Last on MOTD: The new Captain Smith

DID I ever tell you that I once spent three months working in a call centre where I was compared to the captain of the Titanic on an almost daily basis? (This is a rhetorical question, as I’m going to tell you about it regardless.)

It’s probably best I don’t name the call centre, or the town, or even the country. (It was somewhere on Earth. Even there, I think I’ve said too much.) This call centre took orders and dealt with enquiries for a mail order company that sold the most incredible tat you could possibly imagine: Shoe trees, musical mugs, Boyzone annuals. Oh, and the video/DVD of Titanic. This was the autumn of 1998, and everyone in the country was buying that damn movie. (Not all of them just to make sure Leonardo di Caprio drowned, either.)

The company even sold mildly pornographic alphabetti spaghetti, a product I have seen nowhere else before or since. If your imagination is failing you, it was spaghetti spelling out the word ‘boobs’, or in the shape of a penis, that sort of thing. I think we did a chocolate selection box along similar lines. Whenever people rang up to order either, they almost always followed up by saying: “It’s not for me.” But it was.

I don’t know how call centres work now, but 14 years ago, they had a good old go at stripping their employees of any dignity they might have walked in with. I didn’t have a telephone, as such. Instead, I was clamped to a headset and the calls just flowed into my ears.

At least I was spared the humiliation of cold calling. I worked on the enquiry line, and so only had to deal with incoming calls from customers, many of them furious, deranged, or both. I couldn’t always blame them. For reasons best known to senior management, the courier firm we used to deliver goods was owned by our main rivals.

The fact that a lot of parcels seemed to go missing in transit, or turn up at the wrong address, was probably a coincidence. But when you’ve just had your fourth caller of the day telling you that you’ve ruined their Christmas because their shoe tree has gone AWOL, you’re willing to entertain all sorts of conspiracy theories.

There was a lot of pressure to deal with callers quickly. At one end of the office was an LED-lit red dot matrix scoreboard, which tallied up all the calls taken and missed. If we started missing too many calls, the office supervisors would walk round and metaphorically crack the whip.

It was easy to miss calls, particularly as we were dealing with the busy build-up to the festive season. And the admin could hold you up, too. When I’d finished dealing with a customer, I had to do something called ‘wrap up’, which consisted of logging the call on our computer system using a complex system of acronyms. (As a result, the log always looked like a large scale version of the Countdown conundrum.)

While I did this, I could press a ‘wrap up’ button on my key pad, which temporarily stopped calls coming into me. However, my key pad was linked up to a central computer being watched by a supervisor in the middle of the office – so if I took too long to log a call, he or she would find another reason to get grumpy.

Oh, and if you wanted to take your half-an-hour lunch break, your 10-minute afternoon tea-break or even go to the toilet, you had to press another button on the key pad to stop calls. All of those breaks were timed, too. On many an occasion, I had a conversation with a colleague in the tiny canteen near my desk interrupted when a supervisor wandered in to say: “Your break’s supposed to be 10 minutes. You’ve been out for 13.”

In a job where every day was weird, some days were weirder than others. Despite the fact that we were working for an enquiry line that cost 50p a minute to call, we would sometimes get the lonely ringing up just for a chat.

One morning, an elderly chap phoned with a spurious query about a tin of Quality Street that he had ordered but claimed not to remember receiving. I had to leave my desk to check his order number on a computer elsewhere in the office. When I returned, all I could hear was loud groaning on the other end of the phone.

“Hello?” I said. He continued groaning. I tried again. “Hello? Hello?” After a few seconds, the man went quiet. I could hear a television or a radio in the background. I called my supervisor over.

Because the caller had registered his name and address when he started shopping with us, I had his details – including his home phone number – on my screen. The supervisor called the police, and told me to stay on the line in case the elderly chap returned. We feared the worst.

After about 20 minutes, the groaning started again, faintly at first, then getting louder and louder.

“Oh God,” the caller finally bellowed into the phone.

“Are you all right?” I asked. “I thought you were having a heart attack.”

“I wish I had,” he said. “At least I’d have been a goner then. This was far worse.”

“Oh?”

“I’ve got terrible gangrene in my leg. I have these pain attacks, and they’re absolutely unbearable.”

“OK. Well, just to let you know; we were a bit concerned about you, so we’ve called the police out to pop round and check you’re all right.”

I kept him talking until the police arrived a few moments later. My colleagues, sympathetic to the last, were practically rolling on the floor with laughter.

In such miserable working conditions, a sense of gallows humour developed. The customers didn’t always escape. Many of our callers were agents – that is, they bought our tat at a reduced price, sold it on at full value and kept the difference, making themselves a bit of cash. If they had an agent number, they had to give it to us when they called. We typed it into the system and it brought up their name. If they had a particularly funny surname, we would jot down the number, pass it round the desk and challenge each other to type it in and not laugh. Mr Bumpass, Mrs Wanklyn and Mrs Crotch had us all in hysterics, and they never knew.

Some of us were better at dealing with customers than others. One guy, who had been in the navy at some point and was used to telling it as it was, would give callers a mouthful if they started getting stroppy. A few times, he cut them off.

I took more of a softly-softly approach. I’d reassure callers, telling them that they would receive their Titanic DVD and their porno alphabetti spaghetti in plenty of time to enjoy on Christmas Day, even when all evidence suggested it had no chance of getting there.

Navy Guy, sitting opposite me, couldn’t help but smile. “You keep saying everything’s fine, you,” he laughed. “You’re like Captain Smith on the Titanic.”

After a while, he stopped calling me Mike. “Morning, Cap’n Smith,” he said. “How’s life on the Titanic today?”

“Everything’s fine,” I always replied. Somehow, we both made it through to Christmas before quitting. I got some work on a local newspaper. With any luck, he’s now enjoying life on the high seas again.

Captain Smith, as I’m sure you’re all aware, was born in Stoke-on-Trent.

Last on MOTD: Blackburn 1 Stoke 2
Commentator: Guy Mowbray

But when I think of the Titanic’s doomed skipper these days, I think of Steve Kean. Blackburn’s manager has often tackled post-match interviews in the same way that I used to tackle angry callers – looking to stay positive even when the world is caving in. Kean has insisted that the fans calling for his exit do not represent the majority view, that Rovers are playing well and that things will improve. Meanwhile, the iceberg drifts closer.

Kean appears to have been on the verge of the sack almost from the day he took the job, having turned a mid-table Blackburn side into relegation fodder and having lost eight out of 10 home league games this season.

Yet something strange has happened over the last few weeks. While Blackburn fans continue to see Kean as little more than a mouthpiece for the calamitous Venky’s regime, the fact that he has clung on, almost (but not quite) without complaint, has started to win over sections of the press.

The turning point seems to have come when the Lancashire Telegraph published a front-page editorial a fortnight ago telling Kean to leave the club. Kean then turned up at a press conference a few days later with his young son in tow, took all the flak in a decent spirit and began to garner a degree of sympathy. Words such as “dignified” and “determined” began to replace phrases such as “tactically inept” and “odds on to be the first Premier League manager to lose his job this season” in national media articles on Kean.

A unlikely draw at Anfield and an even unlikelier win at Old Trafford helped, but it was still all a little bemusing. It was almost as if the national sports media’s opinion formers thought: “Well, I know we’ve been banging on for months about Kean being a laughing stock, but it’s a bit rich for the local paper to start doing it. Show the guy some respect, for goodness sake.”

Kean could point to a degree of misfortune in yesterday’s home defeat against Stoke. At 0-0, Christopher Samba headed against the bar, then had a goal ruled out – wrongly, in my view – for an apparent foul by Yakubu on Thomas Sorensen.

The problem is that Blackburn have not kept a single clean sheet all season. Peter Crouch scored twice for Stoke, and could have had a hat-trick before David Goodwillie scrambled in a goal for Rovers. Kean’s afternoon was summed up when Morst Gamst Pedersen accidentally slid into him on the touchline and sent him flying. (As Kate Winslet might have put it: “I’m flying, Jack!”) The home fans cheered.

“We’re kicking ourselves because we feel it is a big missed opportunity,” Kean said afterwards. There have been too many of those this season – losing at home to Everton after missing two penalties, chucking away a two-goal lead late on to draw at Norwich, chucking away a one-goal lead even later to lose at Sunderland, going down to an 89th-minute goal against West Brom.

Kean’s heart will go on. But it does look as if the ship has been holed below the water line. The whole sorry tale would make a decent movie, though.

Gubbometer 2011/12

1. Fulham: 5 (2L: 1, 3L: 2)
2. Aston Villa: 4 (2L: 3, 3L: 3)
3. QPR: 4 (2L: 1, 3L: 1)
4. West Brom: 3 (2L: 4, 3L: 2)
5. Swansea: 3 (2L: 3, 3L: 4)
6. Norwich: 3 (2L: 3, 3L: 1)
7: Wolves: 3 (2L: 2, 3L: 4)
8. Sunderland: 3 (2L: 2, 3L: 0)
9. Wigan: 2 (2L: 5, 3L: 4)
10. Blackburn: 2 (2L: 2, 3L: 3)
11. Stoke: 2 (2L: 1, 3L: 3)
12: Liverpool: 2 (2L: 1, 3L: 2)
13. Newcastle: 2 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
14. Bolton: 1 (2L: 3, 3L: 4)
15. Tottenham: 1 (2L: 1, 3L: 0)
16. Everton: 0 (2L: 4, 3L: 4)
17. Arsenal: 0 (2L: 2, 3L: 1)
18. Manchester United: 0 (2L: 1, 3L: 0)
19. Chelsea: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 3)
20. Manchester City: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)

2L = On second last (QPR 1 Norwich 2)
3L = On third last (Aston Villa 0 Swansea 2)

(Teams receive one point every time they are last on MOTD. Teams level are separated by the number of times they are on second last, then by the number of times they are on third last. MOTD2 not included.)

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