What It's Really Like to Work at a Call Center

June 21st 2015

There are a handful of things almost everyone dreads: the DMV, jury duty, airport security, and being forced to dial a call center.

When your neighborhood experiences a cable outage, your TV won't turn on, or the bank randomly decides to cancel your credit card due to suspicious activity, the last thing you want to do is call an 800 number and listen to crackly hold music until someone picks up. By that point, you're probably even more irritated than you were before, and the call center representative has to deal with that.

At times, many people feel so exasperated by having to make outbound calls on their own time that they don't stop to think about the person on the other line.

That's why I reached out to a slew of past and present call center workers to hear about their experiences at different places. I talked to a range of call center workers to gather as many perspectives as possible. Here's what several people had to say about working at different call centers.

What are the people who call in like?

Call center Reedz Malik/Flickr -

"You have the customers who want to get off the phone as quickly as they got on, angry customers, chatty Kathys, and on the rare occasion the picture perfect customer you wish all the rest could be like. I worked the night shift for a long time. The majority of the customers I spoke with were belligerent gambling at a casino and very upset their card was declined for a $5,000.00 cash advance. Night shift always had the unique clientele but made for great entertainment ...

For potlucks, encourage your team to bring items high in protein and low in fiber to avoid accidents. Take it from me, I've had two reps poop in their chairs. I'm not sure why/how they happened. They were on separate occasions and separate agents but both times we had a potluck. I debated sprinkling Imodium on all the food." -Alyssa, 27, Phoenix, Arizona, former credit card company call center representative and current call center manager

"When trying to sell [newspapers at a call center], I found out that the editor-in-chief was hated by most of the state, which was interesting and made selling newspaper subscriptions difficult. I was asked out on a few dates over the phone, invited to an amusement park by the owner of the park, and was offered a free tarot card reading by a woman because I sounded like the girl from 'American Pie' who said 'One time at band camp...'" - Dawn, Los Angeles, California, worked at a newspaper subscription cold call center and an inbound call center for shipping and receiving packages

"You get some customers who are angry and annoyed and don't want to be on the phone with you. You have the other kind where they are pretty friendly but are calling because they want help. Just from my experience, most people are pretty annoyed that they have to be on the phone." - Heather, 23, Riverside, California, worked at fundraising and outgoing call centers

"The people that would call in were always very frustrated. I think that was because of the product we were selling. Because it was a [male enhancement] supplement, I feel lots of insecure people were taking [it], so it's something they were embarrassed about. So every time they called in, they were already frustrated because of the product that they were trying to purchase, whether they thought it didn't work or because of something else. I also think they were also frustrated that a lady answered the phone because I think it was more embarrassing for them." - Shanyn, 27, Austin, Texas, former male enhancement supplement call center representative

"I'm a real customer service person ... Only one time ever did I let someone on the other line get to me. The lady called in and was like 'Give me your supervisor now.' My job is trying to resolve it before we get to the supervisor, so I was like, 'OK, well explain to me the problem' and she was talking to me in [a] derogatory way, like really crazy. Knowing the person I am, I took it personally and I don't know why. I guess it was the tone of her voice. You know the saying 'It's not what you say but the way you say it?' It was how she was saying it, so I put her on hold, and she ended up hanging up. I never got her the manager. He ended up finding out but I was honest with him. He was like, 'You never do stuff like that.'" - Darryl Waller Jr., 36, South Bay, California, former collections and sales call center representative

"Pretty much everyone who called in was responding to a marketing campaign Dell created wherein they would give employees of certain companies a free computer, and our job was to upsell them on features and peripherals ... Everyone was really nice, but everyone was really on guard for any bait and switch ... [I]f they just wanted the free computer and made it clear that nothing I was going to say would change their mind, I would just process them as fast as I could and get onto the next call and hope for a more reasonable prospect." - Forest, 39, Austin, Texas, former Dell call center sales representative

What were some of your worst experiences working at a call center?

Call center CWCS Managed Hosting/Flickr -

"We were listening to random calls as a team and my department manager deciding to join ... The customer was so rude and condescending that I shut down and just gave one word answers like yep, nope, etc. I'll admit it wasn't the best customer service but this guy was straight rude. My department manager leaves the room, contacts the customer, and tells him I was out of line, and she apologized for my behavior. I was so upset and all I could was cry. It made me realize no matter how bad the customer is on the other line I have to keep my 'A' game intact to survive the call center life and not take everything so personal." - Alyssa

"There are always a lot of fights. A lot of fist fights in the office. I've seen it go down. You see random stuff throughout the years. I found one call center [through a temp agency] and that was the most wonderful experience. The people didn't stress you out, they made it easy for you, and that was probably the best call center I worked at. Most call centers though were ghetto, loud talking, a lot of intimacy going on behind the scenes, a lot of managers messing around with the workers." - Darryl Waller Jr.

