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CXO

Counsel the screamers to turn down the volume

To paraphrase the Peter Finch character in the 1976 movie "Network," I'm mad as heck, and I'm not going to take it any more.

Growing up in a small town in Indiana, my mom attempted to instill in my siblings and me the now old-fashioned notion of manners.  Don't chew your food with your mouth open, hold the door open for a lady, don't interrupt someone while they're talking, things like that.  One of the lessons I learned was when it's permissible to shout or scream.  When you're at a ball game and your team scores (or fails to score), you can scream.  When someone's about to get run over by a car or there's a fire in the building, you can shout out a warning and maybe save a life.

You're not supposed to scream into a business phone when you're in the middle of an office, yet that's just what some help desk analysts do, and I'm sick and tired of it. 

In "Put a lid on loudmouths in the call center," a column I wrote for TechRepublic in 2003, I suggested that help desk managers call their own help desk lines and see, just for kicks, if they could actually hear what the analyst was saying.  My rant then was that there's just too much background noise in some call centers emanating from the "class clown." That's the person who can't shut up, is always joking and interrupting others and trying to be the center of attention. The class clown is one thing, but a person who screams into the phone is quite another.

Call it lack of awareness, a personality disorder, or time to get a hearing aid

Two years ago I was consulting for a company that had a separate help desk / call center for each of its major applications.  One group supported SAP, another supported a vertical-market recordkeeping application, and another group answered calls regarding issues with the company network and hardware.  I sat for a time with each of the groups.

In one group, there was an analyst who had been with the company for years and was extremely skilled in troubleshooting and problem resolution.  The problem was that he was so loud when he talked on the phone, he interrupted the team of programmers that worked two aisles over!  You didn't hear his voice when he was chatting with his coworkers between calls. But as soon as he picked up a phone, he turned the volume on his vocal cords up to maximum.  It was as if he thought he was talking into a tin can and felt he had to scream in order to get his message across the string to the other can.

It didn't help matters that he had a strong southern drawl to boot.  if he answered a call from a regular customer, he'd scream, "Well he-llooooooooooo darlin'! How are eee-yooooo???"  It was obnoxious.  People in two to three aisles in either direction of this person's cube tried to tune him out by wearing headphones and playing music, but this guy's un-mic'd voice could fill an auditorium.

One day I witnessed a confrontation between one of the programmers and this loud analyst. The programmer asked the guy, "Could you please try not to talk quite so loudly when you answer the phone? Your voice is really loud and it's distracting."

The analyst replied, in his loud phone voice, "Well Ah'm sorry but Ah can't help the way Ah talk!"

It was on. 

The programmer huffed back to his desk and knocked out a scathing email to his manager, saying that if something couldn't be done about the screamer, the programmer would not be able to do his job.  The programming manager talked to the help desk manager, and, to make a long story short, they eventually moved that help desk team to a different corner in the building.

I never found out whether the analyst had been counseled about his overly-loud phone voice, but the programmers felt like they had won the battle.  They got to stay where they were, and the help desk team had to pack up and move, all because one of their own was so loud that people around him literally could not do their jobs. 

Recently I took a contract assignment working with a team of programmers and tech suport analysts to document policies, procedures, and business rules for an enterprise application.  There's a screamer in this group, too, and his behavior affects everyone trying to work in cubicles all around him.  He has one of those cell phones with an extremely loud musical ring, and it goes off five or six times a day.  When he talks to a friend or family member, he talks in what I could characterize as a "normal" voice.  It's not exactly hushed, but neither is it so loud that you can hear every word he says.

When this person answers a tech support call, however, HE STARTS SCREAMING INTO THE PHONE. It's as if he's saying "LISTEN TO ME! LISTEN TO ME! I'M WORKING WITH A CUSTOMER AND I WANT EVERYONE TO KNOW IT! I'M THE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON IN THE ROOM!" 

The other day I overheard that person complaining to one of his coworkers about how loudly a customer had talked into the phone during a call. I thought to myself, "Now you know how your customers feel when you're screaming at them."

Time for the manager to intervene

I've asked myself, why do people scream into the phone? Is it because they are hard of hearing and feel like they have to shout in order to hear themselves? If that were the case, then it seems like the screamers would be screaming all the time, not just when they're talking to customers.

I think that the majority of screamers simply don't realize that they're screaming.  I think if someone — like a coworker or a manager — counseled them about their phone technique, most screamers would be embarrassed and would make a conscious effort not to be so loud in the future.

But what if counseling fails, and the screamer continues to shout into the handset or hands-free microphone? I'm not trained in psychology, but I'm guessing those people have issues other than lack of awareness or a need for a hearing aid.  I'm not convinced we need those people working in our help desks, no matter how talented they may be, technology-wise.

Is there a screamer on your team?

If you're a help desk analyst who suffers the indignity of having to "tune out" a screamer in your department, what can you do? While you could talk to your coworker one-on-one, the screamer might not take kindly to your criticism.  I encourage you to go to your manager and ask for help.  If you're a help desk manager, I encourage you to listen, objectively, to the noise level in your department.  If there's a screamer on the team, don't just put on your headphones and ignore him or her.  You owe it to the rest of the team (and coworkers within earshot of the department) to ask the person to turn down the volume.

 

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