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LISTENING BETWEEN THE LINES
Relational Labor, Productive Intimacy, and the Affective Contradictions of Call Center Work
June 2013. At ten minutes past eleven at night a small flashing icon near the top right corner of her computer screen told Diana Pilar — a twenty-three-year-old customer service representative for Premier Source's account with Air Anima — that a new call had been routed to her line. Having earlier removed her headset so that she could speak with me more freely, Diana now replaced it so she could take the call. I, too, donned a headset so that I could listen in, a process usually reserved for managers and trainees, and appropriately referred to as barging. As I did so, I noticed that the brightly colored knitted muffs covering the earpieces of Diana's headset were one of three personal items in the small blue cubicle where we were seated. The other items were a photograph of Diana's two younger brothers and an advertisement for a Coach purse torn out of a fashion magazine. Just before the new call came in, Diana had been explaining to me that with her earnings she was able to cover the tuition and living expenses for her brother Terry, who was studying computer science in college and would soon be applying for jobs at several call centers, including Premier Source. When I asked about the advertisement, Diana smiled and said that it lent her inspiration for her mother's upcoming Coach-themed birthday party, which Diana was organizing.
The new call — Diana's ninth since her shift started two hours earlier (a rare slow night on the floor) — did not come directly from an Anima customer but from another call center agent working for Navigate, the online travel agency through which the customer had booked her Anima flight. The Anima customer, a woman from Texas, had called Navigate to inform them that the sixty dollars she had previously paid in baggage fees to Air Anima had not been refunded or credited to her when she later changed her flight to a different time and day. The Navigate agent then explained to Diana that she was going to bring the customer onto the call. One click later, all three parties — the customer, the Navigate agent, and the Air Anima agent — were all virtually present, while I listened in the background.
On the right side of Diana's computer screen, a clock displayed the amount of time that had elapsed since the call's start; below it was an inbox containing an interoffice memo from Diana's team leader stating that the account's current average handling time for calls that shift had been six minutes but needed to be lower. From what I had already learned about how long even a simple exchange of information between agent and caller could take, I suspected that having not one but two people on the line would increase Diana's handling time on the call; indeed, Diana was left hanging while the Navigate agent and the customer exchanged more words. Finally, the Navigate agent — undoubtedly trying to manage her own handling time and service delivery — decided to return the sixty dollars to the customer but then informed her that her credit card would be charged the sixty-dollar baggage fee for the new, changed flight. The call reached an emotional tipping point as the caller shouted, "Fuck this, I'm canceling everything! I'm not giving anyone any more of my fucking money! I've been on the phone with you people for four hours! You are both complete idiots who should be fucking fired!" At that point, Diana calmly apologized to the customer but made clear that she could not assist her further and disengaged the call, just as her timer reached seven and a half minutes.
This window into Diana's work life reveals the kind of labor that customer and technical support call center agents in the Philippines do on a daily basis, as well as the way call center work fits within the larger context of workers' family lives, their consumer cultures, and transnational structures of power shaped by race, nation, and class. Diana's ability to support her family financially points to her earning power; her confidence and competency in communicating in English illustrate the cultural capital the job requires; and her exposure to and management of feelings — both her own and the customer's — demonstrate the intense emotional labor call center agents engage in as an inherent condition of the job. Moreover, Diana's ability to strategically maneuver through the demands of Air Anima, Premier Source's corporate client, and the immediate circumstances of the call, suggests the tedious mental labor the work entails. Afterward, Diana shared her logic and savvy with me by explaining that because the customer's problem originated with a Navigate agent's failure to transfer the baggage fee payment to the new flight (a mistake she could detect from the database she accessed during calls) she didn't want to use her call time to explain the problem to either party. She maintained that it wasn't in her interest to do so: the sixty-dollar fee was going to be paid to Air Anima no matter what, so instead of making herself a target of the caller's anger and spending more time on the call, Diana terminated it, saving her time and energy. "It was their fault," Diana proclaimed. "I don't want to save their ass or be the one to tell the customer what went wrong." When I asked Diana how she felt about the customer's shouting and cursing, she replied, "Sometimes customers, they get like that. I just tell myself to not take it personal [sic] and keep doing my job, keep being professional. That's already automatic for me, when I get to the production floor."
