Customer service is a difficult and demanding industry to work in, but working in a call center with dozens if not hundreds of people at close quarters– sitting in little cubicles all talking on the phone all at once– is a world onto itself. You still have to deal with angry people all day– and often they have a right to be. The only benefit is that you don’t have to worry about punching you in the face. However, this kind of work is every bit of demanding as working in a retail store, a supermarket, or a movie theater. In a call center– among other challenges– you have to finish your calls in a timely manner. Then again, you have to deal with people that have nothing better to do than to call a representative and talk about things of no importance. And you the call center worker can’t hang up on them. You have to make them want to hang up– without using profanity or being mean to them. Either of those will get you fired immediately. And so will hanging up.

In a sea of phone calls– each wanting something from him– Zack muddled over the number of calls that he would take in a year. 7,500. And that was only if he averaged only thirty calls every eight hours– during the busy season it was more like fifty. Other than possibly getting calls from the “next of kin”, the hardest part of the job was knowing that his fellow homo sapiens were knowingly killing people to make a profit from their misery and deaths. One of the few things that he still clung on to that helped him keep going was the fact that he didn’t make the rules in the pharmaceutical industry, he only attempted to help people navigate the maze of hidden bureaucracies designed to keep people from getting the medications that they deserved. There was that, and knowing that if he didn’t do the job, someone else would. And they would probably even get paid less.

His latest call did not go well and as much as he tried to sound polite and professional at the end, he knew that he came off as he was trying to chew a turd sandwich: “Thank you for choosing ABC Drugs and we appreciate your business.” Instead of hearing another BEEEEP! In his ear there was silence and after such a bad experience with the most recent patient he felt elation– as if he literally floated up off the chair and toward the heavens It was as if he were going to meet Odin or Zeus Himself….. Zack truly enjoyed those rare moments when they happened. They were a small consolation for the agony of a bad call…. BEEEEP! Without warning his headset alerted him to the next call and Zack mentally jerked himself back to reality. Getting a low score from the quality assurance team for not answering a call in a polite and professional manner was one thing….letting the caller notice that you are ignoring them was worse. “Thank you for choosing ABC Drugs, my name is Zack, to help me get started can I have your full name please?”

“Sonia Robertson” Gratefully, the caller’s last name was easy enough to spell without having to ask for it. In one fluid motion of typing and talking at the same time:

“…and can I have your date of birth please?” As a general rule, Zack made a point of keeping the caller almost off balance with a short barrage of inquires to get the patient’s account in front of him as quickly as possible. This also help set the tone for the rest of the call. .oO(I’m driving, I know what I’m doing, you’re not, you’ll be fine when I’m done.)Oo.

“June second, nineteen-sixty-three.” Zack thanked Mrs. Robertson and followed up with a few more questions to finish the vetting into the account so that he could give details about the account.

“Great. How can I help?”

“Well, I went to the pharmacy today and I paid fifty dollars for my Viritussin and I would like to know why.” Another good question from a patient, but Zack wanted to get more information before saying anything that might put him in a trap. In a call center 1) The representative is always held to the highest standard 2) the customer can always say whatever he or she likes– lie even– and 3) everything is always recorded. Managers can even “listen in” while youxre talking if they want to. Always. Not even the mob is that paranoid.

“One moment please.” He ran a price estimate and found that the cough syrup– after insurance– was estimated to be $9.84. So it said on the monitor in front of him. After clicking the link for more information the rejection code read: PLAN EXCLUSION. USE OTC INSTEAD. “I’m sorry ma’am, your insurance plan does not offer the Viritussin. It’s suggesting that an over-the-counter medication would be appropriate in this situation.”

“Now wait a minute. Are you trying to tell me that someone in YOUR company, never having seen me, knows MY body and MY situation better than my doctor does???”

“No. Of course not.” The patient beliveing that ABC drugs was “at fault” for the decision on the screen was common enough so Zack didn’t take it personal. The real culprit was the plan administrator– either the patient’s employer or more often an insurance company apart from ABC Drugs. Zack knew that this line of questioning was not going well…without thinking he switched from a brighter, happier voice to his softer, much more neutral tone.

“What I’m saying is that the Viritussin is excluded from the medications that are covered on your plan.”

“My DOCTOR prescribed Viritussin. By what right do you people have to tell me that I have to take an ‘over-the-counter’ cough syrup instead of what my doctor prescribed???” Zack knew full well that there was a process– taking days/weeks– to get the coverage for the Viritussin, but by the same token the patient’s chest cold would have been relieved by then anyway. Realistically and at best, after hours of phone calls by the patient and the doctor…she would receive her thirty or forty dollars back about a week later. That assumed that as a patient she knew what to do, the order to do it in, and that she only had 7-10 days to do it in. If not by then, there was the paper claim process which produced less money for more time waiting and effort to get a check in the mail.

