Sweating Out the Orders
(hennhaus: Hard Baud)

(Originally published January 9, 1997)

Sweating Out the Orders

“Mffphello?”

The woman I’d awakened at home was a complete stranger. It was 3:00 am or so, but I had called a ’24-hour order line’ expecting to reach someone on night-shift in a cheerless ‘phone room.’ I had reason for this assumption; I’d worked in a phone room in Toronto — I’ll get to that shortly.

She typed the order into her computer, apparently situated near her bedside. After I’d hung up, she verified my credit card’s validity and then called me back — still half-asleep — with the total cost. She’d sent the order by modem and all was well: my grandmother would get her birthday flowers, and the order-taker would be paid a set per-order sum. I found out recently that a fast food company I’d worked for had switched to a similar method of order-taking — a method far different from the electronic sweatshop I’d experienced.

The phone room was fully computerized. We sat wearing telephone headsets in front of our terminals, processing up to 300 orders each on busy nights. Customer calls announced themselves as a ‘beep’ in our ears. Speed was of the essence; every call was timed from beep to disconnection.

We were trained to ask specific questions of the customer at various points in the order. Only after phone number and address information was entered or checked, for instance, would the software permit the actual food order to be typed in . . . a problem if the first thing a customer iterated after our greeting was a litany of ingredients for their pizza-to-be.

Assuming the ritual was followed by both ends of the conversation, the order itself could drag on. Customers who wanted to chat. Customers who weren’t certain what they wanted to order. Customers who had difficulty with English. Customers who were well and truly plastered. Typing speed was irrelevant, then, and the clock was ticking.

Once the order was completed, it was verified by someone else — if deemed necessary — and then sent by modem to the franchise closest to the caller.

We were rated by the number of orders we had taken during a shift. If that number was below quota — the room average that shift– warnings or reprimands were given; if above, incentives applied. Breaks were timed to the second, and orders that took too long to deal with required explanation. Our previous shift’s performance ratings were posted at shift’s start — evidence of warnings to come, or of impending dismissals.

Through it all, Big Brother was listening. Management could listen in even if we weren’t taking orders: The period between disconnection of one caller and notification of the next required that the headsets — with their microphones — be worn, otherwise the next customer’s ‘beep’ would be missed.

It was the late 1980s, and I was a phone room denizen for perhaps seven months before I quit to preserve what sanity I possessed. In truth, I don’t know if the electronic cottage industry method of order-taking is necessarily better; hopefully phone room frenzy and paranoia haven’t just been transferred to the home.

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Copyright © 1997, 2006 by John Rudzinski. Note the date the column was originally published; any links contained therein are probably outdated.
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Related reading:
The Electronic Sweatshop: How Computers are Transforming the Office of the Future Winning with the Caller from Hell: A Survival Guide for Doing Business on the Telephone (Winning with the . . . from Hell series)