SEVEN YEARS ago early this month, I applied for and passed the final interview for a job at a Pasig City call center. It wasn’t the highest-paying job I had, nor was it the most durable (one year), but it was the last job I held before leaving for a life overseas, so I remember it well. Because there are so many call centers and agents in the Philippines (600,000 based on one count) Pinoys have come to believe a lot of things they hear about the life of a call center agent. Based solely on my subjective experience, I recall the factoids and untruths in the call center universe :
Hormones gone haywire, promiscuity and infidelity. First I have to tell you that I know all about what they say about what goes on in call centers, people hooking up with each other at a drop of a hat, people forgetting about their spouses and commitments as they develop familiarity and coziness with people barely out of their teens with no inhibitions whatsoever, and finding all sorts of excuses to end up in compromising situations, yes Virginia, most call centers have nap lounges where people end up not napping at all, despite the lack of sleep. Secondly, I may not have been in the know most of the time, as I was usually the senior citizen in the call center, old enough to be the dad and senior uncle of most of the very junior-looking colleagues in my workplace.
But I saw and heard enough to say this : it’s mostly exaggerated. More often than not, people just clocked in at around 8 pm, got through the grind of calling up enough people to either get the minimum number of sales / surveys completed and fill their quotas enough to keep their jobs and incentives that they’d gotten used to, and celebrated once every now and then whenever the team or office targets were reached. Other than that, we gritted our teeth between calls knowing that while we toiled in our freezing cubicles (all call centers are the same — they’re freakin’ freezin’), the city slept soundly.
There was the odd affair or two between the unlikeliest of team members (everyone was divided into teams to encourage friendly competition), strangely enough these were the opposites and those who often argued or exchanged verbal barbs with each other, but on the whole, at least in my experience, it was rather wholesome and teams became closely-knit families. And guess what? I always became the unofficial dad of the group, with kids from different moms, they usually joked. 😉
But when you really think about it, a school-like environment with a labor force barely out of puberty, bunched together in a workplace nearly face-to-face and shoulder-to-shoulder, and the romantic fireworks that result aren’t that surprising.
The pay. Some people say that the dinero you are given for the work you do, compared to the blood, sweat and tears of other peso slaves, is simply astronomical, P25,000 to P30,000 not to mention incentives. Others mention that in return for working late at night to early morning, the constant separation from family, the stress of having to produce results with your calls in the form of sales and data collected and other factors, the wages you earn are actually paltry in comparison.
The truth? Somewhere in between. I started at P15,000, which for my age and needs was simply not enough, but because I had painted myself into a figurative corner, I had no choice (meaning there weren’t many options). But because account managers know that (1) the profit motive is one of the elemental forces in human nature and (2) if the call center doesn’t produce, there are probably 10 other rival call centers waiting in line to steal the account away from them, they offer all kinds of incentives for you to improve your results dramatically. They purposely make the base pay low but make available cash and non-cash gifts that initially sound like gifts, but which, with the amount of work and results you produce, you have rightfully earned.
But number one, it’s not a job for anyone except the young and very energetic, who don’t go to sleep until very late anyways, and number two, it’s a job that slowly drains you because of the constant demands on your regular sleep and stress response. I realized early on that no matter how you try to make up for staying up between 11 pm and 8 am (you still have to get home and unwind a bit after your graveyard shift), you will never be able to completely make up for it, and productivity of someone getting regular sleep and someone who sleeps during the day is not the same, no matter how much you try to convince me. The inevitable burnout and attrition rate is something the call center industry knows like the back of their hand, and so they constantly replenish their workforce and take back the prodigals, even those who’ve been AWOL multiple times, with open arms. I think it’s the nature of the industry.
I tried to make up for it the first few months by sleeping in big-time over the weekends but you will likely agree that it’s not the same as sleeping normally like everyone else. Besides, turning your body clock inside out every weekend and re-reversing it on Monday night, had become a tiring prospect before long.
The facility in English and communication of the same. As most of us know now, being good in English is not just knowing the big words, using proper grammar and spelling well. More important, if you want to be on the business end of a call center conversation, is making yourself understood in the lingua franca of Planet Earth, in fact a lot of regular English speakers in the First World would be outspelled by many Filipinos in elementary and high school.
For this reason, despite the majority of Pinoys having the basic tool of understanding and speaking English fairly well, we need accent training to be perfectly understood by the people we are calling, be it in the Midwestern United States, the UK, or any other place English is spoken. This type of training our call centers have obviously done well, because whether the latter neutralizes our Pinoy accent or modifies it, the end product is something that sells products, renders services and accumulates data all over the world, in the form of sweet-sounding call center agent voices.
In this respect, there is no exaggeration of whatever you have heard about call center agents and their world-class English. As you can see and hear, unless one of our present and future rivals (think of any country that has a surplus of manpower and willing to learn English) steps up their game when it comes to engaging on the phone using English, we are, for the moment, the first, second and last destination when it comes to country preference.
Everything you’ve picked up about Filipinos picking up and dispatching pizza orders halfway across the globe, checking your credit card statement, or even giving you GPS or directory assistance in the middle of nowhere via your life-saving cellphone, it’s all true. Some governments and governmental agencies have even outsourced their administrative information providing and gathering functions to our call center kabayan, and as long as we do our jobs well, the gravy train won’t stop chugging.
There, I’ve shared with you the modest experience I’ve enjoyed in our sunshine industry, and hopefully you’ve gained a little insight for it. Being a call center agent is something I won’t soon forget, and I’ll always be proud of my time doing the calls on the Avaya.
To our heroes and heroines in our Filipino call centers, more power to you and mabuhay!
Thanks for reading!
- The Philippines, the World’s New Call Center Capital (theepochtimes.com)
- Millions of jobs lost as corporations continue to set up overseas call centers (politicususa.com)
- NC call center to employ 150 (newsobserver.com)