IT Policies

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.

 

26 comments
jheizer
jheizer

"Sidetone" is the term used for the telephone signal sent back into the phone of your voice so that you hear yourself. Early in the history of the telephone people would shout into the phone because they couldn't hear themselves and assumed that the person on the other end of the phone couldn't hear them either, so sidetone was added. This is one of the reasons people tend to speak loudly into a cell phone ... they don't provide sidetone. The equipment used in any sophisticated call center should have an adjustable sidetone. Just crank up the sidetone on the screamer's phone so that they hear him/herself extra loudly. That should help cut down on the screaming.

Chaz Chance#
Chaz Chance#

Go on - listen to that loud voice, let it sink in and become a part of you, something that is familiar. As it does so, it ceases to be annoying, and instead it becomes part of the background which you only notice when it's gone, no more distracting than the sound of your car engine as you drive home today. As you do this you discover a new freedom that make you stronger, more capable, better able to focus on the important things in life. Nobody forced you to be distracted. You chose that reaction for yourself. When you are in a bar having a conversation with a friend, do you complain that the music is distracting? I don't think so. When you are in your living room with the TV on and talking to your partner, do you turn the TV off so it won't distract you? I don't think so. We decide that a sound is distracting because it is not one that we would have chosen, not because it is louder than other sounds that we regularly experience and never complain about. The police regularly drive at speed (where concentration is really needed) with their sirens on, which I bet is loader than your co-workers voice. Funny how we never hear any complaints there! Maybe they ae better at being professionals than office workers, but I don't really believe that either. Or maybe putting your life on the line makes you aware of what's REALLY important. And I imagine it gets really noisy in Afganistan and Iraq. So you can't work because your co-worker talks loudly. Well boo-hoo for you! I admit that I used to be like you, until a director for some obscure reason chose to take the desk next to mine. He not only talked on the phone like he had to make up for the distance, he also hit the keyboard so hard that I never figured out how it didn't break. (He could also type at more than 40 wpm, way faster than me.) I learned a valuable lesson that year - we choose what distracts us, what makes us angry, and what makes us happy. You can get upset about anything, or you can rejoice in the diversity that makes great nations keep moving forward, keep progressing, keep innovating. Are you a winner, able to happily triumph over all the challenges of the office jungle? Or are you a looser, doomed to be a unhappy complaining non-entity for the rest of your working life? It really is YOUR choice.

miklin
miklin

There's a thing called the Lombard Effect, which in part says that we regulate our voice level depending on how much feedback of our own voice we get. This is why people shout while listening to ipods. It could be that these guys have phones which don't deliver enough of their microphone level into their earpiece. But even if it is that they are loud because of a social hangup, one solution is to crank up their phone feedback so that the Lombard Effect will naturally throttle them back. It's real, it works.

ttocsmij
ttocsmij

Several years ago, my first office in the new company was on the same floor as Purchasing and Engineering. It was my first office without walls and a door and I soon learned that not having these could be a true detriment. Now, I am not one of these folks that has to have the building in "library mode" to get any work done ... but listening to one fellow in Purchasing ripping Suppliers a "new one" at the top of his lungs 6-7 times a day got really old, really quick. Fortunately the Purchasing group moved to another building a couple months later. Ahhhhhh .... :-)

No User
No User

You described the situation well. After reading the article and the posts I can conclude three things. 1. Cubicles are not an appropriate work environment for professionals. 2. If you are going to have a large group of folks talking on the phone they need to be removed from common areas and located in a secluded area where they each have their own solitude. 3. By looking at the posts that defend the offender I would say that TechRepublic has a lot of loud mouth helpdesk folks who post in these forums.

ramills1
ramills1

and the only problem is they are a little louder than you would like, figure out something. Not necessary to psycho analyze them by assuming they are trying to get attention, etc. Just get them an office, close their door, and be thankful you have people that know what they're doing.

