Sharon did not pick up our phone calls.
This was not what we came to expect from an insurance call centre Customer Service officer (CSO).
Nevertheless, she gave a glimpse of her professionalism when she returned the call.
Overly apologetic although we were the ones asking for a favour.
She did not have to explain – we could clearly hear children screaming in the background.
Sharon (name changed for anonymity) works at the call centre of an insurance company.
A veteran with more than five years of experience.
She leads a team of CSOs for one of the hotlines that the insurance company operates.
She related her story to us over tea.
Just like the mint tea that she was nursing, it was bitter-sweet yet so refreshing.
She wanted a change.
Insurance was not new to Sharon.
She had been slogging long hours at a competitor prior to her present role.
Endless overtime, burnt weekends.
Work-life balance? Never heard of it.
By the time she got home on a workday, it was close to her baby’s bedtime.
Anna was just 2-year-old then.
Motherly love was merely an hour a day at best.
During the December peak period, it was even worse.
On the eves of the New Year, Sharon would be stressed out, trying to clock in policies before the clock turned 12.
She was so exhausted by the time she hit the bed that she would be instantly knocked out.
This was not the life she wanted.
Or the mother that Anna deserved.
She felt guilty all the time for not being able to live up to her own expectations of being a caring, loving mum.
And she felt no purpose as all she did was basically data-entry.
Sharon made a decision to quit after a lengthy discussion with her hubby.
She had joined a rival insurer but as a call centre CSO.
It would allow her to work regular hours and go back on time.
She would not want to miss out her precious daughter’s growing up at any price.
Not on the calling card: Newbie hazing.
Even though Sharon had insurance knowledge from her previous job, she still diligently took notes throughout the one-week training course.
She learnt about the unfamiliar products; she practised with her mentor on phone etiquettes.
Listening in on how her experienced colleagues handle complaints was particularly insightful.
She was raring to go but yet still apprehensive by the time she had to take her first call.
It was a pleasant call from a nice young lad who was asking about the opening hours of the branch.
Sharon handled it with her usual poise.
The few customers that followed were likewise okay.
She gained confidence slowly as she rattled off policy information from her meticulously written notebook.
Along with assistance from her kind colleagues, she was able to manage them well.
But nothing prepared her from the next one.
“Good Morning, Sharon speaking…”
But before Sharon could finish her greeting, a loud and brash voice was heard.
“WHAT THE HELL DO YOUR COMPANY IS DOING? HOW COULD YOU REJECT MY CLAIMS?!”
Sharon was shocked.
No amount of listening had prepared her for the angry tirade that she was receiving now.
Even so, she had to perform her role.
“Sir, I will like to help you. Perhaps you may wish to provide me with your NRIC so that I may check for you?”
She recalled how her mentor had taught her and repeated the same.
“Are you stupid? I JUST CALLED IN JUST NOW. Check your damn records.”
Sharon tried to explain that she was not sure which colleague had answered his last call and she needed to access to his record to render assistance.
She was met with nothing but 3 minutes of vulgarities.
Sensing her difficulties, the colleague Nora besides her took over the conversation and ended it shortly.
By then, Sharon was livid. Her initial shock was replaced by fury.
What had she done to deserved such vile language?!
She wanted to return the call and give the customer a piece of her mind.
Nora brought Sharon to an empty meeting room, calmed her down and assured her that she did nothing wrong.
Nora mentioned that such abuse was not unusual.
Apparently, not seeing someone physically gave some callers a weird baseless courage to hurl vile insults.
It was a rookie hazing that she did not expect.
At the same time, she was glad to have such a great colleague.
A Thank You that Made Her Stay.
Sharon braced herself after the impromptu pep talk with Nora.
“One more call. It will be okay.” Nora told her.
Biting her lips, she went back to her table and made herself available to take the next incoming call.
She did not have to wait long as it was the peak hour.
Picking up the call and half-expecting a torrent of abuse, she was surprised to hear a warm friendly voice on the other end of the line.
The affable caller Mrs Seah enquired on the maturity date of her insurance plan.
Giving a silent sigh of relief, Sharon gave it all her best.
She did not provide just merely the date but also advised her on how her policy proceedings may be collected.
Towards the end of the conversation, Mrs Seah thanked her profusely for the extra efforts Sharon had put in to explain the procedures.
It was a timely one.
Sharon was contemplating if she was suited for the job.
The Thank You made a whole lot of difference.
Sharon felt a warmly fuzzy feeling within her.
Perhaps it was because she had made someone’s day a little better.
It was a sensation that she never felt before in his previous job as a pencil pusher.
We believed her despite it seemed cliche.
Her vivid recount of her first day at work convinced us that it was memorable for her.
It gave her enough encouragement to stay on with the job.
Taking the blows and returning none.
Being a call centre CSO is truly a difficult job.
It involves clearing up the mess that others have created. After all, almost no one calls in to compliment.
