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Neil Ilagan: ‘I have mastered the skill of reading minds’

/ 11:42 AM November 16, 2015

2015-08-20 10.47.28

It’s 9pm and I’m awake. It felt like it was just a few minutes ago when I breathed a sigh of relief that the hot afternoon sun had disappeared and I can rest in the darkness and coolness of the night. Everyone is busy preparing to sleep but I am busy preparing for a long night ahead, in sync with my predominantly North America-based customers who are just beginning their day.

I go through the dark alleys of my barangay, staying in the most lighted ways and steering as far as I can from the drunken tambay and neighbors who may offer me a shot or a punch, depending on their level of sobriety. I brave the not-so-empty streets for a jeepney to take me to the part of the city that never sleeps.

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I reach the office, a cup of coffee in hand (3-in-1 on a general day, Starbucks on paydays), and sip myself to full consciousness with the help of two to three sticks of cigarettes. I grab my headset from my locker, go through the access-card and biometric-coded doors, enter my long string of credentials, press “Avail” and begin my eight unceasing hours of ”Thank you for calling and have a good day.”

Throughout my shift, I get to talk to people who know what they want and they will either get it because I can help, or not because I can’t. I have learned to shield myself from the occasional screams of frustration, as well as to guard my heart from those who will try to sway me to tears, when I know that the only answer I have for them at the end of their litany is a big flat No. I have mastered the skill of reading people’s minds, figuring out what they want to do.

I have learned to control my body, pacing pee breaks (and smoke breaks) based on the time set by workforce management. At the end of every day, I check whether I spoke too much, or sold too little, or missed a spiel that would have made my call perfect.

For eight hours (not including breaks), I sit and speak but still end up tired, dragging my feet as I start my journey back home. My brain is still on track with the last conversation I had with an American, unconsciously forgetting that the call ended minutes ago. I tell the driver “pliteee nyah” and “luguhr luhng” with my English vowel sounds intact. I reach my place. It’s 9 am. Everyone is up —  well, not counting about one million Filipinos like me who sleep by day and work at night, people like me who are call center agents. This is our typical day (or night).

I have seen the changes. The old Lahug Airport was transformed into a center for non-stop operations servicing guests throughout the globe on almost everything under the sun—such as their finances, shopping, Internet subscriptions, medical records, insurance, computers, travel, cable television, book publishing and even flower delivery. As more and more contact centers put up shop, stores have mushroomed around them, catering to the needs of their employees who predominantly work at night. Cabs and jeepneys are now available round the clock.

Not a lot of people can even remember the old airport, but everyone knows where the IT Park is, the call center hub. This is just the picture for Cebu. Development has been happening wherever BPO companies cluster.

The IT-Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry, of which the call centers are part, has contributed much to the economy directly and indirectly. It employs around one million workers which is projected to grow to 1.3 million by the end of 2016, with an estimated revenue of at least $25 billion—almost equal to the remittances sent in by overseas Filipinos. We are the country of choice in voice customer service, and provided that we keep our record clean and excellent, will soon outrank other countries in back-office and knowledge-based outsourced processes.

One factor that has allowed it to grow so much in the last few years is our ability to communicate in English, as well as the industry’s openness to employ both undergraduates and graduates regardless of academic background. The compensation is also very high compared to most jobs. Inexperienced agents start with a base pay ranging between P10,000 to P15,000, with high job vacancy, premium medical benefits, and great bonus opportunities.

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Career growth is open to everyone, with many of its officers, managers and directors having started from the agent ranks. Sexual orientation, gender, religion, age, and academic achievement hold little or no weight when considering for promotions.

Our jobs require emotional maturity, flexibility, integrity, and computer and English competency. Our focus on our customers have also made call centers notorious for easily firing people because of simple rudeness. Professionalism and emotional control are basic requirements for the job and any failure to prove them with clients and customers may ultimately lead to loss of employment.

On the down side, security remains a key concern with the majority of us working at night. The shift in the body clock is also not something everyone can endure. Many join our ranks and at the start are ecstatic to work but falter in the end because they cannot cope with the stress levels and the changes that we adapt to on a daily basis.

This leads to concerns about unhealthy lifestyles generally associated with high alcohol and cigarette intake. However, all industries face the same issue if the employee pool is primarily comprised of people under the age of 30. The only difference is that our work hours lead us to hold our drinking sessions in broad daylight, not under the cover of the night sky.

Ultimately, we are just like any industry. There are good days and bad days. There good companies and bad ones. There are scores to hit and quotas to meet. Just like other industries, we work toward creating initiatives that promote work-life balance. Just like other industries, we offer lasting careers.

And our achievement compared to other industries is that we have a major contribution to make to the Philippine economy; thus, we seek recognition and government support that have been given to the others, to address BPO needs and further strengthen the industry’s sustainability. The growth projection for 2016 is high, but the forecast for manpower availability is low. The influx of applications is high, but the number of qualified applicants is low.

Every day we ask, “How can we help you?” And every day we do help. I think it’s high time we get to be asked that question and get the help we need too.

Neil Ilagan has worked for the BPO industry for the last nine years, four of which were spent as an agent. He has served in different roles: training and onboarding, employee engagement, metropolitan and provincial recruitment and partnerships, and program management. 

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TAGS: APEC, APEC2015PH, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, bpo, BPO sidebar, BPO special, Business process outsourcing, call center agents, call centers
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