The 411 on 411

Lots of people who don’t go straight to college after high school, or who drop out of college like I did, end up working some sort of soul-sucking job. There are plenty of horror stories out there from those who cut their teeth professionally by waiting tables, or delivering pizzas, or manning fast food drive-thrus. I personally never had any of those kinds of jobs, but my first “real” job was its own kind of crazy – I worked in a call center.

Side note: my first job ever was working as a cashier at a Grocery Outlet when I was in high school and I only have good things to say about that job, it was actually a lot of fun.

Unless you were born after the mid-nineties, you probably remember when calling 411 was a thing. In the transition period between phone books and the Internet, 411 was a service offered by the local phone company that allowed callers to obtain the addresses and phone numbers of people in the phone directory. You could call and ask for the same sort of information that was in the phone book, and the operator would look it up for you and transfer you to an automated service that would read out what you had requested and give you the option to be directly connected to the phone number you’d just gotten. You could ask for up to three phone numbers per call, so if you were just looking for a general service like taxis in your area, they’d give you three different choices. If you had a cell phone, you could ask the operator for additional services like movie showtimes or horoscopes.

I was hired into the 411 call center in September 2003, when having a cell phone was just starting to become a normal thing and people who were out and about needed information and didn’t have access to a phone book. I went through two weeks of training to learn how to quickly search the directory database we would use to find the listings that customers asked for. There was no need for a formal greeting because that was done by an automated system before the caller was connected to me, so all I had to say was “City and state, please?” so I’d know where in the country I’d be searching. I think that question might throw a caller now, but back then people knew the drill and they’d give you the town they wanted. The next question was, “And the listing please?” to which they’d respond with what information they wanted. More than once I accidentally answered my personal phone, “City and state please?” instead of “Hello?” out of habit. Asking the same question a million times in a row will do that to you.

The work was easy and I caught on fast, except for a few things that really threw me for a loop until I learned about them. In training, they taught us the spelling of some of the stranger cities we’d get requests for (Sequim, Washington, I’m looking at you), and tried to generally prepare us for some of the things we would be encountering that we might otherwise struggle with. They couldn’t prepare us for everything though, so there were some listings I had a hard time finding initially. One example was this burger chain in Texas called Whataburger, which I could not find for the life of me until someone finally spelled it for me because everyone in freaking Texas pronounces it “Waterburger” and they would get super annoyed when I’d tell them there was no directory listing for a Waterburger because I had no damn clue what they were actually saying and when I would repeat it back to them they wouldn’t correct me and instead would just say, “Yeah, Waterburger, there’s like twenty of them in this town, y’all really have no phone number for Waterburger?”. Texas, this is one of the reasons I hate you.

The call center I worked in was a 24-hour office, so there were lots of different schedules available for employees to work, except all the good ones were taken by people who had been there longer than me and so at first I got stuck working a lot of split shifts. I’d start around 8am, work for four hours, have roughly a four-hour break in the middle of my shift, and then have to go back and work the last half. Having the long break in the middle sounds like it might be nice, but I lived about a half hour’s drive away from my office so if I decided to go home in the middle I lost an hour of that break just to drive time alone, and I was never really able to relax during the break because I knew I had to keep an eye on the time so I wasn’t late for the second half of my shift.

I eventually got tired of working splits and switched to night shifts. Nights were awesome because the shifts were six hours instead of eight, so I’d be scheduled to start at 9:30pm but I would be off at 4am. We also earned a night differential, so I got paid an extra $0.75/hour for those late nights. In the quietest part of the night, we’d only get a call every 20-30 minutes, and all people really wanted were phone numbers for pizza delivery and taxis. We weren’t supposed to do anything else at our desks, so even when it was slow we couldn’t read or play music or anything. Sometimes we’d all sit close to each other so that we could stand up and talk quietly between calls, but my favorite way to pass the time was by listening to a little MP3 player (this was before most people had iPods). Of course listening to such a device was strictly against the rules, so I would stash it in the front pocket of my jeans, making sure that I wore sweaters that were long enough that it was covered. Then I would run the cord for my headphones up the inside of my sweater, putting only one earbud in my ear while keeping the other one free so that I could hear callers who dropped in. I would wear my hair down so that it covered the little bit of cord that was visible between my shirt collar and my ear, and the earbud itself was covered by my phone headset. Tada!

