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Column: Vodafone pair were idiots - but they don't need a kicking from us

Customer service is a tough job, writes Lisa McInerney, but what seemed to rile people most about the disrespectful Vodafone reps was they didn’t count their blessings for having a job. Is that fair?

Because jobs are so scarce now, do we think that anyone who makes a mistake or criticises their employer doesn't deserve to be in one?
Because jobs are so scarce now, do we think that anyone who makes a mistake or criticises their employer doesn't deserve to be in one?
Image: Todd via Flickr/Creative Commons

AS SOMEONE WHO’S put long and arduous hours into various customer-facing roles over the course of what felt like many, many lifetimes, I’m of the strident opinion that the Hold button was the greatest workplace innovation since cash-and-carry coffee.

Working in a customer-facing role can be a joy, especially if you’re the kind of person who gets a kick from helping others. The potential for workplace satisfaction is huge, and much more immediate than in a back-end role where you don’t have direct contact with clients. But, like my healthy-eating regime, a rep’s workday can careen down a dark and shameful spiral at a moment’s notice.

One minute you’re troubleshooting for a pleasant, patient client. The next, you’re dealing with Beelzebub’s persecution complex, and getting your ears gnawed for recounting a policy you didn’t write, for a firm you have no control over. The Hold button becomes a blessed time-out, an opportunity to consign your latest wrathful bugaboo to limbo for a few moments so you can … well, mutter threats and poisonous oaths into a deadline.

Nothing personal, of course. So many customer service representatives do it. They abuse the Hold button. They make faces behind difficult clients’ backs. They insult patrons’ fashion sense under their breath. The angry client never realises his assigned rep is calling myriad inconvenient itches down upon him, and the customer service rep keeps her sanity to fight another day. Such is life. When we’re stressed, we all say nasty things we don’t mean. We let off steam.

“Sometimes customer service reps act like complete asses

I assume that such valve-loosening was the driving force behind the behaviour of the two Vodafone service reps who got scalded last week. Whilst serving in the shop, they used their PC to type sly messages to one another, complaining about their customers. The notes were offensive, immature, and very badly punctuated. I can condone none of these faults, but I can understand the first two. For you see, sometimes customer service reps act like complete asses.

“This c*** is wrecking my buzz I am seriously gona b*tchslap her face into that galaxy 2,” says the first customer service rep of the woman standing oblivious at the counter. “What an awful looking huuuuure.” Oh dear. I know a Tallafornia reference when I see one.

“Mine too I need a cup of tea!!!!! And a smoke and some heroin,” replies the second, who at least has his relaxants in the right order of priority.

One of them then took a photograph of the naughty memo, and, in an act of wanton stupidity, posted it to Facebook, where it was picked up by a friend-of-a-friend and made public on Twitter. Vodafone were quick to step in and vow that appropriate disciplinary measures would be taken, and the two staff members were identified and suspended. But not before the photograph went viral, with net denizens condemning the staffers’ vile language, arrogance and contempt for their customers.

Vodafone released a statement assuring customers of their “zero-tolerance approach to any behaviour that is outside of Vodafone’s rigorous code of conduct,” but even taking into account the company’s reaction time, the debacle proved that the “No such thing as bad publicity” mantra is nothing but optimistic twaddle (3 Mobile, on the other hand, successfully seized the opportunity to get one over on their competitors, quickly
releasing a staged photograph in which employees were “caught out” using their PC screen to compliment their customers).

“A childish exchange between two frustrated employees that was never meant to slip outside their social circle”

So far, so by-the-book. The staffers in question dragged Vodafone’s name through the mud, and they certainly weren’t hired to do that. But is suspension (and, we can assume, dismissal) really an appropriate reaction to the kind of furtive whinging workers in customer service roles compulsively engage in?

Trivial, sporadic stupidity isn’t good reason to dismiss an employee, and that jobs are scarce in Ireland right now only makes me wince harder for the pair of eejits in question. A childish exchange between two frustrated employees that was never meant to slip outside their social circle is a really gut-wrenching reason to end up on the dole queue.

Conversely, this is exactly what irritated people about the Vodafone fiasco: jobs are scarce, and therefore sacred, and employees need to count their blessings, or vacate the role for someone who will truly appreciate it.

That’s understandable too. Watching someone muck up an opportunity that’s been denied to you is maddening. But the reaction to the Vodafone “jokers” skirted uncomfortably close to hysteria, and it was worrying that people were so quick to revile the presumably low-level workers, and criticise their attitude to their jobs as if it were a gift they were throwing back in their employers’ faces.

Is Vodafone now going to conduct an analysis of employment conditions and staff morale? Will questions be asked about appropriate training, about the clarity of the company’s code of conduct? Maybe, but I doubt it. The stance was that the staffers in question had gone rogue.

“Employment conditions suffer during recession… surely that is deserving of our empathy?”

The middle of an economic recession is not a good time to be out of work. The harsh reality is that in some cases, it’s not a good time to be employed, either. Staff of larger corporations, corporations you would assume would ride out the downturn more easily than smaller businesses, complain that employment conditions suffer during recession, which, yes, is logical, but surely it is also deserving of our empathy? Redundancies mean staff work longer hours to cover the duties of former colleagues. Add pay cuts, and you have a workforce that is spending more time in the office without the motivation of reward they would once have been entitled to. Morale will suffer; how could it not?

Vodafone, who have recently come under fire for moving 300 jobs to the Newry office of a French telecommunications company, may not seem like the most secure or attractive company to work for right now. Engaging in a nonsensical customer-bashing word game may not be the most productive way to express professional dissatisfaction, but nor is it worthy of nationwide condemnation.

Irish people tend to be respectful of opportunity, reverential about employment and reticent about reward, all of which can be noble traits. Where this lets us down is in our attitude towards others’ professional conduct.

In the most depressing scenarios, it can mean lack of support for striking professions, and a counter-productive chasm between public and private sector workers. In the silliest cases, it involves snarling at a couple of nobodies trying to make each other laugh in a Vodafone shop.

Sometimes, workers are disrespectful idiots who abuse the Hold button. Sometimes, they’re caught out and they lose their jobs. Let’s not revel in it.

Read previous columns by Lisa McInerney>

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