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Coping with phone fear in a call centre

Maria Larkin | 01.09.2004

Answering the telephone all day was a demanding new challenge for Maria Larkin. Despite leaving the job, she says she would do it all again.

A stammerer working in a call centre. How does this statement make you feel? Just seeing those words still makes me shudder and yet that is exactly what I did for nine months until very recently.

Much of the time I am relatively fluent but I do go through periods when my speech is very bad and feel I cannot string a sentence together. I see my stammer as a nuisance but not a disability, the absence of which might have made life easier.

Last year I responded to an advertisement for a large housing association in my local newspaper asking for customer services advisors (CSAs). At the interview, I thought I answered the questions sufficiently well, but stammered quite badly. When I pointed out that my stammer is not normally a problem, one of the interviewers assured me that this would not be held against me and said there was lots of other work involved, not just phone work. I found this reassurance quite hard to take in. However, I was pleased and surprised when I was invited on to their assessment centre day and felt I did much better in this part of the selection process.

I was offered a job and decided that it would be madness to turn it down. I had to go along and see what it was like. After all, I had been honest about my speech from the outset, so thought I had nothing to hide.

Before being let loose on the phones I spent several sessions listening in to calls with an already experienced CSA. It was a frontline service where the wide range of calls were screened and the CSAs were expected to deal with as much of the callers' request as possible before transferring them on.

Starting to take calls was daunting and just having to say the standard greeting: "Good morning/afternoon, Housing Association, Maria speaking", was bad enough but did get easier. In time, I found I was all right when calls were straightforward and I knew what I was doing, but could get quite flustered when callers were difficult and demanding or the IT system didn't do what I wanted it to do!

What did not get easier was having to speak on the phone all the time. Although no one had said to me anything like "You must not stammer in here", that is exactly how it felt. I felt it was not acceptable to stammer in the call centre environment. Consequently, I did my best to hide my stammer using all sorts of tricks. Of course, this approach did not always work and being overheard using the phone certainly did not help.

Early on in the job a couple of the managers had said to me that I was coming across as very unsure of myself. I explained that this could be because my stammer sometimes manifests itself as hesitation. I think they were puzzled, but I didn't expect them to understand and it wasn't something I wanted to keep repeating. As I got more competent at the job I was left to get on with the work.

I finally decided that I was finding working on the phone all the time, what with my speech the way it is, too difficult. The variety of work I had been led to believe I would get did not happen. I felt I was having to pretend to be someone I was not and this was making me feel exhausted and resentful at the end of the day. When I handed in my notice, management were quite understanding but reminded me that this is a call centre and admitted that there are never enough people to answer the telephones.

Right now it is pure relief not to have to answer a phone, but despite what I have written, I did enjoy my time working in a call centre and found it to be a worthwhile experience. Most of the people were nice, I learned lots of new skills, gained some confidence and had to face some of my demons - which is never a bad thing. It was certainly a challenge and, I think for me, an achievement. I would even do it all again.

From the Autumn 2004 edition of Speaking Out