"The worst part of the job was obviously the calls. The [male enhancement] product that customers purchased had an ad that said it was free, but of course it would have an asterisk at the bottom and no one would read the description, so because they would buy the product and not return it within 30 days, they would get charged about $80 per month until they canceled it, which of course lots of people didn't do. So we're the first point of contact for them because they have gotten charged and didn't expect it ... [T]hey would call in and basically go off on us and say really horrible things. I had one guy who called in once and had asked for a refund. I explained to him that I wasn't able to refund the money and he started yelling. He said that he hoped that I'd had a really rough year and that he wished the famine upon my family. He said he hoped I'd get fired, and that's probably not even the worst thing I'd heard." - Shanyn

"I think my biggest problem was getting on the phone to verify information and being told my voice is sexy. It's a weird thing to hear when one, you don't know the person and two, you are on the phone to work. You're on the phone to try to help someone and they kind of take the situation and make it weird for you. That was always the worst, being on the phone and someone tries to flirt or say 'hey you sound so sexy' or 'what's your name?' I am not on the phone to hook up with you. I don't even know where you're at or who you are." - Heather

"The worst experience was [taking calls at the] credit card company because most of the people were elderly and I felt bad selling them an online credit card they probably wouldn't use. I quit that job about two weeks after I started because I had morals." - Dawn

"Some people hate telemarketers or they don't feel like they're in a position to give and they lash out at callers. I had a tough time in the beginning because it's hard not to take refusals personally, but now I'm great at dealing with NOs and turning them into YESs.​" - Varsha, 21, Berkeley, California, University of California, Berkeley fundraising call center

What were some of your best experiences?

"I love nothing more than having an angry customer call in and by the end of the conversation I have them laughing and thanking me. In addition, I love talking to elderly people. They are so sweet and the smallest jokes make their day." - Alyssa

"I had one friend in particular who I'd chat with [and we would] just laugh about the calls we were on. On breaks or lunches, we'd go [hang out] and basically just try to get our minds off of it because it could get really frustrating and stressful. We were there for eight hours a day. Talking to each other really got me through it. If I was in an environment where I didn't like the people, I definitely wouldn't have been there [for two years]." - Shanyn

"Sometimes I'd talk to older people and they'd tell me a story about when they were a kid or something like that. I like talking to people." - Ashley, 27, Los Angeles, California, former Direct TV call center representative

"Usually [finding] distractions. Doodling at my desk, drawing, not that I'm the best artist or anything. I'd have a hand toy to kind of play with. Sometimes even standing helped. I do a lot of yoga and Pilates, so even just like meditating a little helped." - Heather

"My best experience was probably the tarot reader because I got a free tarot reading." - Dawn

"My best experiences are those when I'm able to have a really good conversation with an alumnus, and they end up giving [money to the university]." - Varsha

"I learned about sales and the positioning of value. I still use some of the lessons I learned in that role today ... Namely, when it's time to ask the prospect for the business, do it clearly and plainly, and then shut up ... I probably talked my way out of a dozen or so deals before I learned that lesson ... it is some of the best training anyone can get early in their career." - Forest

What do you want outsiders to know about call center jobs?

"It's hard thankless work. For sales queues, the commissions are typically crappy if they exist at all ... It's also a lonely job, because although you are talking to people all day, it's never face to face, so that human interaction that many extroverted people crave is lacking to some degree. From a sales perspective, it is extremely difficult as so much is missed in terms of body language and other non-verbal signals that can help guide the conversation." - Forest

"Be nice ... The person you're talking to has probably been talking to hundreds of other people all day long. You've only had to talk to the person at the call center once. So you're not the only person having that specific problem or having to deal with this specific person ... Remember there's a human being on the other side of the phone." - Heather

"At call centers, you're often sitting down all day, you probably don't have a bunch of windows to be able to look outside and enjoy the day, so it can be a really stressful place. People are not getting up and stretching their legs a lot. The people you're calling into are probably having a long, frustrating day, so just be a little more patient because I think what we want is for people calling in to understand that. When they're a lot nicer to us, we're a lot nicer to them." - Shanyn

"I'd like other people to know that being friendly with the people on the other end of the line at the call center helps break up the tedious monotony and frustrating calls they get all day long. It literally brightens their day when someone is nice. If you're not interested, just tell them and don't forget to mention to put you on their do not call list. They usually have a button on their program for that. Also, you never know what call center employees are doing on the other end of the line. Sometimes I would be doing desk workouts, crafting next month's call center calendar, or straight ironing my hair. Sitting in a cubicle day after day, call after call can get pretty monotonous. I always did my job well but had to break up the sitting all day somehow." - Dawn