Besides the run-of-the-mill enquiries, customers phone in mostly due to service lapses.
Late policy issuances, non-payment of claims, wrong address, etc.
There are also complaints of mis-selling and inappropriate behaviour of the advisers too.
Sure. It is not Sharon’s fault for causing the inconvenience to the caller.
Nonetheless, it is still her role to make things right.
And by making it right, it is not merely about correcting the address or issuing Letter of Guarantees.
Appeasing the foul mood of the aggrieved customer is also a priority.
In her position as CSO, she is unable to stand up against the accusations of the clients.
She has no idea what promises the customers have been given.
In addition, she cannot respond aggressively to the personal insults as it will not solve the problem and only serve to escalate the conflict.
Sharon has to bear the brunt of the anger of the callers on behalf of the insurance company and find answers for them.
When there is no solution in sight, she has to sieve out the unsavoury sarcasm to discover the crux of the complaints so that she can give a clear picture for the other departments to provide remedies.
Some callers just wish to vent and interrupting them will be futile.
She must listen, acknowledge and find the right time and opportunity to resolve the issue and end the call. (Call centre has KPI for call durations.)
Confessions of a call centre CSO.
Although handicapped by their job role, CSOs have their secret ways of getting back at the obnoxious customers.
One obvious way is to simply terminate the call when the caller starts spewing vulgarities.
After a couple of warnings, the CSO can end the call.
The call logs will prove it is the abusive language that forces the hands of the CSO.
Unknown to most, most companies give the mandate to the CSO to waive certain charges without escalation to the relevant department.
This is to reduce the work for all parties for trivial matters.
However, this privilege is extended at the sole discretion of the CSO.
Naturally, an unreasonable client is not going to enjoy this perk.
When conversing with Sharon, a funny anecdote was shared.
As a team leader, she had to audit the call logs of her members when a complaint arose.
There was this hilarious dialogue between an irate caller and her ex-colleague.
The caller was an abusive old man who had raged on for 10 minutes.
On the receiving end was a young temp staff who just had enough.
“I did not receive the bloody payment still. When was the $#@$% cheque posted?”
“2 weeks ago.”
“2 weeks?! You don’t tell me that Singpost loses the mail. They would not DARE to lose my property. It must be you who did not send. What rubbish dump did your rubbish company send the cheque to?”
The witty CSO proceeded to read out the caller’s address.
Needlessly to say, the CSO got into a lot of trouble for that snide reply.
But we couldn’t stop laughing at this one.
The most difficult callers are the sad ones.
We wondered aloud.
Much to our astonishment, she stated that those who had faced real tragedies were the hardest to handle.
Those who had lost their kin were the most fragile customers.
They would enquire about the claim procedures and suddenly broke down upon the recollection of their personal loss.
For someone who had lost her father early on, Sharon understood the pain that they were going through.
It became worse when the callers discovered that they had bought the wrong policies and thus, could not receive any compensation.
They would understandably become agitated.
In one instance, the caller even threatened suicide.
Due to her role, she could not provide much respite for the customers despite their dire situations.
It was heart-wrenching for her to say no to the person who was already grieving.
All she could do is to offer a listening ear and hope everything will turn out alright.
In a way, a sobbing customer is not as loathsome as an abusive one.
But it was emotionally tricky to handle such a caller.
Good things come when one enjoys their work.
Sharon was not jumping in joy when she narrated her story with us.
But it is not hard to detect the satisfaction and pride she derived from being in customer service.
The unmistakably subtle smile when her stories ended positively was evident of how much she enjoy her work.
Besides job satisfaction, she has grown personally.
She has learnt to emphasise with the customers without making judgements.
Her well-developed sense of timing lets her know when to speak and when to listen
The art of not taking criticism personally probably has saved her regular visits to the doctors.
Her new-found optimism enables her to smile even during the most horrid encounters with customers from hell.
Sharon explained the importance of smiling although the other party could not see.
The tone of the voice changed when you smile. I can sense it when the callers do that so the vice versa must be true.
Due to her positive attitude and exemplary performance, she had been promoted and now lead a team at the call centre.
We believe that she deserves nothing less.
Editor’s Concluding Notes
The first after-sales contact point of an insurance company is sometimes the call-centre staff, rather than the adviser.
And we usually call when we are having some kind of trouble.
You can rationalise that call centre CSOs are part of the company and are the rightful recipient of your carefully chosen harsh criticism.
But that is just the devil inside that is talking.
In any case, ranting angrily at the CSO does nothing for you.
It will only antagonise all parties further.
As I have experienced the highs and lows of a customer service personnel myself, Sharon’s story resonates strongly with me.
It is tiring to be clearing up the mess all the time.
On the other hand, a feeling of joy fills my soul whenever a great customer shows their appreciation for the extra effort that I have put in.
So remember, call centre staffs are human too.
They reciprocate when you show them basic respect.
Smile the next time you call into your insurance company.
You may just hear a smile on the other end of the line.
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