Looking back, working in 411 was certainly a mindless gig but it was also probably the best customer-facing job ever, because I rarely had to speak more than a few sentences to each customer and the worst thing I ever had to deal with was people calling back because they got the wrong phone number last time, or being drunk and trying to hit on me when they called. That happened more on overnights than days and we operators had a great time with the drunk callers. When they’d slur at us, “You sound hot, what’s your phone number?” we’d reply innocently, “Why, it’s 411!” Another one we’d hear pretty frequently was, “Hey baby, where are you at right now?” to which we’d sweetly say “I’m at work!” We thought we were pretty genius and it was a lot easier to just give those sorts of replies than to demand that the drunk person stop the nonsense and just tell us which taxi service they wanted.

The night shifts were great for a few months, until most everyone else in my life started working regular day jobs and I didn’t want to be the only one on nights. By then I had enough seniority to pull a normal shift, so I changed to working 6:30am-3pm. Unlike nights, calls came in rapid-fire during the day and it was very abnormal to have any time at all between calls. The requirement was that our call handling time average around 23 seconds per call, but I usually hovered right around 18 seconds per call. I knew the system and I was efficient at finding listings; the only problem I ever had was with “clipping calls”, which was when you transferred the customer to the audio that would read them their phone number but you did it too fast and you cut yourself off as you told them to have a nice day or whatever. In the world of live directory assistance, this was something we were coached on, even though looking back now I would guess that not a single customer cared if we transferred them and all they heard was “Have a good d-“ instead of “Have a good day”. Every month when my supervisor would listen to my calls to give me feedback, he’d remind me to be careful of clipping calls.

On day shifts, I retired the MP3 player and instead my friend K and I would pass notes all day long. Of course such a thing was not allowed, so we had to be stealthy about it.  In the mornings, we’d get ourselves each a stack of little pieces of paper that were left out for operators to write their schedules on (schedules were put out two weeks in advance and came out every Friday; you had to find the binder that held schedules for the week and look up your name, then write down your start time, end time, and what time your breaks and lunches were each day). We’d make sure to get work stations next to each other, and would use the little papers to write our notes on. We would pass them to each other through the cubicle walls. I’m on the short side but K’s tall, so she could see over the wall and if a supervisor was walking around, she’d kick the wall so I’d know to hide the notes under my keyboard. It was a perfect system and we were never caught. K became one of my best friends. We even lived in the same apartment complex for a while, and when we weren’t at work I’d walk over to her place and she’d curl my hair or we’d play the karaoke game on her husband’s Xbox. If we got bored we’d go eat pie at Coco’s or go to Walmart at 2am, cruising along in her VW Rabbit and singing along to Kelly Clarkson at the top of our lungs.

K and I are still best friends, and even though it’s been years since we’ve lived in the same apartment complex or even in the same state we still talk nearly every day.

I worked in the 411 call center for two and a half years. In May 2006, I transferred to the sales call center to make more money (the hell that was that job is a story for another time). Even though at the time I hated 411 and would moan to my supervisor frequently that I couldn’t wait to land a job in a different department, now I look back on those days very fondly. What started as a job I randomly applied for after seeing an ad in the newspaper became the start of an eleven-year career with the phone company and brought more good things into my life than I ever could have imagined.

2 thoughts on “The 411 on 411

  1. It’s funny how those first jobs seemed so AWFUL at the time…I would love to go back to being a waitress at the cool hippie pizza place I worked at in college, even though I couldn’t wait to get away from it at the time. 🙂

    • We didn’t know how good we had it! Back then I didn’t like my job because it was “boring”, and now I have days where boring sounds like absolute paradise!

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