The Firing Room

I had been working for The Company for over eighteen months. I had fallen into the job as something to do after leaving the Stats Office, The Company provided Directory Enquiries services to a number of other companies, most of which no longer exist or are totally different. Telewest. Cellnet. People rang up, asked for a number, I found it and either read it out or asked if they wanted to be connected “at only 49 pence per minute”. Of course they didn’t, they were paying through the nose to get the number in the first place, but I had to ask the question on every call and I was targeted to transfer a certain number of calls – what was I supposed to do, persuade them with my voice? Stupid targets… But I liked the job, the teams I worked with were good, I didn’t have to think too much about it, I certainly didn’t think about work outside of the office.

These were the early days of deregulation of Directory Enquiries, the end of BT’s monopoly, the end of 192, the start of 118 numbers. Of course 118118 were first on the market, had a catchy name – sorry – number and two bearded runners in their adverts, and cornered the market. BT were a little late but got going eventually. The Company had their own catchy number and the entire company were ferried to a room in Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium for the grand launch of our advertising campaign. It looked good, the graphics were great, the tune was memorable, as was the tag line. The only problem was that the advert compared “our” price to BT’s price. Knowing a little bit about advertising and law, I knew you could not compare prices on British TV adverts (at the time anyway, it’s changed now). I told our managing director this and he brushed it aside. “Let them sue us, we’ll be well established by then.”

The Company launched their service with a huge fanfare in August 2003, the ads were on the TV and radio, print ads in the papers, people dressed up as the numbers, lots of publicity. Personally I had customers ringing up just to ask me to sing our jingle. Our managers had told us to expect this and said we could do it – “They’re paying for it, sing the song”. A load of new starters were recruited to take the anticipated hordes of incoming calls and a few long standing regulars were promoted, including myself. I was taken off the phones and moved to the Quality department who assessed the quality of our call handlers, were they knowledgeable, friendly, following procedure and scripting and most importantly was the customer getting the right number? We could record calls to listen back to them and also use some clever software where we could view what was on the operator’s screen while listening in to live calls, so we could see how they were using the search engine to obtain numbers. Yes it was spying. Yes it was fun. There were rules and regulations that call handlers had to adhere to and it was our job in Quality to make sure they followed them. Sometimes the rules could cause a few hiccups though. One rule stated that whatever the customer said was how it was searched. Let me give you an example of how this worked against everyone, this was an actual call that I watched and marked.

Caller: I’d like the Chanel clothes shop in Bond Street, London please
Handler: (being Welsh, has clearly never heard of Chanel) How do you spell Chanel, please?
Caller: Oh I don’t know.. C – H – A – N – N – E – L
Handler : thank you (types in spelling as provided by caller, searches on London, including Bond Street, sees nothing). Sorry there’s nothing listed on Bond Street, I’ll extend the search over London
Caller: Ok, it might not be Bond Street
Handler: I’ve got a Chanel clothing store in Fulham, on Fulham Broadway
Caller: Chanel isn’t on Fulham Broadway!
Handler: This is the only Chanel clothing listed for London, do you want this number?
Caller: (clearly exasperated) yes, but I know it’s not right

And so on. But I had to mark this call as correct because we only take information provided by the caller, he spelt Chanel as Channel, he gets the number for Channel Clothing in Fulham. Of course most sensible call handlers would have said “Oh, I think the spelling is wrong, let me try it with one N…” Sigh.

So there was about eight of us in the Quality Assessment department all working in a corner of the open plan office, with our manager Faye encouraging us to do our best. She was lovely, a bright young thing obviously heading for better things than The Company could offer her. But she had good people skills, got on well with senior management and frequently wangled us time out – like one sticky hot sunny Summer’s day when the air conditioning broke down, so she sent all the QA team across Cardiff to Iceland where we bought every ice lolly we could carry then ferried them back to the office where we then distributed them across all three floors used by The Company.

That Summer was fantastic, the Company was going from strength to strength, the call volumes were increasing all the time, more staff were recruited and everyone was happy. Then BT sued at the end of September and had the advert taken off the air. The Company insisted that the campaign was over anyway. No worries, we were told, we have a follow up which is even better. It was shown on a loop on a TV in our break room and the whispers on  the call centre floor were that it was dreadful. When I saw it I was horrified – the three characters from the first advert were on a stage singing our number to the football chant “Here we go! Here we go! Here we go!” It was shown a few times on TV then removed, and later that year won an award as The Worst Advert Of The Year.

