A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing


Working in a call center, some days it can feel like there’s not enough to do. On low-volume days it is easy to feel chained to a desk, twiddling my thumbs and waiting for the next call. Or trying to do sudoku puzzles without getting burnt out. On those days, seconds feel like hours and I feel drained by lunch time. Sometimes I’d almost rather they sent me home…except that I need the money.

On the other hand, high-volume days are maddening. I barely have a second to collect my thoughts. Calls are populating one on top of the other on my computer screen. I struggle to finish my notes and close past calls before I forget what that last person called about. At the same time I feel guilty that I have a new caller on hold who I’m supposed to be helping instead.

Part of the problem is the sheer number of resources I have open at any given time. Because call centers value “one call resolution,” they train representatives to assist any caller with any problem. This means the next beep in my ear could represent one of dozens of possible issues. Additionally, because call volume is so important, the time it would take me to open the resources for those issues isn’t time I can afford to waste. This leaves me with a taskbar FULL of open tabs. Navigating between them turns troublesome at times, wasting time I was trying to save.

I know it isn’t possible to determine ahead of time the number of calls we are likely to receive on a given day. The slow days and busy days average out in the end most of the time. But it’s hard to tell which is worse: feeling bored out of my skull or being too busy to do my job effectively.

There is no help from management in addressing these problems, either. If I admit to being bored then I will be told to read the resources I’m not supposed to memorize. They’ll say it’s my job to be ready to take the next call when it comes. If I admit to feeling overwhelmed then I might raise suspicion that I’m inadequate or incapable of doing the job well.

I think part of the problem is the assembly-line mentality this kind of business seems to have adopted. There is a department for everything and I am the information machine that ties it all together. I assess the problem and determine where the caller needs to go. But more often than not, I am not the one actually equipped to assist. Sometimes even what callers think are “general” questions are too specific for my training. I can read off information, but I haven’t been trained to really understand what it all means.

But what if I was? What if instead of training me to know a little about everything I was trained to know everything about something? What if instead of just telling the caller what they did was wrong, I could tell them what would be right? Perhaps this desire to delve deeper comes from my background in higher education, where specialization is a must.

If I were trained to take just ONE kind of phone call instead of being prepared to face ANYTHING, would the system work better? There would be fewer possible calls to take in a day. But I would be better equipped to handle them and could do something else in the interim. For example, what if in addition to taking calls I was the one processing the mail and determining the status of what was received? Then, when a caller asked a question about why something couldn’t be processed as-is, I could explain it, because I would have been the one who determined that to begin with.

Instead, I am forced to make educated guesses and unable myself to speak with the person who made the original determinations. I am the one who tells the caller whether it was our mistake or theirs, but sometimes it is difficult to tell for sure either way. Companies may think that dividing up labor in this way is more efficient or effective, but I am not convinced.

I also believe this kind of separation in labor is a recent phenomenon. At the last call center where I worked, elderly customers would call in wanting to speak with the representative they spoke to last time, and be confused when I said that wasn’t possible. It isn’t even just the bit about company policy, either. First and foremost, I wouldn’t be able to transfer your call because that representative might not even be in the same physical building as me and I would have no way to know who they are.

In the current system, the caller speaks with whoever is next available. That means I am seeing the information at hand for the first time. If this is a repeat issue, the caller has to explain from the beginning again while I try to decipher the last representative’s shorthand notes. Sometimes it feels like I am on the end of a particularly cruel round of the game ‘telephone’.

But what if the caller could be transferred to the previous representative? What if I could shoot an e-mail for them to call this person back if they are on a call right now? What if the caller could speak with the person who decided we couldn’t process the information they sent in, and get a better explanation for that decision than I am ever going to be able to provide?

What if it was possible to follow the entire process from beginning to end? Surely things must have worked that way at some point in time. The caller gets frustrated when I don’t have any answers or my only suggestion is to transfer them back to the department that just transferred them to me. It would take just as long to give detailed training about one aspect as it does to give me a little knowledge about everything. Besides, my father always said a LITTLE knowledge was a dangerous thing.

Image credit: Robert S. Donovan

About Nicole Nagy

Nicole Nagy is an independent scholar and writer who is currently working a day job as a customer service representative in the public sector. She is passionate about bringing communication and connection back to the forefront of the customer service industry, and about finding connections between the Humanities and business. In her spare time, she enjoys cooking, gardening, artistic pursuits, and cuddling her kitten.

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