wrlang
wrlang

When I worked in programming and support on calls, the people on the other end of the line were always happy with my calm and deliberate demeanor. It calmed them down and got things accomplished with very little anguish. I would listen to screamers all day long having to go back and forth with customers because they were screaming and getting people on the other end of the line so upset that they couldn?t concentrate on what they were being asked to do. Volume means anger to most people. Saying calm and collected people have a low energy level is insulting. They simply direct their energy into thought. So, back at you. In a real desperate situation, the calm will save the day while the screamers will rush around repeatedly trying to fit the square peg into the round hole because their energy is being funneled into being heard rather than thinking through the situation. I?ve been there many times. If you called 911, would you rather have a calm collected voice on the other end telling you what to do, or would you rather have a screamer jumping up and down and giving you the impression things are worse than they really are? The fact is that using a phone, a persons mouth is less than an inch away from the other persons ear, so there?s absolutely no need to scream. You could whisper and the other person would probably still hear you. If you have a bad connection, call them back. It?s that simple. Screamers come from large families or have otherwise been brought up in an environment where they need to scream to be heard. Help desk types need to see people?s faces to understand if they are making sense to the other person and because they can?t see facial expressions over the phone they talk louder. You?ve seen it a hundred times when traveling to countries having a different language. The American will speak English louder and slower when the person who doesn?t speak English looks like they don?t understand. Well, of course they don?t understand. You can?t teach old dogs new tricks. I?m never going to learn to be a screamer because I know it?s not necessary. The solution is a segregated environment for the thinkers and the screamers or more sound deadening tiles and earplugs (what I use) for those that need some quite to concentrate.

metilley
metilley

I agree. If you can't answer the phone with a caring, intelligent voice, then you have no business doing this line of work. Call center personel are a direct representation of the company to the customer. Nobody wants to listen to some "ya-hoo" that thinks he is being funny, but is really being loud, obnoxious, indifferent, and just plain stupid sounding! I used to work for a place like this supporting Compaq Presario and HP personal computers. Most telephone represenatives were very good but some were morons. There was telephone monitoring and the idiots were dismissed! If the people referenced in this piece would rather be driving cattle or "can't help what they talk like", then get rid of them. Let them dig ditches for a living. There is no place in this profession for people like that.

Toni Bowers
Toni Bowers

And not salespeople? I think there's a difference in that one would be acceptable and the other not necessary.

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

I have managed several very large call centers as well as having worked for the CRTC (Canada's FCC) and monitoring call centers in Canada and US bound call centers from Canada, both for legality &quality assurance while coaching sales reps. Every office has screamers, in many cases these are the exact types of high energy people needed to keep most others successful. When I managed a call center, if the entire office was full of screamers, I'd be on cloud nine! Start counting the money because that energy and drive is VERY hard to find and even harder to retain through employee burnout. Most are the top producers, high energy is requied in a call center to avoid burnout, present over confidence to the customer. The quiet consultative types have a niche they fit too, but nto in a driven center, if you need peace find a new line of work. When I walked in t the sales floor and heard quiet whispers, I'd get everyone to finish their current call and then do a little morale and energy boosting, a loud BUZZ is the heart and soul of any call center. Where is it detrimental though? A consultative call, a feel good call, sometimes you can hear the energy in a call center when you phone for service, understanding the importance of this, I have rarely been turned off by it, unless unprofessional (swearing etc.). So what you see as the worst part of a busy call center, is actually the most imperative part. People with reservations, quiet consultative tones etc. would not last a week in a string sales environment. I don't mean boilerroom telemarketing but in productive B2B environmments. Energy creates productivity, productivity creates results. Energy and excitement also creates volume, live with it or find a job more suited towards your low energy level. I guess teh difference is, do you look at it ofrom a sales or sales management perspective, or as a PO'd guy trying to speak with clients? If the latter, you have no hope of winning against the former. This is a sales managers wet dream.

dawgit
dawgit

That that person has a hearing problem? Many people who have trouble hearing as do I, tend to talk loud. (all though most of the time I talk too low, because I can hear me just fine, and I was reading lips again. Now that gets to people;-) )

