The Precarious World of Those Who Answer Your Customer Service Calls

An anonymous customer service representative for a U.S. telecommunications company writes of the tremendous pressures on workers in customer service jobs, which pay just above the hourly minimum wage. Because of the low pay, these workers must rely on end of the month performance-based pay bonuses to get by. “Pay for performance” bonuses can add several hundred dollars a month to a paycheck. But it’s a very precarious way to make ends meet.


Call Center workers. Every call is an important call., Alan Clark,

Your call is very important to us. It’s a trite phrase, but to the customer service representative on the other end of the line it’s actually true – just not in the way you think. Your call, as well as the 50-60 other calls I will take in any given shift, could make or break my paycheck and budget.

Customer service jobs typically pay just above minimum wage per hour. I have worked as a customer service representative for several companies over the last 5 years and my hourly wages have amounted to $18,000-$21,000 per year. But hourly wages aren’t why anyone takes a job working in call centers. We are seduced by recruiters promising a pot of gold at the end of the month in the form of a performance-based pay bonus. This arrangement, known as “pay for performance”, can add several hundred dollars a month to our paycheck. But its a very precarious way to make ends meet.

One of the most important performance metrics is handle or resolution time. This is the number of seconds you are on the phone with me, from the moment I greet you to the moment you hang up. Handle time is something almost every rep is measured on because, if we can each shave 2-3 seconds off of it and drop our department-wide average, the company will save tens of thousands of dollars. It may sound easy, but it’s not. One long call with a particularly needy customer, and your handle time for the day is toast.

There are other metrics I must meet in order to obtain a monthly bonus. Have you ever wondered why customer service reps can be so quick and efficient at resolving your problem and then suddenly try to sell you something while you’re still feeling all warm and fuzzy? The things I sell to you when you call in with a problem help pay for my job: managers often refer to it as earning our keep, because the things we sell to you offset the cost of maintaining a customer service department. This doesn’t mean we necessarily get commission for what we sell you, but we are required to offer you our products in every phone call. If no-one is buying, we may not get our bonus.

Then there are the metrics that I have no control over. The worst ones are customer surveys, like those automated ones at the end of our calls that take up your time after I’ve spent mine fixing your problem. In some companies, these surveys don’t affect paychecks. In others, a single bad rating from a customer, even if they had no problem with me or my service and are just mad at my company, can turn what was poised to be a $1,000 bonus into a $200 one. These wild fluctuations make pay for performance the most stressful thing about working in customer service.

Even the metrics within my control create uncertainty because they are always changing. If enough reps meet their metrics, the company will just make them harder. Better performance saves the company money, but if they make better performance the minimum expectation, they don’t have to pay us for it.

So the constant struggle to try and score a bonus check means you learn to take shortcuts, even if doing so could eventually jeopardize your job. After all, that coveted bonus check is what pays for Christmas gifts, car repairs, or a child’s entire wardrobe bought from a consignment sale. It’s not extra fun money; it’s a crucial part of the budget, but it’s wretchedly hard to predict. So you learn to work the system, transferring a customer with technical issues instead of resolving them yourself to shave a few seconds off your handle time. You become overly aggressive with sales and you know exactly which sales affect your bonus and which count for nothing. Outright fraud will get you fired in a heartbeat, but if your numbers are good and you’re not strictly violating policy, your manager will likely look the other way, because her pay is tied to your performance as well.

Your call could be the call that pushes me to the next level of bonus, earning me $100 extra, or it could be the one that brings what was going to be a $700 bonus down to just a $70 bonus. So, yes, your call is very important to me. Now you know why.

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