After six months on my temporary contract at Inland Revenue the budget ran out and I was to leave but at the same time they were advertising new jobs in a call centre that was being set up so I applied.
The interview for the call centre job first involved a computer based assessment. We had to wear headsets and listen to pre-recorded conversations then answer questions about the call afterwards. I got through that stage then there was an interview with a panel asking questions. I’d only ever had one interview before that date and that was for a role as a runner at the Manchester Evening News and I didn’t get that job.
I was nervous but this was different, I was already familiar with the environment and I was excited about the prospect of the job. I came through and was offered the job. The job was a higher grade than the tedious role I had been doing previously and it presented more of a challenge.
It was to start with a 20 week rigorous training programme that covered the soft skills of the job and knowledge about taxation from Pay As You Earn and Self Assessment. Suddenly I found myself back in the class room and it reminded me of how much I missed that sort of learning environment. I really enjoyed my training. I picked up knowledge very quickly and started to excel again.
Towards the end of the training we would hook up with a more experienced member of staff and connect our headsets so that we could watch how they answered calls and listen in. At home I hated talking to companies on the phone, I’d do anything to avoid it, but here I was training to be that voice on the other end.
I was the first member of my team deemed ready to take a call. For those first calls, the roles were reversed with out mentors listening in on the call in case we needed assistance or gave incorrect advice. Now I was ready to be set free to do the job on my own.
The building was split into two wings but the office was open plan. The smaller wing was at that stage used as a training wing and had experienced staff as floor walkers. If you got stuck on a call, you’d just put your hand up and someone would come to help you. It was a really interesting job and I enjoyed it. We needed a very broad knowledge base. We’d be talking to people from all over the country but our remit included the city of London so we’d have calls from high flying bankers, agents of celebrities and every other manor of person in between.
Sometimes it was hard to understand people’s accent. Occasionally you’d get call through the touch type system where an intermediary relays your answers to a deaf caller so you’d have to speak very slowly. Sometimes you’d get old people calling that just wanted someone to talk to, other times it would be very angry callers whom were determined not to believe the advice you gave them. Abuse wasn’t uncommon, I even had the odd threat of suicide.
I just took it all in my stride and remained professional. I knew the callers weren’t angry at me, they were angry at the organisation and I was a representative of that organisation. I learned to listen, let people blow off steam and then I’d try to find a solution to their problem.
Some advisers would get very upset with callers and you could hear them raising their voices half way across the room. Some would terminate calls but I never really found myself in that position. If you raise your voice, it will only escalate the issue, my job was to calm people down.
Each call was like a jigsaw and you had to coax out those final pieces of information from the caller, I loved the challenge. Sometimes you had to deliver bad news and you just had to do that as sympathetically as possible. The biggest problem for me with the job was not the call handling, it was the bureaucracy and politics.
Our directors only really cared about one thing, and that was our service level agreement (SLA) i.e. what percentage of calls were being answered in a given timescale. Advisers were under pressure to keep their calls and follow up activities as short as possible and it was monitored on a real time basis. They didn’t care whether you resolved a problem or not, as long as you kept your call numbers high and your call length low you were considered to be good at your job.
I was never good at that, I took a different approach. The majority of calls we took were from people that had already rang up previously about the same issue and were still waiting for a resolution. To me it seemed nonsensical to fob callers off when if there issue was addressed in the first place, they wouldn’t need to call back again. That might mean spending longer on the phone to get all the facts and it might mean more time spent offline but the net outcome was better for the customer and better for us.
For example, one of the most common call subjects was people waiting for a tax refund. Officially we were supposed to ask them to send in their P60s, P45s and a letter covering any gaps in their employment record so we could calculate a refund. However, it was common place to have a three month backlog of claims and it was also common for paperwork to go missing.
In a lot of cases Inland Revenue would issue refunds without the customer ever having to ask. We would receive copies of P60s and P45s from employers and we would review their tax ourselves anyway but if there was an unexplained gap in their employment record we would need to write to them for the missing information.
However, that didn’t always work, sometimes people would get their national insurance number mixed up when they started with a new employer and we would have their details recorded but couldn’t match the person to the National Insurance number. Instead of fobbing people off and telling them to write in, I’d use all the systems I had access to in order to build up a complete picture and if I could tell we had the information but it wasn’t linked to the person’s record correctly I’d contact the service office that was responsible for tax reviews directly, pointing out all the relevant facts and as a result the caller would end up with a repayment faster, we’d have one less caller chasing us and the service office would have less work to do sending out letters asking for information we already had.
However, HMRC was not an organisation that encouraged people to use their initiative. Many managers felt intimidated by talent. The organisation wanted to dumb down our role and our authority. They started to introduce scripts to follow, training was cut dramatically. They may as well have replaced us with an automated system. I could see this coming gradually and there was no way I was going to waste my career reading scripts.
The chances of progression for me were slim. Progression was judged mostly on who you charmed and what your call figures were like. I applied for a temporary floor walking position and was turned down because they were worried what knowledge I’d equip the trainees with. I was never going to get a promotion and the training rekindled a spark inside me that wanted to learn so I started thinking about my future.
Journalism was out of the question, even with a degree it was nearly impossible to get into, especially with my ugly mug. I knew I liked computers so I thought that might be an avenue I could explore so I ordered a prospectus for the University of Salford and flicked through the courses.
I came across the Computer Science degree and it sounded exciting. I didn’t know what Object Oriented Programming was, I thought it was something to do with robotics but it had a lot of very different modules as part of the course so I picked that one. Having decided on a degree there was the inconvenient matter of working out how I was going to get on the course with no A-levels to my name. I rang up the University and spoke to the course co-ordinator and he suggested doing an Access to IT course and that’s exactly what I did!