I have a couple of questions for everyone who manages a team of telephone tech support analysts: Have you called your help desk lately? Would you know it if there’s so much ambient noise in the call center that the callers can’t always hear what the analysts are saying? If my recent experiences are any indication, there’s an epidemic of rudeness going around call centers.

Is this the call center or what?
In creating end-user documentation for applications, I make frequent calls to numerous help desks. I can’t tell you how often the phone is answered and I hear a faint voice say, “Helpdeskcanyouholdplease,” under the din of rock and roll in the background. Or the analyst picks up the phone laughing so hard that he or she can hardly speak. In the background, a maniacal coworker delivers another punch line and there’s more laughter. Eventually, the analyst says, “I’m sorry. Can I help you?”

I sometimes say, “Um, yeah, can I come to the party?”

When users call for tech support, they expect to hear the voice of a person who sounds confident and focused. Anything less won’t inspire end-user confidence in the professionalism of the help desk team.

I’m not saying people in the call center can’t have a little fun once in a while. However, I think it’s a big mistake to let the background noise in the call center go unchecked.

For the record, I’m talking about two kinds of call center here: those where analysts sit at desks in the same large room, and those where the call center team occupies rows of cubicles amid other business units in the company.

Identify the star of the show
Sometimes the noise emanates from a single person. In a recent contract assignment, I worked for a time in a cubicle in the middle of the help desk aisle. Two cubes behind me sat the self-appointed call center clown, the guy who wouldn’t shut up. Every day, the clown ran through the same set of tired jokes and banter with his teammates; he spoke and laughed so loudly that everyone within two aisles on each side could hear every word he said, even his personal phone calls.

I wasn’t taking calls from end users. But I did make business calls from my cubicle, and there were many times I couldn’t hear the person on the other end or that person couldn’t hear me—all because the clown was performing at double-forte volumes.

What if you’re a victim?
If you’re the victim of that kind of noisy behavior, what can you do? I figured if the clown’s coworkers couldn’t get him to tone it down a little, a mere contractor wasn’t in any position to change things. I bought a pair of headphones and started listening to the radio or music to drown out his nonstop oratory.

It may sound corny or even petty to some of you that I’m whining about noisy neighbors in the call center. But if you expect analysts to provide a quality experience to every end user who calls for help, you can’t expect them to do it in the middle of a nightclub act.

What if you’re the manager?
Let’s say you’re responsible for call center operations, and the clown reports to you. It seems to me the manager has an obligation to the rest of the team to counsel him about the noise.

Maybe none of the coworkers ever said anything to the manager about being bothered by it. Even if that’s true, the manager has to be aware of what is going on. On those blessed days when the clown was out of the office, the difference in noise level was obvious. The other analysts weren’t overly loud with their customers or among themselves. You could hear yourself think. Everyone was more productive when there was relative quiet in the workplace.

In my opinion, if you can’t get the clown to stop intruding on everyone else’s privacy, it may be time to tell him to hit the road.

Establish a courtesy policy
Many companies publish official policies about employee behavior on company time. Those policies set expectations ranging from honesty to appropriate use of e-mail. Seldom, though, do companies set clear expectations for how to respect the rights of coworkers to a noise-neutral environment. Whatever the company’s policy, the call center deserves its own.

You might be able to raise awareness and lower the noise level in the call center just by discussing it at your next team meeting. If you have team members who need to see it in writing before they get it, e-mail this column to them or print a copy of the noise control zone rules listed in Figure A.

Figure A
Post a note like this one to remind people to keep the noise down in the call center.

Inevitably there will be days when it’ll seem like everybody in a shared work area is talking at once. In the call center, though, the goal should be to keep the volume down so you can keep up the level of service.

How loud is your crowd?

To comment on this Help Desk Advisor column or to sound off about the noise in your office, post a comment or write to Jeff.