the call centre
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Victoria Avenue must have looked like the future when the fixtures of the future were to be dual carriageways, concrete brutalism and vast telephone exchanges like the one British Telecom used to run here. This was once Southend’s buzzing business zone, tenanted by banks, insurance companies and other enterprises, large and reputable. But when things got bad in the late eighties and early nineties, and they got very bad, much of this business went away. When Dino Forte and Jason Muller moved into Victoria Avenue almost seven years ago, the office had been vacant for a decade. It was cheap though.

Forte and Muller were ex ad salesman looking to catch the next commercial wave. And back then, if you weren’t an early dot.comer, the next big thing was call centres. The pair started dealing in ‘inbound’; the benign and useful business of answering enquiries on behalf of other companies too short staffed or closed to do it themselves. Or providing honourable telephone support for the RNLI or helping people cope with the confusion caused by some Government initiative or other.

Paul Harris, an old acquaintance – and natural born salesman who had done his time selling time shares in Portugal - thought the new company should to get into the more brutal, unstable but potentially profitable business of ‘outbound’. Cold calling to you and me, domestic interference, pitching sales and dangling deals down telephone lines to an unsuspecting public.

Harris was right. The company grew as a sub-contractor to major grocery chains, banks and energy companies. And today Converso, as it is now known, has 200 employees manning the phones (though actually 60 per cent of the telemarketers are woman), reading their sales scripts and hoping to seduce us into signing up for whatever they’re selling.

These telemarketers are the infantry of a sales-driven, service-economy; young, fearless and likely to come under heavy fire. And the photographer John Perkins has spent a year on this front-line. His pictures are an insight into the bond that is forged in these war zones, on and off duty.

Ten-to-five on a Friday afternoon and Harris’ telephonic troops are gathering in Bar Vic on the office’s ground floor. Bar Vic looks like it was ripped out an airport in 1987, entirely nostalgia proof. But it is where many Converso employees bookend their shifts.

Converso's prime pitching time is five to nine pm and many work just this high-pressure four-hour burst. Others, like Dean and Lee, telemarketing veterans of five years and now 'team leaders', are taking a half-time break from their eight-hour day. They are, barring the company directors, just about the only constants in Perkins' pictures, the only characters who have not disappeared to try other narratives. They are young lieutenants, still in their early twenties, who have served their time in the trenches and watched wave and wave fall around them.

As much as he denies that call centres are our "dark, satanic mills", Harris is the first to admit that it’s a tough job. And most can’t handle it for long. Converso's staff is a fluid thing, ever shifting and changing. Interviews, inspecting twenty people at a time, are held two or three times a week. And only two or three of each batch will be given a position. You have to have the stomach for it.

Tony was a team leader at Converso until six weeks ago and had been with the company from the outset. He insists that teenagers make good telemarketers because, quite frankly, they are used to a complete lack of respect. They are always being told to shut up and go away and to be quiet and otherwise stop making a nuisance of themselves. So they can deal with the kickbacks, the routine abuse.

Most of Converso's telemarketers are about to go to college or are at college or have just finished college and working out what to do and, well, anyway, this is not something they have to contemplate doing for any length of time. It's not like it’s a career or anything. And they don't hang around for long.

At 5.00 everyone gathers for Paul's pep talk. Those that have achieved or exceeded sales targets are applauded and further incentivised with alcohol. Those teams that have not receive a public roasting. No excuses are accepted. There are sales out there. You just have to make them.

Actually, there are all kinds of reasons for a bad day or week on the phones. To be making sales, the conditions have to be right. Weather, for instance, is a big factor. A sunny summers evening can be a wipeout while a dank evening in February can provide a rich vein of verbal commitments. Bad weather is good and sales teams will hit certain areas where they now it is raining. You also have to watch for big sporting events that are likely to affect public pliancy. It's no good trying to sell life insurance during a big England match. But most of all, says Tony, you need 'good data', phone numbers where you have a chance of conversion. 'Bad data' means outdated names and numbers. Trying to sell to the deceased is difficult. To their relatives inflammatory. Trying to sell to people who have been hit by fifty other telemarketers that week is going to leave you rattled and riddled with bullets. But good data, up to date information, fresh targets, that's pay dirt.