By October the portents were bad. The call volumes had dropped, it was getting harder to find a time to catch the call handlers taking calls as they were so few and far between. The golden days were over. The first rule of Directory Enquires was being learnt – as soon as you stop advertising, customers forget you exist. (Jumping ahead, I would learn this at both Yell – 118247 – and BT – 118500 – who both employed me and many other agency staff during advertising campaigns, then let go all the agency staff once the campaign stopped and call volumes dropped). The whispers on the call centre floor were of cutting back and everyone waited for the day.

It happened on the 3rd November. It was a Monday and as is the way of Mondays it was new release day for records, and quite a big was the day that “Slow” was released. This was Kylie Minogue’s first new material since 2001’s “Fever” LP, which only had songs like “Can’t get you out of my head” and “Love at first sight” and “In your eyes” and “Come into my world”. So we’re talking pretty much imperial phase. And “Slow” was much anticipated yet I hadn’t heard it until that Monday when Faye turned up late smiling with the new Kylie single on CD, “Look what I’ve got!” And proceeds to put the CD in her computer and starts playing it to the office.

“Slow” is slinky, minimal, synthetic and quite lovely. Kylie sighs and coos, nothing breaks into much of a sweat, it sounds like the kind of electropop I used to listen to as a teenager, only with a 21st Century sheen. Was this electroclash? Maybe, i wasn’t taking much notice. Highly syncopated, lots of little sequences all playing against each other, drops of reverb and delay, even the way it drops down for a non-existent middle eight reminded me of “Pocket Calculator”. If the song had an antecedent it would be the minimal electro of “Junk the morgue” by St Etienne, which has a similar sound set and tempo. But “Slow” is sexier too and is defiantly 21st Century. That long sustained bass note wouldn’t have happened in the nineties. And is Kylie swearing? The way she sings “Pull focus” in the first verse – cheeky. “Keep the record playin'” she urges coyly, and Faye did.

So “Slow” is playing over and over in the Quality office and seeping into the teams’ world. Then from 10 o’clock staff start appearing in groups of ten, then disappear into an adjacent room, then leave the room after five minutes looking glum. This carries on every quarter of an hour – a dozen employees go into the room, a dozen employees leave the room looking glum. It soon becomes clear they are glum because they are now ex-employees. The call centre whispers start again – who is going, why so many going, when will it stop, who will be next?

By 2pm the company has lost a third of its employees, a black cloud hung over the three floors of the building we used, one of which was now almost completely empty. Everyone was taken off the phones and an emergency meeting was held in a cramped break room, the management made assurances that all our jobs were safe, that we would be a more efficient company without the deadweight (nice!) and we would be back on top in the Directory Enquiries war very soon. Now get back to work and do us proud. There’s nothing like sacking a third of the workforce to concentrate the minds of those remaining. The black cloud remained hung over The Company, and it never recovered.

The journey home from Cardiff to Newport that night was soundtracked by “Goodbye California”, the debut mini album by East River Pipe, issued by Sarah Records in 1993. I had picked the cd at random from my collection that morning, not even thinking about what the day may bring, just thinking that the 28 minute length was perfect for the walk to the station, the train and the walk home. But as I plugged the headphones into the Discman and pressed play, the opener struck an chord. I had owned this record since the day it was issued but never really understood the first song called “The Firing Room”. Over a light drum machine beat, guitars spark and chime, but there is tension in the chord changes and bass part…F.M. Cornog (for he is East River Pipe) sings “I don’t want to tell you, I don’t want to tell you right now…” Something is afoot, the change on “right now” is uncomfortable. “I’ll go soon to your firing room”… Ouch!. The music hushes as multiple Cornogs whisper “I think we’re up for sale”, like the whispers on the call centre floor that day. As the song progresses the guitars get more agitated and louder, Cornog singing the same lines over and over in a more desperate higher register, and the music falls apart at the end, like The Company. For all I know Cornog could be extending a metaphor of a failing relationship as a company going bust, it may be that way. But on that day when The Firing Room was next to where I was sat, trying to work, it felt uncomfortably close to the truth.

Since that day, the song – in fact both songs – remind me of the mass culling of staff. It’s odd how “Slow” doesn’t get played much these days, even though Kylie herself claims it is one of her favourites, and did a nice version on her “Abbey Road” album, and has performed it live. Maybe it’s the lack of “la la la”s. As for “The Firing Room”, well FM Cornog is still out there, still making records which are as wonderful as the ones he issued on Sarah Records all those years ago. As for The Company, they are still going, they gave up Directory Enquiries in 2004, sold their number to 118118 and are just another outsourced call centre now, handling all kinds of calls. Faye left The Company for Aviva around the same time the Quality team was shrunk from ten to three members at the end of 2003, and she is now some kind of management guru according to her website and LinkedIn profile. Good for her.

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