Thursday, October 20, 2005

Another Alibi?

A lot of things were wrong with T2 from the very beginning, although I was too thankful that they hired me without a lot of questions asked. I had nothing to be ashamed of, of course; it's just that I've always been subjected to the rather heart-breaking experience of being passed over so many times because of my alma mater.The Quiet Room Also, initially, the training that they gave us during the first month was well-paced and well-designed and, although my impressions of the people I was going to work with on the first day was not so positive, I was fortunate to finally be put on a team whose members were not rambunctious and generally people I enjoy being with. It was also nice that we were being paid during that period, before we were technically doing any real work, and that pay was the highest I ever got in the Philippines.

It was much later, when our product training started that we had our first intimations of disaster looming on the horizon. Compared to the accent-neutralization training we received (ACE), which was, as I stated, paced, designed and balanced well, this was hurried, with no clear statement of our goals or objectives, incidental in treatment... basically not really training us for what we should be trained for. I mean, after all that big talk on the first day that our ACE and product training would be seamless and interspersed, we were disappointed and disillusioned to see that there was actually a clear demarcation line between ACE and product, and that the only ones benefitting from the product training are those who've already undergone that sort of training in another company.

Still, I thought that I can handle it... and why shouldn't I? I, who prided myself on learning computers more swiftly than others? I, who (in my hubris) gloried over the nickname given to me by friends of "The Machine" because of my skill and know-how in anything mechanical or electronic? Why shouldn't I pass this easily? I wasn't looking out to be the best; I just want to be good enough.

But, so tedious to relate, the training claimed even those of us who believed we were "techies" as victims: we just weren't understanding enough of it on time. Still, our team performed much better than all the other teams, due probably in no small part to the introspective nature of those on the team; but we were not happy being the best. Being the best means being the first on the floor, and we knew that we needed much more training that we had. Even when we tried to ask questions, we were always told in that annoying North American accent to just "figure it out."

I suddenly felt what it was like for a raw recruit with just a month of basic training before being sent into a battlefield, where your first mistake will always count... well not quite—technically, we had almost two months before we hit the floor, but you know what I mean.

Actually, I wasn't so bad. I sounded and talked like an American well enough for the clients to think that I was, and for a while that was all that mattered. I was there to help people, and helping people (as I was accustomed to) took focus and time. Especially time. It was only when my team leader told me I wasn't doing it fast enough that I even had any inkling that I was doing something wrong. That's when everything started going wrong. Suddenly, we were all counting our AHTs and ATTs (that's Average Handling Time and Average Talk Time in newspeak), feeling irritated at the occassional grandma who just wouldn't put the phone down because they knew that we hadn't really helped them enough yet. Our goal was to help our clients within 14 minutes. FOURTEEN, FREAKIN' MINUTES!!! I mean, gee! I guess I can, if I didn't have to give all of the prescribed opening, troubleshooting and closing scripts that make me sound like an intelligent robot. I guess I can squeeze all of the help if all we had to do was "help" them. But we were supposed to document everything while helping them, that is, we were supposed to be typing like crazy everything that we did.

But I think I can handle even that. I'm a touch-typist after all. What was so illogical and unhelpful is that we were supposed to troubleshoot according to a fixed and immutable flow-chart. It didn't matter if the agent before me had already done that, even with access to his/her "notes" I was supposed to go through it all over again. And it wouldn't matter that I had already done all that, and painstakingly recorded all of it, too. The agent that the client would have to call because I was not able to "resolve" the problem within the prescribed time will, also, have to go through the same steps.

And, though it pains me, I know I can handle even that. Yet, for those few cases that training did not prepare us for, we had to rely on our "floor support" which is basically a few knowledgeable individuals who have actually handled the "product" and can answer specific questions. But with thirty or more people in our team, of more than three teams, start waving our help-me flags, they cannot help all of us at once (and with our AHTs still ticking away). Even when they eventually came over to "help" us, the North American Caucasians (who were our trainers and our floor support) would merely tell us that "we took that up in training" (when was that?) and tha we should "figure it out." Even now, the phrase "figure it out" has become a sort of swear word to us Pinoys. That first week was the breaking point for me and a lot of my teammates. My scores on quality were really good, that is, inspite of my terrible AHTs (the longest of which was almost an hour and a half long), because I knew how to get a banter going. But the first time that was the worst day, which was some time later, also proved to be my last day. I spontaneously developed S.A.D.