Pep talk over the telemarketers shuffle to their stations. Headphones are put in place and sales scripts bought up on screen. But these are not the isolated veal pens of the popular imagination but rather communal, circular 'pods'. And these are not drones stuck into some matrix-like mechanism. The telemarketers move and circulate and do different things. Some stand up and circle their chairs, intense as if delivering a soliloquy. They chat while waiting for calls to connect, wheel chairs around, flirt, throw things. They notch up scores and compete. Each pod is a team and they seek to outgun rival pods. Podwars they call it. Team leaders stalk the floors issuing rallying cries and step in to complete sales or placate particularly irate punters. Everything is worming and swirling.

This is why Harris and Converso let Perkins in when many others had refused. Harris wanted to show that call centres, at least his call centre, were not dead places, not dreary, de-humanising, alienating, not a new sort of Fordism (And the money is not at all bad. £7 an hour plus commission) And deep down, and despite the disappearing acts and the hangover absenteesim that blights any largely teenage workforce, Harris has a salesman’s respects for those who step up to the plate and do it as his young charges do. In a way, he wanted to honour them.

One of the teams has been assigned a new client. It’s a new product to them and so need to learn a new approach. Lee and Dean take the training session. Lee, eyes shaded under his baseball cap (it is dressdown Friday), runs through recorded phone pitches, stopping to praise pivotal phrases and seductions, the lines, the hooks and the sinkers. Baby faced and boy-band good-looking, he is assured and confident of his material. He runs through various angles of attack. He takes his team through 'objection-handling', the essential comebacks to customer disquiet. And makes clear that the sales script, like all scripts, is but a point a departure. It’s all in the delivery and the improvisational flourishes.

This client is going for the inertia tack. The public are offered to review a product free of charge for a limited time. But they have to give their bank details first and sign off within a certain period if they do not want the deal to go active. Given human nature, many simply forget or never get round to it. This is inertia. And the key to the sale is getting those bank details. Everything rests on getting those digits. Lee leaves his team with a final thought. "You have to sell them the product and not let them sell you the idea that they don’t need it. You are the salesmen."

At nine it’s time to take off the headsets and head down to Bar Vic. Friday is a good night because there is almost always a leaving party on a Friday. (Tuesday is good too though. Karaoke.) The girls came to work prepared, dressed to impress and Taz, another team leader, has pulled a very attractive girl in a very short dress. Taz, hyperactive in a fashionable beanie hat and Alfie spectacles, is very excited and is planning what he will cook when she comes round next Wednesday. Something with chicken.

Taz almost made the final cut on the original "Pop Stars" series and is something of a celeb in Southend. Someone once told he was C-List which is he more than happy with. Taz is still working on his music and will leave Converso soon. Almost everyone will leave Converso soon because that is what you do.

This is transient employment. This is what people do now before they work out what they are going to do next. They do it, they make friends, have a good time, get drunk together, sleep together (though not as much as you might imagine one tele-warrior tells me. I'm not sure whether to believe him) and then they move on.

Even Dino doesn’t think there’s much of a future in all the ‘outbound’ game. It’s too unstable, revenues are hard to predict. There is also the potential that the 'outbound' business will be legislated out of existence. There are already moves in the States to outlaw this kind of telemarketing and Dino thinks that the UK might follow suit. And even if this doesn’t happen, there’s India. Competition from Indian call centres has hit margins in the UK. And a lot of business is going there. (Paul and Dean went out to India last summer see if it was worth setting up a Sub-Continental Converso office. They decided against it but Dean loved India.)

There will always be some 'outbound' work of course, law allowing. But Dino sees the future now in 'inbound. It’s safe, predictable, comfortable. And people don’t hate doing so you can get some kind of permanence, maturity and instability in your staffing. It seems that the fearless teens will be eventually be replaced by helpful return-to-work mums, need-to-work retirees and the like. And Bar Vic will be a much quieter place.

Nick Compton, Independent on Sunday, 15 Febuary 2004
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