Diana's situation also reveals some of the contradictory experiences of labor, culture, and value embedded in call center work, and thus the kinds of tensions this book identifies and situates within the Philippine nation-state's postcolonial struggles to gain a foothold in the postindustrial knowledge economy. Although she did it well, Diana's job handling customer service for Air Anima reflects call center work's highly rationalized nature, in which back-office and customer-facing work is divided into relatively repeatable and routine tasks. As the call further demonstrates, call center jobs also require intense performative and emotional labor in a highly surveilled environment driven by a quality control system that measures nearly all aspects of workers' activity. Call center agents make airline reservations, troubleshoot wireless Internet devices, and check credit card statements, all while nervously aware of the ticking clock, their customer's mood, their supervisor's demands (for faster call resolutions, more sales, more pleasant service, etc.), and their own exhaustion. Not apparent from my observation of Diana, however, was the larger work culture in which Philippine call center labor takes place. Although Diana spoke to me about the stress involved in dealing with customers and clients, she also described her working environment as highly enjoyable, citing the many friends she made at work and opportunities they have to, in her words, "decompress from all the pressures we face on the floor." Even her mother's birthday party, she said excitedly, would be attended by many of her friends from work, including her team leader.
This chapter focuses on the subjective demands of the customer service labor process — especially its appropriation of emotional, affective, and relational labor — while detailing how these intangible performances are measured and evaluated by management. I also demonstrate that the rationalized relational labor of call center work is linked to a work culture that fosters positive social relations among coworkers. These relationships take shape through both the formal corporate culture and official management practices, such as coaching and developing people, as well as the informal intimacies that emerge between coworkers. Philippine call centers, I argue, create and maintain an internal realm of social reproduction that allows for the regeneration of relationality as the raw material of call center work. This renewal process is all the more important in Philippine call centers, where the imperative to work overnight dislodges workers from the normal socially reproductive rhythms of social and familial life. By analyzing the labor process and work culture in the same frame, this chapter brings into sharp relief the striking contrast between the often damaging physical and psychological repercussions of call center work, and its capacity for fun and camaraderie between coworkers. Rather than dismiss the social and pleasurable aspects of corporate work culture as merely another mode of workplace control, or assume its potential for unbridled radical solidarity — the two primary ways that aspects of the humane workplace have been framed in the past — I try to understand why Philippine call centers have this contradictory characteristic and how workers experience it. As I demonstrate below, such contradictions can be traced to the call center's hypervalorization of productivity and reliance on human relationships, which, in the Philippine context, enables the subsumption of Filipino modes of sociability and relational practice by capital while also enhancing the value such modes have for individual workers.
The Panopticon at Pyramid Processing
February 2009. The street outside my apartment building was dark and deserted at half past midnight. As I settled into the back seat of one of Metro Manila's ubiquitous white taxis, the driver lowered the sound of Billy Joel singing "Honesty" on the radio so I could direct him to our destination: Emerald Avenue. Just an eight-minute drive from where I lived in Makati — although it would easily eat up thirty minutes in regular daytime traffic — Emerald Avenue is home to dozens of call center companies and therefore the nocturnal beating heart of the commercial and business district known as Ortigas. As we approached Pyramid Processing, where I had been observing the production floor and interviewing workers for a few weeks, the slumbering city suddenly awakened with activity: young people walking briskly into and out of office building lobbies, or standing together in circles while the smoke from their cigarettes wafted upward into the amber light of street lamps. A string of convenience stores and small restaurants were open and ready to serve, hot dogs turning on metal trays in the window and energy drinks chilling on refrigerated shelves. All around Metro Manila — especially in thriving commercial zones like Libis and Bonifacio Global City — late-night scenes like this one were unfolding, as call center workers carried on yet another night of transnational service work.
Upon arriving at Pyramid's offices, I made the requisite stop at the guards' desk to register my name and the company I was visiting in a thick but meticulously organized logbook whose every entry displayed the flawless handwriting that many Filipinos are schooled in using. On this day, I was scheduled to meet Antonio, a Pyramid Processing quality assurance (QA) manager, who had agreed to walk me through an employee performance evaluation process. Behind me, employees quickly flashed identification badges at the guards and then made their way to the bay of elevators ahead of us. Moments later I joined the fray and waited patiently as people disembarked on various floors of the fifteen-story building.
