Contact Center Solutions Featured Article

Stalag Call Center?

September 22, 2014

It’s almost impossible to motivate employees who work in a Stalag  camp environment. If you ever saw the movie, Stalag  17, you know that a Stalag is the word used to describe a World War II prisoner of war camp - a not-so-pleasant place to reside.

I started thinking about Stalags a few weeks ago when I checked into a hotel with my wife. I pointed out a large call center across the street and my wife asked, “How do you know it is a call center? I don’t see any signs saying that!” Her question hit me like a Mack truck. How did I know it was a call center? Were there any real clues or was I just clairvoyant?

I have visited and studied hundreds of call centers, so perhaps I have unknowingly developed some kind intuitive perception that allows me to recognize what others apparently cannot. Of course, I could have been wrong —maybe the building was actually a nondescript facility for tax cheaters on a work release program. Or, even more exotic, perhaps an intentionally plain vanilla location for a CIA listening center?

I checked into the hotel and asked the front desk clerk, “What’s going on in that large building across the street?” She said, “That’s a reservation center for “XYZ” (I have used an acronym to replace the actual company name because it is a very recognizable firm). They have over 1,000 people working there.” I looked at my wife, and smugly said, “See dear, I was right, it is a call center.”  

I unloaded my luggage and decided to drive across the street and investigate further. The building looked like an abandoned, low cost department store, which I later confirmed to be true. There were barely any contours to the building and it was painted a color I call “Stalag gray” — the color of prisons and Federal buildings. It was easy to imagine how some bright paint, a few flowers and shrubs, and some colorful awnings could dress things up, but I guess no one had thought of that. I wondered if the building was secretly being prepared to house Guantanamo inmates. It was a very depressing first impression.

Dusk was falling and I noticed there were very few lights in the parking lot. I hoped to find a visitor’s parking space near the building. There were none!  But there were plenty of executive spaces boldly marked “Private!” Most were empty even though it was only 5:30 p.m. I parked two hundred yards away and carefully walked to the front door dodging potholes filled with recent rain.

I introduced myself to the receptionist as a professor at the University of Wyoming, who had done a lot of research in call center environments and asked if I could meet the manager on duty. She went to find him while I continued my observations of the facility.

There was a lot of dried mud on the floor, which meant it had probably been there since the morning when the rain was falling. I wondered why no one had come in to clean it up. There was a coffee station nearby, but each stained carafe contained only about two inches of stale coffee. I was thirsty and luckily found an old-fashioned water fountain that squirted out a low-pressure, quarter-inch stream of water. I decided I wasn’t thirsty anymore.

I sat in a chair that I prayed wouldn’t collapse and looked for some reading material. I found a slick brochure proudly proclaiming what a great employer the “XYZ” company was. I chuckled at the irony. The only artwork on the walls was some dollar-quality picture frames with “employee of the month” photographs. The whole atmosphere reeked of cheap and I wondered how job applicants must feel in this environment.

I then decided to check out the men’s room and was not surprised by what I saw. It was glaringly apparent it had not been serviced for several hours. The paper towel dispensers were empty, the waste receptacles were overflowing, and the floor was none too clean. I was glad my hotel was across the street, just in case.

Eventually the manager on duty arrived and took me on a tour. His attire and appearance was a perfect fit for the rest of the call center. He needed a haircut and his shoes had not been shined since they came out of the box. When I observed the other supervisors, their appearances weren’t much different.

The rest of the employees were also a perfect fit for the center. Most of them had far away unfocused stares and nobody was smiling. Suffice it to say, the operators were mirrors of the environment in which they worked. I thought, “There is no sense of pride in this building. This is just a job where you do just enough to keep from getting fired, collect your paycheck, and go home.

Is your call center on the Stalag scale?  If you are not sure, ask your operators if they have ever brought a family member to the office and bragged about their job.  Have you ever heard an employee talk about driving by the center and saying something similar to, “Look kids, there’s where mommy works. Isn’t that a great place?”  You might be surprised! Think about it!

Edited by Stefania Viscusi