DanLM
DanLM

I am a very heavy handed typist, extremely so. And I'm fast. I have been asked more then once to please type softer. I swear I am not trying to be intrusive in the manner I type. I try to type softer, and notice(cause I'm listening to myself) that I am still louder then the other individuals in the office. With me, it's just a bad habit I picked up learning on the old typewriters. Could it be that these screamers may have worked in an environment with deficient equipment where they had to speak louder? And it became a habit? No, I am not making excuses for either them or me. I really do try to type quieter, as I'm sure your screamers try/will try to talk softer. But it becomes a habit, and as we all know. Some habits are just hard to break. Dan

FoothillsCG.com
FoothillsCG.com

I programmed at a small software company, and there was a very load parrot in the lobby that could be heard throughout the building. He sounded like an obnoxious 2-year old, and people on the other end of the phone thought I was working out of my house with my kid screaming "I left my heart in San Francisco!" and I was childless at the time. It was actually a great place to work. Since then I have had my own child, and I have great focus at work. You really can get used to anything, eventually.

DWRandolph
DWRandolph

Agreed that I can choose not to be angry with the person for being loud. But that does not mean it is not distracting while I am trying to think. Which is where your examples (bar, living room, chase) fall over, at those times I am not trying to keep multiple aspects of a project in my head while designing the next layer. While choosing to not be annoyed at others is part of living with them, they are also repsonsible for helping maintain appropriate environments.

mullinsjf
mullinsjf

I found interesting the comment that many screamers come from big families. That certainly is the case in my situation. My mother has always talked LOUD on the phone. How else could she hear herself over 12 little rugrats? The upside...when grandma called when my daughters were young I just had to hold the phone a little away from my ear and they could hear the whole conversation. But, it was unfortunate a few years ago when mom called a major department store customer service number and had a 20-something young woman demand, "Why are you talking so loud?! Stop doing that!"....no kidding, that's what my mother heard...so much for customer service. My mom was so upset by this she hung up the phone, collected herself, got in the car and drove out to the store and asked to see the manager. She got an apology on the spot. Sometimes, we don't know why people scream or speak loudly. It could be in previous jobs they worked in a loud environment. Can you teach an old dog new tricks? Only by frequent reminders of what you expect of them...the least of which is respect for others around them. Mom will always be a loud talker on the phone....and you should hear her sing in church!....somebody finally got smart and asked her to be the song leader at Mass.

dawgit
dawgit

At least over here in Germany, most, (if not all) of the 'Help Desk' calls are recorded. (for a whole list of real good reasons) I've found the service to be very polite, and courtious because of that. (and very little to no back-ground noise, it's there, but not to where one coould notice) Also since it seems the trend to have the 'Help Desk' 'Out-sourced' (in country) One firm can be the 'Help Desk' to one, and in the next cube the 'Dial 999 for Love' :0 (or equ). It's just business. (Go with the money) Edited to add: :^0 Yes, I had fun writing that. :^0 and yes, nut'n but da fax.

BOUND4DOOM
BOUND4DOOM

In my office Help desk is 30-40 ft away from Programmers. The ones that are building apps people that are thinking, the high end people that the help desk goes to when there really is a problem and it is not a customer just needing some help figuring something out. These people require really the quietness of church to work or at least work good and be productive. When you have a screamer then that distracts all these people that you pay much much more than the screamer and wastes their time and money. We have one where I work and you should see the productivity numbers from everyone else go way up when this person is gone. However there is a Manager much like you that like this persons energy. So whhat do you do in this situation?

Tig2
Tig2

It isn't nice to do that to people. On the other hand, having conversations across the room isn't so nice either... especially in sign language! Hearing people have feelings too, you know!

