Jeanne was looking for work when she came across a telemarketer offer for an Apple contractor in Barcelona. She took the job without hesitating. A few months later, she is a broken woman: constant surveillance, timed breaks, aggressive customers ... The pressure is constant.
BARCELONA — My story begins several months ago. I wanted a change of scenery, a new life. But this meant finding a different job. After some time, I came across a classified listing in Barcelona seeking French native speakers to work in a call center. The description was enticing; they offered language courses and financial help to get settled down in the Spanish city.
I sent my resume, without any cover letter. Then it all went very fast.
They called me the next day. After a series of relatively brief interviews in English, they told me it was OK. I immediately started looking for an apartment in Barcelona, found it, and the company helped me move. Everything looked to be working out for the best, in the best of two worlds.
39 hours a week for 1,000 euros
There I was, starting to work for Sellbytel, a European call center and subcontractor for Apple. My work? Answer the customers’ questions over the phone or by email. There were around 50 of us in a big open space.
I was a trainee for the first three weeks: I was taught how to answer properly, process the requests and, most importantly, make sure that the customers do not call back. I learned how to use the software; I got the hang of the procedures. At that point of my story, I was paid by check every Wednesday, and I still hadn’t signed any work contract. I told myself the lack of paperwork was temporary.
Eventually, I was enticed into taking a bigger leap, to work from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., or 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. for a net salary of around 1,100 euros per month with bonuses.
Sellbytel HQ in Barcelona — Photo: Noren/GNUFDL
I eventually signed a contract. I never would have thought that I had just jumped into a void and that the fall was going to be long and painful. Why? I’ll tell you why.
I have become a punching bag
Every morning, I have to be ready to receive calls from anywhere. My desk is located on the 6th floor of a 15-floor building and I must take extra precautions to not be late, because you don’t mess with time in this place.
At my desk, I open the software we all work with: a monitoring program that displays our various statuses along the day. This allows our bosses to check and time each and every one of our tasks. “AVAILABLE” is what my screen reads, and it means I can receive my first call.
These calls will come one after another, all day long. Long ones, short ones. Tough ones. People whose package has been stolen, disgruntled people, others who just need reassuring because their iPhone has not arrived yet. Or people who just want to take out their anger on somebody. Calls that will require a follow-up and email correspondence (which I rarely have time to provide because of the forever ringing phone). The calls are demanding, violent and complicated to manage. I often need a bit of time to come back to my senses.
For lunch, I have a one-hour break. Not one second longer. My screen reads “LOG OUT.” And the timer goes off. If I have the misfortune of reconnecting after one hour and ten seconds, I will receive a message from my boss at the end of the month, who will personally put me on notice. This is completely absurd, seeing as I sometimes stay 10 minutes extra in the evening but am not paid for this time. Since everything is timed, why not do it both ways?
Every day, I am allowed a 20-minute break and 10 minutes to use the facilities — 30 minutes altogether.
A call center's open space in Lima — Photo: El Comercio/GDA/ZUMA
In our monitoring program also has words for this: “BREAK” and “OFFLINE”, a synonym for “pee break” for the software. But do not think, for that matter, that I can take a break whenever I want. No. The company has set up an ingenious system that prevents everybody from taking a break at the same time. At the center of the open space, on a table, there are seven little toys.
Whenever I take a break, I must put one of those toys on my desk. As a result, if there are no toys available, I am forced to wait until one of my colleagues comes back. So much for any semblance of autonomy or independence.
Working on Saturdays, adiós 200-euro bonus
This was already unpleasant, but it took a turn for the worse one month ago. We all received the same email from the head of department. From that point on, we would all have to work on Saturdays, in exchange for one day during the week. In theory, nothing dramatic, this possibility was even mentioned in my contract. But with this change of schedule, I will lose money — up to two-tenths of my salary.
We can all receive bonuses that can amount up to 200 euros every month. They are calculated according to three criteria. If one of them is not satisfying, I can say goodbye to a part of my possible bonuses. The three criteria are:
1. The summary
After each call, we are required to write a summary in English on the customer’s profile, which will be read by my boss, the Apple services, the delivery services and my colleagues from the after-sales services. If ever my customer calls back, my colleagues will be able to see his order’s history without any problem.
Once I hang up, my screen reads “ACW”, for “After Call Writing”. And there, the timer starts. In theory, I have from two to four minutes to write this summary and contact my customer by email to confirm his case is being taken care of. In practice, I have never been able to do it under five minutes.
But in no way can this step be skipped. If ever I happened to forget it, my superiors could think I tried to conceal a call that did not go well, which would result in serious problems for my work status.
2. The survey
Thanks to these summaries, the customers can also answer quality surveys that have a direct impact on our bonuses. The score I need to get is 78% of “good grades.” I can therefore have only one poor grade every five surveys.
But that is not all. A good grade is 9 or 10 on a scale of 1 to 10. Nothing below. Basically, if I get three 10/10 and two 8/10, I can bid farewell to my bonus. And when the customers answer this sort of surveys, it is rarely because they are satisfied …
3. The First-Call Resolution (FCR)
The golden rule in a call-center is that the customer must never call back within 72 hours. If one of my customers sends me an email and sees no answer, he will call back and automatically get through to one of my colleagues. I would then lose my FCR … and my bonus. If I work on a Saturday and take my day off during the week, I will handle fewer cases, and therefore involuntarily encourage customers to call back.
Fired right before my eyes
I am denouncing this system because I cannot bear to be treated like this anymore. I cannot bear being insulted all day long by people unaware of what I endure every day. I cannot bear working for a company unable to communicate with its employees, when it requires that they must always be available and pleasant with the customers. I also refuse to believe that Apple turns a blind eye on our working conditions. Working 39 hours a week for a monthly salary of 1,000 euros, with these working conditions, all of this in Europe ... Really?
At the end of November, I witnessed one of my colleagues being fired right before my eyes. My friend Alex (not his real name) was called in by our manager. Two minutes later, the manager came back alone and unplugged Alex’s computer. And he left. We all went pale. Not a word of explanation.
Alex has a wife and child. I later learned he was fired because he spent too much time on the phone with the customers. A paradox, when they constantly remind us to take care with the customers — and that quality comes before quantity. Soon after, the same thing happened to several of my Swedish and Italian colleagues.
A few days ago, I reserved my toy to take a break. I hid it immediately, terrified by the idea that someone might come and unplug my computer during my coffee break. There was no way I was going to be humiliated in such a way.
We had all been hired at the same time, our trial period ended on Black Friday. My colleagues were fired because our managers would have been too busy the next day. They were escorted to the exit downstairs and forbidden to say goodbye to us. Forbidden to say a single word. Who knows, my turn might come tomorrow.
*The writer requested to remain anonymous.