On the call center front lines

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The Progressive Insurance Co. call center is the largest in Colorado Springs.

The Progressive Insurance Co. call center is the largest in Colorado Springs.

They’re not for everybody, but call center jobs fill an important role in today’s work force.

That’s especially true in a city that has lost more than 12,000 manufacturing jobs since 2001, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. Those losses have been replaced, almost job for job, by inbound and outbound call center as well as shared service center positions.

Pikes Peak region resident Jim Vacik first took advantage of a call center job opportunity during the late 1980s, just as government regulators lowered the boom on the local commercial real estate and lending communities.

“There were no jobs back then. It was even worse than today,” he said, adding that he decided to look into outbound call center work for the local First Data Corp. operation.

“At the time, it was good pay, maybe $9 or $10 an hour on average — and I enjoyed outbound calling. Because it was a sales-based opportunity, you could make more money the harder you worked.”

Vacik, who went on during the late 1990s to manage a 60-person call center for Comcast and eventually was promoted to the company’s local marketing manager, said his personal philosophy is that all businesses should be run in a similar way.

“Far too many people are not earning their keep,” he said. “What I liked was that the people I worked with were go-getters. You can’t be a Debbie Downer and be successful in outbound. In an inbound customer service job, you can be either a Debbie Downer or a Doris Day because your income is the same, no matter what. Outbound callers are typically more extroverted. Managing them is like herding cats, but they’re all chasing the same dollars.”

He said that many members of the team he supervised at Comcast were making $12 to $14 per hour — double minimum wage during 2000.

While today’s centers have added sophisticated dialers and specialized software to track customer preferences and history, some aspects of the industry haven’t changed much.

“It’s always about problem solving — whether you’re talking inbound customer service, where you’re making a changes in service or addressing a billing question, you’re using the services and products at your command (to help the customer).

He used Carnival Cruise Lines’ local center as an example.

“A lot of people are calling in for reservations, and many have never been on a cruise before,” he said. “They need help identifying the type of product they will enjoy. They need to know what activities are included, whether it fits their budget and whether it’s age- or interest-appropriate.”

Call center positions appeal to those who need a flexible work schedule, he said.

“For a lot of people in real estate in a tough market, for students, for seniors on a fixed income, it’s great,” Vacik said, “They could do other work during the day and make a buck on evenings or weekends.”

Although Vacik has been sidelined by a shoulder disability, he said he wouldn’t rule out a return to call center management or sales.

“If gas gets up over $4 a gallon again and the cost of groceries continues to climb, it’s a good way to make extra money,” he said. “I enjoyed my career. If you have good communications skills, can think on your feet and are empathetic rather than patronizing, you’ll be well-received by your customer.”