JohnOfStony
JohnOfStony

I have a naturally loud voice but I do relatively little talking at work and when I do talk I usually make an effort to keep the volume down. However, when talking to my boss (with whom I get on very well), he often tells me to turn the volume down. I don't get upset when asked to be a little quieter as it's a simple request that I can do something about, not an insult or a threat to my manhood. It's about time people stopped taking every statement that could possibly be interpreted as an insult as a personal attack. Facts are facts, and people who speak loudly need to be informed that they have a disruptive effect on those around them.

dawgit
dawgit

When all the types were CAPS. I don't know if you would remember those days. It was years before I even knew there was 'small' letters on the keyboards. :D I guess we were all shouting at that time.

mjd420nova
mjd420nova

This can be approached from only one direction. Or if you know anyone in your IT department, ask them for a keyboard pad, and see if they have some different keyboard types available. I have seen some keyboards that are very noisy even when not beaten upon. I to tend to be a heavy typist, and have destroyed more than a couple over the years. Most are from having purchased lower end ones where a little more money would have gotten a keyboard that would last as long as the computer. Frustration can lead to pounding the keyboard, whether caused by software or coworkers. This can be counter productive, but a soundproofed keyboard will ease everyones nerves.

dawgit
dawgit

Could you say that again I didn't see your lips move B-) No, seriously, I wasn't trying to justify rude behavior at all. In fact it drives me nuts. And it is a problem. But with that in mind I've found that it is not only a problem for normal people, ( ?.| ) but in reality a symptom for something else. (ie: lack of ______, or just plain ignorance.) In that I must Apoligize to your ears :p as I also said, mine is different, I talk to light (usually) and also have tinitus, bad, and I wish someone would answer that damn ringing.

GSG
GSG

Thank you for saying "It's about time people stopped taking every statement that could possibly be interpreted as an insult as a personal attack." I've had people say they were scared to tell me something. I'd rather they tell me that xyz bugs them than to have them stew on it for months and it all blow up. I try to accomodate people and I will not be offended if someone tactfully asks me to try to remember to tone down my voice. Heck, I'll close my office door too, if that will help. I've been extremely loud on the phone, but most of that was due to the servers sitting across the hall from me. Someone complained about my voice carrying through closed doors, and instead of coming to me, told the manager, who counseled me in my office. She got the point when we had to yell to hear each other. Servers got moved, problem solved.

Tig2
Tig2

I was teasing you earlier, my friend- then couldn't find the thread again. When I learned sign language, I also learned that I could have a private conversation in a crowded room. This comes in handy at times but drives deaf friends nuts- they forget that I am "listening". Using an amplified device directly to the bone in the region of your ear makes perfect sense- that bone is capable of carrying the sound to your brain. My question is if you find that you miss nuances in tone by doing so? I have a sensitivity to volume so tend to wear earplugs- but this sounds to be a solution as well.

dawgit
dawgit

It could work, but it would be dependent on the 'why' one had Tinitus in the first place. (?) A lot of us have it from hearing damage, and that can't be repaired. I have been in simular chambers in the military. I've been told that I have various frequencies totaly gone, out-side of my hearing capabilities. in between that is the ringing. Yes, you're right it can be ouch. Also various mediciens produce Tinitus, or agrevate it. It's funny though, when I can't hear something, if I listen through earphones, with the earpiece not on my ear, (on the bone, either in front of, or directly in back of, my ear) I can sometimes hear it better.

FoothillsCG.com
FoothillsCG.com

Dawgit, I have tinitus, too. The tone can get so high and then get loader - the pain! A couple of years ago I read an article about research in treating it, and I implemented my own version of it. The researchers had a person with active tinitus sit in a sound-proof room with a tone generator (like they use to test your hearing). The person would adjust the tone to exactly the same note as the ringing. Then the person would adjust the note lower on the tone generator, and the note heard in his ear would go lower, too. Soon the tone was low enough that it didn't hurt anymore and usually go away. After practicing, about 80% of the people could do it without a tone generator. I wouldn't know where to start to get a tone generator. When my ear starts ringing, I imagine a note in my head (I play music, so that helps). I usually have to make the note higher to match the ringing tone. Then I lower the note in my head and the ringing follows. Don't go too fast down the scale, or you have to start over. If I put off doing this, it's harder to get rid of it, and the ringing gets louder and hurts. Now I do it when it first starts, even while driving. No one talks about this process because it doesn't come in pill form, so the pharma companies can't money off it. Try doing it in a quiet room the first couple of times. I know it's out of context here, but I hate hearing about people in pain. Mindy

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