This was a bitter pill for me to swallow. I had faced down principals, angry parents and idiotic teenagers in the past without flinching, without fear, then suddenly found myself having an irrational panic attack during a call. And knowing that it was an irrational panic attack was not helpful... it made me even more anxious... it didn't help that I was talking to a client that had such a thick French accent and couldn't understand a word he was saying. Somehow I finished the call, but I knew that I never want to take a call ever again. I excused myself quickly from my Pinoy teamleader and the pretty but insensitive caucasian trainer. All admonitions not to quit fell on not so deaf but definitely numb ears... I wanted out and I wanted out now. By the time I got home, I had a splitting headache, my heart was beating so fast and, though exhausted, couldn't go to sleep.

It didn't help that I knew why I was experiencing such. After weeks of being "weighed and measured and found wanting" (something I have always hated), suddenly being thrust into a situation where one is judged on literally a minute-by-minute basis on rules that are unfair yet unchangeable triggered that panic attack. I have not told anyone but my wife because I, of course, fear judgement. "Coward" and "quitter" are just some of the milder translations of their Tagalog equivalents. The thing is, the actual practice of taking a call and helping them blindly while on the phone isn't new to me—I've done it for years with friends, students and former employers alike. I'm used to talking to caucasians. But having a dagger continually over one's head all that time, and being constantly reminded of it everytime we look at the timer on the Avaya web phone was just too much. I never want to work at another call centre ever again if I can help it. Even if some of my co-workers (now unemployed like me) assure me that other call centres are not as strict, I know for a fact that all of them operate on equations that compute erlangs. Basically, it means that I shall always be judged on how swiftly I end a call rather on how good I was at a call. No thank you.

Although I realize that I shouldn't be ashamed of that panic attack when it happened, I find that I cannot talk about it with others. I definitely didn't bring it up when discussing it with my family or my in-laws, that's for certain. Mom had always wondered why, as a young teen, I developed stage-fright; I had always performed in front of people, and performed well. I became ashamed of this stage-fright or jitters and have, over the years, successfully gotten rid of it. I still feel uncomfortable speaking in public, but I never feel anxiety or panic any longer. So, my intellect reasons out, I shouldn't be ashamed because even entertainers like Donny Osmond would spontaneously suffer from Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD, for short) at the height of his career. I reason to myself that I only experienced such because I hated to be judged that rigorously (I had also been "assessed" before in my other jobs, of course, but they never came minute-by-minute and over things out of my control).

But still, I feel ashamed. I feel that I cannot hope for understanding. I was making more money than at any time in my life, and for some that should have settled things.

It was only later that a lot of us would read the opinions of North Americans about outsourcing—basically, they thought that we were taking away jobs meant for them. When I went through the resignation process and the exit interview, I found that T2 didn't care so much if so many of us resigned. For one, there were always more of us waiting to be hired, so we were as replaceable as a broken lightbulb. Another thing was that, high as our salaries were, we were relatively dirt cheap, so our American employers' collective pockets didn't ache if a lot of us resigned, even if they seemingly "wasted" their resources on training us for two months. We were peanuts. Of course, with that knowledge, even if our salaries were relatively high, knowing that on the grand scheme of things we were not as highly valued as we would have liked to believe (a weakness, I admit, amongst Pinoys), hastened the departure of those whom I left behind. It also gave us some insight over the perceived tendency of the North Americans reluctance to teach and help us Indios—was there an agenda somewhere?

Of course, one can read this entire post as rant and alibi, written by one so anxious to justify oneself. There are many, another one may reason, who find that they can stay in call centres with no problem at all. And knowing that there are some who think that way makes me feel more ashamed still. But my parting shot is this: while we were still there, we had a name for those who eventually proved hardy enough to remain. We called them "asses" and, though they had amazing 5-10 minute AHTs, they were the ones that give "phone technical support" the reputation of being unhelpful, uninformed and rude.