When I arrived at one of the three floors Pyramid occupies, I checked in quickly with another guard; it would be another year or two before the company automated its security system, eliminating the need for these quiet armed men. As was always the case at that time of night, the large production floor was buzzing with energy, and the temperature was near frigid. Of the one hundred or so cubicles spread out before me, about two-thirds were occupied, with the remaining empty cubicles awaiting a batch of rookie agents who would be starting on a new account in the next two weeks. Directly in front of me, trainees were undergoing their first night of fully supervised calls — a stage of training referred to as nesting — on an account for a national car rental service in the United States, and the sound of their nervous discussions with neighbors and trainers charged the space around them. Meanwhile, team leaders on the other accounts paced along the rows, making themselves available when their agents had a question or when a call needed to be escalated because of a problem. With their restrained colors, plain office chairs, and desktop computers, agents' workstations seemed indistinguishable, yet above them hung colorful banners and other decorations, with a different theme or color scheme providing a visual outline of each account on the floor. Bright poster boards announced the mission and vision for various teams of agents, with imperatives and mottos like "Deliver Excellence!" and "Performance Is Power" that employees had written by hand in big block or bubbly letters. As I stepped to the side and looked for Antonio, a steady stream of agents began trickling onto the floor, their demeanors relaxed yet purposeful as they settled into an eight-hour shift.
Seconds later, I spotted Antonio standing at one of the workstations for managers, where he was talking to another employee about some papers he was holding, most likely a printout detailing how well the account was doing relative to the goals set by the corporate client during their last meeting. As soon as he finished the conversation, we walked to a small room near the back corner of the floor, where we would listen to a customer service call recorded from an Internet provider account and Antonio would train two junior QAmanagers to evaluate the call. This opportunity was significant because it promised a unique perspective on the two most talked-about things among my research participants: performing emotional and affective labor, and performing in general — that is, attempting to meet the various metrics established by management and corporate clients, including call handling time, first-call resolution, and customer satisfaction scores. Indeed, very few of my research participants could talk about their jobs without expressing great exasperation, and sometimes deep distress, over the panoptic surveillance to which they were subject and the tedium of responding calmly and empathically to callers' challenging questions or their demeaning comments. "The metrics," as workers ominously referred to them, could spell the difference between promotion and demotion and thus held great power over workers' everyday lives. "There would come a point," a Premier Source employee named Billie explained, "wherein you would go to sleep and dream about your scores."
The four of us — Antonio, the two junior QA managers (Damien and Megan), and I — squeezed together in the room where all the QA equipment was housed. After a minute or two, Antonio queued up a call by an agent named Elson, who had been with the account for a little over a year. Although Elson's call itself was chosen at random, his particular team was being evaluated at the request of the client company, a small provider of Internet service in New Zealand called Keen. In Keen's most recent meeting with Pyramid's account managers, they had shown concern over poor results on its customer service survey and wanted Pyramid to develop a plan to improve these scores. In telling us this information, Antonio also added that he had heard a rumor about Pyramid "shaking things up with their third-party providers" — meaning their call centers in the Philippines and elsewhere — as they were attempting to grow their base of broadband customers. Antonio wanted Pyramid to be on the right side of this shake-up, receiving more of Keen's business and not less, and therefore was eager to get the company the report it had requested.
Antonio handed me a clipboard and a copy of Pyramid's customer service evaluation tool, the Comprehensive Quality Assessment (CQA) survey, so I could follow along with their discussion. For the particular account Elson was working on, the CQA contained thirty-six questions about an agent's performance. Divided into subcategories, the questions ranged from how the agent handled the caller's private information, to how well they identified the problem the caller was having, to whether or not the agent paced the call according to "the customer's style and technical level of knowledge." Each question was given a numerical value, such as twenty or fifty points; however, twenty-one of the thirty-six questions only allowed agents to receive the full point value, zero points, or an "auto-fail" — meaning an automatic failure for a given subcategory of evaluation should the agent not perform correctly. Thus for much of the survey, there was little to no room for error if the agent wished to "pass the scorecard."
Excerpted from "A Nation On The Line"
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments ix
1. Listening Between the Lines: Relational Labor, Productive Intimacy, and the Affective Contradictions of Call Center Work 34
2. Contesting Skill and Value: Race, Gender, and Filipino/American Relatability in the Neoliberal Nation-State 63
3 Inside Vox Elite: Call Center Training and the Limits of Filipino/American Relatability 93
4. Service with a Style: Aesthetic Pleasures, Productive Youth, and the Politics of Consumption 131
5. Queering the Call Center: Sexual Politics, HIV/AIDS, and the Crisis of (Re)Production 157
What People are Saying About This
"Expansively imagined and theoretically rigorous, A Nation on the Line makes an important contribution to the study of globalization, transnationalism, and late neoliberal capitalism. It is sure to reset the research agenda in the anthropology of labor, Philippine studies, American studies, and beyond."
"A Nation on the Line provides a fascinating and provocative lens to view the central role of the Philippines in the call center industry. Jan M. Padios's ethnographic study illuminates the impact of outsourcing jobs from the United States on Filipino lives and Philippine national identity formations, exploring both the promise and precarity of this new type of labor for its workforce and our increasingly global economy."