Zack didn’t even try to explain the refund process to get the coverage. He had been yelled at too many times before for trying to help that way. Catching his eye on the way by, he noticed one of his co-workers wearing a backpack and moving toward the exit. It was standard practice for all call centers to encourage workers to go home when there wasn’t enough work to keep everyone talking on the phone at all times. Zack didn’t blame the worker…only despised him for leaving…making him and everyone else work harder. Mistake number one: the patient was (understandably) upset and Zack allowed the patient to ask another question before Zack fully answered the first: “Exactly what is the difference between Viritussin and ‘over-the-counter’ Robotussin??? One requires a prescription, the other does not. You canNOT tell me that they are the same thing!” Mistake number two: To answer the patient’s question, he was honest and carefully explained that the Viritussin was in the lowest grade of controlled substances, but still a controlled substance. Hence, he validated that there was a difference and that a prescription was required for its use. After a pause:

“No. Of course not. That said, this is the way that your pharmacy coverage has been written. The Viritussin is not offered on this plan.”

“Let me see if I have this straight. On my plan and with a doctor’s note, I can have pain killers, but I can’t have cough syrup???”

“I wouldn’t have put it that way, but….” Zack let the silence hang as long as necessary. As the old saying in sales goes– he who speaks first, loses.

“It”s not your fault. You’re just doing your job.” Zack softened a little and his tone became a little warmer, more human.

“Thank you for making the distinction that I’m not the bad guy.” In some very small way, this is what made his job a little more bearable– knowing that the patients knew that it wasn’t his fault why they were upset. The rest of the call went relatively easy. After the call disconnected, Zack suddenly realized that part of his “technique” was to “stonewall” the member. He would be be polite but firm until the patient either realized that there wasn’t going to be any better answer than the one that he just gave them, or they decided that they wanted to get back to their day more than they wanted to talk to him. Fairly often, Zack didn’t care which it was as long as they got off the phone.

.oO(All things happen for a reason.)Oo. Zack could hear his old sage say from the grave. .oO(Oh yeah??? What’s the reason for THIS???)Oo. he though angrily at him as he hiked down to the nearest the freeway exit. Intellectually, the twenty-somethings were right. ALL you do is sit there an talk on the phone all day. The other side of that coin was that Zack was already exhausted after putting up with other people’s bullshit all day. And now he was power walking away from a flat tire– and no jack to raise the wheel with. He had made phone calls to everyone that he could think of….straight to voice mail, “….sorry dude, I’m out of town right now.”, no answer, rang several times and then “…leave a message at the beep.”, “….sorry, he’s at the store, call back later.” were all the answers that he could get.

The nearest bus stop was a block away from the freeway and as he approached the overhead structure, there was a woman and a teenager sitting on the bench talking to each other. Zack couldn’t help but overhear as he read the bus schedule affixed to the opposite side of the structure– he didn’t mean to eavesdrop.

“…<name>, <semi-or curt command>.”

“…but MOM! <protesting excuse>”

Misses two busses in a row (while he’s busy 😛 ), then gets an answer on his phone for help….

“You’re not helpful” escal, Zack KNOWS that he is…. >>> Zack is helpful and knows what he is t slking about….hence he is invited to the support group….the coffee is free….


Zack (hero, possible new name) sat in his corporate chair all the way back as if it were a bed and reached for the keyboard on his desk. A passerby of his cubicle may not notice his age about him, but even in that position they couldn’t help but notice that he was overweight. The woman’s voice through his headset had been shouting at him for several moments about how the payment for her husband’s seizure medication had gone from fifty dollars per month to just over five thousand and how necessary the expense was to keep him alive.He truly wanted to help and felt some of the woman’s pain. Intellectually he was fully aware that a seizure typically wasn’t as lethal as a heart attack but he also knew that he was powerless to do anything to help the woman. The woman paused to make sure that she was being heard and Zack wondered if it was also to breathe. Feeling helpless to change the situation and pity for the woman’s plight all he really wanted was for the silence between them to end. “I’m sorry to hear that ma’am.” fell out of his mouth. It was all he could think of given the situation. Without even missing a beat the acid in her voice would have melted steel:

“No you’re not.” Suddenly the pain of being unable to help no matter how badly he wanted to turned in to rage. .oO(I’m gonig to rip your throat out bitch!)Oo. It was all he could do to remember that if he opened his mouth, anything he might have said would get him fired before the end of his shift. Forcing himself to imagine homelessness, he paused, then said in a low monotone: “I’m still here.” as if to mark time. .oO(Your husband is about to die, you called ME for help, and now you just bit the hand that’s trying to feed you….)Oo. More time passed between Zack and his caller in an uneasy silence.

“You were saying…..”