Call Girl: What I Learned During My Year as a Customer Service Representative

“If you think you’re talking to an expert when you call a customer service center, you’re probably not.”

Illustration by Brittany Bilyeu for The Bygone Bureau

Like so many stories that end poorly, mine began on Craigslist.

I moved back to Boston for my junior year of college after spending the summer working as a barista in my hometown. It was nothing new — since I was sixteen, I had worked several iterations of the typical suburban student job. So when I saw an ad looking for someone to work part-time in an office for $10 an hour, I jumped at the opportunity for something that didn’t involve steaming milk or half-assedly folding sweaters.

And thus began my year working as a customer service representative for an e-commerce home goods company. It was the worst job I’ve ever had, but I learned a thing or two.

1. If you think you’re talking to an expert when you call a customer service center, you’re probably not.

The reason that this particular company is so successful is that, while they host several highly specific offshoot specialty websites that sell futons or waterbeds or strollers, they ship directly from the manufacturer to cut down on costs. Customers that called in with issues had no idea this was the case, and thought they’d end up being connected with a product expert. In reality, they were speaking to a severely hungover twenty-year-old liberal arts student who had no idea what she was talking about.

2. The company culture is about as miserable as you’d imagine.

One of the reasons why the job was so dully exhausting was the alienating company culture. Sure, the upper management occasionally tossed out a couple hundred bucks for happy hours to keep everyone complacent. Otherwise, everyone sat glued to their phones and computers and rarely interacted. It was 2010 and most people working there full-time making sales calls were recent college graduates who had no other options. The ennui fueled by recession-related disappointment was palpable.

Also, all the employees had to sit in a conference with their group manager once a quarter and re-listen to a sampling of their phone calls. It’s about as humiliating as watching yourself in a sex tape. Or so I would imagine.

The one saving grace was The Snack Room: a room lined wall-to-wall with cubbyholes filled with Pop-Tarts, Swedish Fish, Cheez-Its, and other artificially flavored goodness.

3. Just because you know how to shop online, don’t assume everyone else does.

Before you get the wrong idea, I wasn’t a telemarketer. As a part-time employee, I was assigned to inbound calls only — helping customers order products online or assisting them with any problems with existing orders. My first call went down like this:

“Thank you for calling [redacted]. My name is Gabriella. How can I help you?”

The customer was an elderly man who declared, “I’d like to order this toaster.”

We carried hundreds of thousands of products, so I asked him for the model number.

“Yes, it’s the white one right here.”

Just as I realized how arduous this process was going to be, his wife picked up the other line and creakily inquired, “Are you”

That scenario was typical of about 75% of the phone calls I fielded. A remarkable number of people, regardless of their age group, do not know how to shop online.

4. Okay, so this one’s not a huge surprise: people are jerks.

The second most common kind of call I would answer was somebody screaming at me because their order came in damaged, or different from what they thought they were getting online. If you haven’t experienced it before, let me tell you that the first time you get verbally abused by a complete stranger, it’s a sobering experience. People detach themselves from the idea that they’re talking to a human being, or assume, god forbid, that they’re calling an outsourced representative. One man thundered at me because he couldn’t hear me reading his credit card number back to him and then insisted on knowing where my “accent” was from. Another kept aggressively pressing me about whether or not I had food in my mouth while I was talking to him. (To be fair, yeah, I probably did.) After a while, I was used to being called a “fucking idiot” or “dumb bitch” because someone’s couch arrived damaged. Sticks and stones, or whatever.

5. It takes a special kind of pervert to try to finagle a free 900-number type call from a furniture website.

The first time this happened I was caught off guard:

Me: Just give me a second to look up your order. (Starts typing)
Customer: Mmmm, I can hear you breathing.
Me: (Awkward laughter, followed immediately by consciously holding my breath)
Customer: Mmmmm. I like it.

The next time, the customer was a middle-aged man with a thick (possibly fake) Russian accent. I informed him that the item he was looking to order would be on backorder for a few weeks. He started up saying, “You know vat I think?”, then paused and launched into a low growl, “I think you are a very baaad girl. In fact, I think you are the baddest girl in town.”

Meanwhile, I was slumped over my desk, headset akimbo, as I shoved my sixth Pop-Tart of the day into my mouth.

6. People are lonely, and being a customer service representative exposes you up to a level of intimacy rarely experienced on the job.

There were some people who opened up so much — too much — about their lives that I found myself incredibly saddened by how alone they must have to be to have to confide in an anonymous customer service representative. A woman once called, absolutely frantic, because she needed to return a damaged coffee table before her husband returned from a business trip. She pleaded for it to be done as quickly as possible because she was scared he would try to take her children away and beat her again. Another woman called sobbing, trying to cancel $20,000 worth of charges on her credit card. Her husband had terminal brain cancer and purchased it all unbeknownst to her, or him.

Speaking to hundreds of people a day without ever seeing them is the strangest form of social interaction I’ve ever experienced. In between taking down credit card numbers and processing returns, I faced a roller coaster of emotions from callers who would likely forget about the conversation the moment they hung up the phone. But that anonymity is exactly what made it all so highly charged. Customers find themselves on the phone with a stranger who receives such a high volume of calls per day that they won’t remember their name or voice when the conversation’s through. For those brief few minutes while the representative is sticking tightly to a script, the person on the other end of the line is liberated enough to say whatever they want — whether that means indulging their temper or finally opening up about their grief.

7. This is a product available for sale: