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BusinessMay 7, 2020

The dehumanising reality of working in customer service during a pandemic

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Working in customer service has never been easy, but now it’s pushing workers to the brink. Emily Writes talks to those on the other side of online shopping.

Katie* has cried every day for the last few weeks. It’s a good day if she can make it to the end of the day before she cries, she says. She works in customer service for a small retailer. Every day she wakes to hundreds of angry messages and every night she goes to bed with hundreds of angry messages in her head.

She’s one of the many customer service workers who are struggling through the lockdown as online shopping becomes the new national pastime.

“Pretty much every day I hit a wall,” she says. She’s tearing up on the phone to me because she’s exhausted after another extraordinarily long day. “It just feels never-ending. This is my job but this feels like it isn’t what I signed up for. It’s never been like this. Ever”.

The retailer she works for, like many, has broken sales records over the last month, with far more orders than their usual peak period of Christmas. There are delays at every junction due to social distancing, running fewer staff and the courier system being overloaded. Katie says none of this seems to matter to most of the people who contact her.

“I feel like people just don’t care about the person they’re contacting. They’ve got nothing else to do except shop online and they want everything straight away.”

The work is relentless she says. The calls and emails come at all hours.

“My heart sinks every time the phone rings. Quite often you don’t have an answer for them. When will it arrive? I don’t know. They never read anything you put on the website or in an email explaining delays. They just think, I’ll just call. And I have 200 plus emails every day to answer while I tell them things they can easily read on their orders.

“They also don’t understand that we don’t work 24 hours a day. They email at one or two in the morning. And then they’re furious when you don’t answer them immediately.”

“Dehumanising” is how she describes it. “I would never speak to someone the way these people speak to me. You’re hearing my voice? How can you talk to me like this when I’m just trying to help you? It’s so hard to understand how they can do that.”

Sometimes people are nice and that makes Katie cry too, but then “there’s the other ones who treat you like nothing you do will ever be good enough. It’s funny because when I’m sitting at home, I see their address and they’re so close. We’re neighbours almost and you’re throwing abuse at me for no other reason than you’re bored at home and your package hasn’t arrived fast enough.”

Each night after work she goes straight to bed. “I just lie down in bed as soon as I log off. I’m exhausted. I feel like a big dark raincloud over the house. I think about going into the office part-time to have some distinction between work and home, but I can’t cry in the office.”

An online purchase can take mere seconds – but delivering goods during Covid-19 can take longer than customers expect (Photo: Getty)

Katie’s experience resonates with Sam, who works for a small retail business in the South Island. The retailer is seven days behind due to the sheer volume of orders and Covid-19.

Sam is grateful for New Zealanders supporting small businesses, but says customers need to grant them their patience too.

“We’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got. And we’re doing it with minimal staff and while following health and safety regulations. I’m the only person doing all of the customer enquiries online. The shop staff are inundated with phone calls as well. This includes social media, website contact forms, and emails. We’re getting on average 50 enquiries a day,” Sam says.

“People can’t expect the same order updates as they would usually get from major stores. Most small businesses are working with a handful of people who would rather just process your order than send you an email every time your order hits a new status.

“I want people to keep supporting local. But I also want them to be kind.”

New Zealand Post has said it’s seen significant increases in parcel volumes since New Zealand went to alert level three. It is now delivering “similar volumes to the lead up to the Christmas period”, according to its website. Despite this, it says last week over 90% of parcels were delivered within two days.

But that means up to 10% were not. And most warehouses where products are picked and packaged are facing delays too. While most people would just accept that it’s a pandemic and deliveries will be delayed, according to Jean, many don’t.

Jean works in a small New Zealand retailer doing customer service, a role that was previously part-time.

“I haven’t stopped working. I’m doing 60 hour weeks. Nobody cares that there is a pandemic – they say ‘We’re all in this together’ and then they abuse me because they didn’t get overnight delivery despite the fact that they didn’t pay for overnight delivery and they can’t get overnight delivery simply because we’re in a pandemic.”

As with Sam and Katie, what Jean’s store sells isn’t by any means essential. None of those interviewed for this piece work for retailers selling food or medical supplies.

“But still, they want it yesterday,” says Jean. “And nothing you say matters. You try to explain that everyone has to package products while two metres apart, in shifts that don’t overlap. And we were delayed because we couldn’t come into work. They’ll say they don’t care if you get Covid-19 packing their new jumper. They just want it.”

In its latest update, New Zealand Post said it expects the increase in volume “to last until we are back in a more normal retail environment when stores begin to open again”. With few businesses able to hire more people to cover the load, Katie has a suggestion to help make things more bearable for those on the front lines.

“I just wish people would just remember we’re human. I think everyone should work customer service at some point in their lives, hospitality or retail or any service industry, just to understand. It’s like that quote, you can’t demand a service while simultaneously degrading those who provide it for you.”

* All names have been changed

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