through enough calls by lunch that I could nip out for a falafel safe in the knowledge that the afternoon could largely be spent browsing the same three websites in a state of near catatonic bliss. This was as close to heaven as one can get in a dark office off Old Street.
Like Owen, I worked to a script. I'd breezily ask them how their day was going—girls, I found, were far more responsive to this method of developing a casual intimacy with a stranger trying to sell them a product. Teenage boys often sounded like you'd woken them up or interrupted a decent wank. Once we'd established that both of us were fine, thanks, I'd move down to the nitty gritty. You had to work with what you were given but there was always a bit of leeway. You'd find ten new ways a week to ask them if the data you had in front of you, the personal information (home and mobile numbers, addresses, their entire UCAS application form including personal statement and employment history) you were privy to was accurate. Due to the nature of data mining, it always was.
The key to cold calling of this nature was to always keep things subtle. You couldn't just straight up ask these applicants to accept an offer there or then. It became an exercise in persuasive linguistic power. You'd ask them if they had any questions about the university and, before they'd had a chance to stumble out an answer, you were already telling them about the cheap booze and squash courts on offer. You'd hit them with USPs galore. Most of the time this wouldn't make a blind bit of difference because they were either decisive—which was great, because it made life easy for both parties—or they were shy and unsure, always asking for a little more time to reflect on the biggest decision they'd ever had to make. With those people you pencilled in, at management's request, a follow-up call, usually 14 days after the opener. For the more querelous students I'd pretend that call had been made, not wanting to cause them any more anxiety than I already had.
A live on-phone conversion was what we all lived for, regardless of what client we worked for. Getting an acceptance on the spot and checking that it had been confirmed officially through UCAS gave an enormous sense of well being. You'd smash the next ten calls, practically walking on air. You'd changed someone's life. Magic.
The job was perfect. Prior to starting I thought I wanted stability, a salary, a job that was more than a job—I thought I wanted a career. It turned out that what I actually wanted was to be able to come into work in joggies late, with a hangover and no desire to talk to colleagues. I actually wanted to complete repetitive mundane tasks with the minimum of effort. I actually wanted to be paid weekly at 6 on Fridays so I could leave the office at 6 on the dot and be spending that week's easily-earned cash by 6:30.
Perhaps I was lucky—my coworkers were of a similar age and all incredibly friendly, which helped, as did the money being OK for the line of work I was in, as did its proximity to where I lived – and having seen five minutes of BBC3's horrifically real doucusoap on the profession, I'm positive that I was very lucky, but I loved my time on the phones. I spent days talking to interesting, engaged people, I got over my inability to make calls to friends when I'm running late for the pub and, most importantly, I had an absolute blast doing it.
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