Telemarketing is taboo in most societies

Telephone service is considered a booming industry. The new countries are vying for investors. Women in particular find work at the new call centers. However, a mostly poorly regarded and paid one. Insights ■ By Sonja Zekri

A quiet splash from an invisible source spreads in the room like the mushy music in a supermarket and swallows noises with the discretion of a Persian carpet. Although forty people work in the sales area of ​​"Allstate" insurance - and that means making calls in a call center - the acoustics are surprisingly clear.

"Hello-and-a-warm-welcome-to-Allstate-Direct-my-name-is-Bettina-Weber-what-can-I-do-for-you?" The 23-year-old brunette from Berlin-Rudow has one thousand three hundred times purred this line down in the past two months. Your working environment is as big as a voting booth, a spacious cell made of soundproof walls, with a specially designed computer desk, telephone and headphones. For most customers, Bettina Weber should insure a car or calculate an insurance premium. Every now and then, children who are bored or men who want to get rid of messes will call. It never gets boring. After training as an administrative clerk in the public service with no prospects, TSR Weber - "Technical Service Representant" - enjoys the American-style work in the team: "My parents say, I really blossomed."

Allstate, the second largest US insurer, handles all of its customer traffic in Germany via the telephone service center in Teltow, Brandenburg. The call center is located in the “Techno Terrain Teltow”, one of those flashing high-tech and service complexes that are supposed to bring the dawn of the information society to dawn in East German cities between the old town, Platte and hardware store - and are often still empty. The multi-story cube of the Allstate Call Center is surrounded by high walls. The employees call it "Alcatraz".

Beataräder from Güterfelde next to Teltow has been working in "Alcatraz" for one and a half years. At the beginning of last year she lost her job as an insurance agent. The financial economics studies from GDR times were worthless anyway since the fall of the Wall. She was unemployed for two months, but that was enough for her. “As a single person, I have to see where the money is coming from,” says the 33-year-old. After fifty applications, a few interviews and a three-month qualification as a “call center agent” - financed by the Potsdam employment office - Beataräder had a new job.

More than half of the two hundred call center agents in Teltow are women. With Mannesmann-Mobilfunk in neighboring Stahnsdorf it is even ninety percent. Overall, estimates Bettina Höfner, Head of New Media at the German Direct Marketing Association (DDV) in Wiesbaden, the quota of women in the 1,500 German call centers is around sixty percent. Woman and telephone - a happy connection?

When it comes to this question, most people turn to the sociological burial box. Women apparently have a “better streak to provide services”, suspects Hartmut Krüger, head of the Brandenburg economic development agency. Most women find "the ability to communicate and deal with people" easy, writes the DGB Women's Office in its latest newsletter. Women, one hears from trade unions, business and politics, are more open and listen more patiently. Women just talk better on the phone.

"Social and communication skills are required," criticizes Christine Meier from the multimedia office of the trade union trade, banks and insurance companies, "but they are systematically undervalued, both materially and in terms of reputation." The simple and therefore poorly paid telephone services still remained reserved for women. On the other hand, on the more highly qualified and better paid technical hotlines - for computers, telephones, faxes or cell phones - one usually meets men. The majority of call center jobs come from the traditionally female part of the commercial profession. One thing is certain: only qualified women have a chance of decent pay and a career in the call center.

Like Ute Bade. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the slim woman in her forties from Königs Wusterhausen headed a collective of 37 women at the police registration office. Today she is the department head at Allstate and happy about the mixed-gender cast. She reacts irritably to the clichés of female telephone talents: “As if men couldn't be friendly on the phone!” Certainly it is an ability to create trust “with nothing but voice” and a discussion atmosphere “as if I were next to the caller sit on the sofa ”. But this skill can be learned - for both men and women.

The telephone agents are there to serve customers in a friendly but quick manner. At Allstate, a conversation takes an average of six to seven minutes. That is long. Elsewhere, customers are processed in three minutes. Call centers do not bear the title “battery packs” for nothing. Allstate has a works council, employment contracts for everyone and wages between 3,500 and 4,500 marks for men and women - but no Christmas or vacation pay. Work takes place in eight-hour shifts without night work. Sunday is still taboo in Germany: Customers call most frequently on Mondays.

Since service and customer orientation have become a figurehead, more and more companies rely on fast and competent advice by telephone and on the call center as a "business card". The ideal is total accessibility: book a flight at night, install a computer program at dawn - anything goes. Allstate also wants to be accessible around the clock. Nightly calls are diverted to other centers in the republic.

Call centers are considered a secret weapon against unemployment. In Brandenburg, 2,500 new jobs were created in five years. Forty of them at “Taptel Call Center GmbH” in Wittenberge, where women’s unemployment is almost 25 percent. Four out of five Taptel employees had no previous job. And only three of the forty telephone agents who now handle directory inquiries for the three Berlin airports are men. "In the new federal states, women have always been employed, the need to work is particularly great here," suspects Taptel managing director Andreas Buchelt.

130,000 people work in call centers nationwide, estimates Bettina Höfner from the German Direct Marketing Association. She expects 30,000 new jobs by 1998 alone. The countries are vying for providers. The state chancellery in Potsdam lures investors with the reference to “a clean standard German” and the “very favorable personnel cost structure compared to the old federal states”. Krüger estimates that the state indirectly subsidizes every new tele-workplace with around 50,000 marks. An industrial job costs up to a million marks.

Even structurally weak western countries like Saarland seek their salvation in service. And with the “Call Center Offensive”, North Rhine-Westphalia has launched a network of ministries, computer companies, chambers of industry and commerce, banks and call center operators. There is a “gold rush feeling like after the fall of the Wall”, says Krüger.

However, the gold rush passed the women of Pasewalk by. The agents from Fastphone Telemarketing GmbH have been making calls in the small Mecklenburg town for three years - including for Greenpeace. With a gross hourly wage of 11 marks, the company could neither be forced to work two days off a week nor night work supplements. In the meantime, the Pasewalk call center has been put on record in the DGB “Black Book”. Missing tariffs, no night work or weekend surcharges and often catastrophic working conditions contribute to the dingy image of the industry.

Many companies, on the other hand, spend large sums on work surveillance. At Allstate, a large illuminated panel registers the number of callers and their waiting time - like the stock exchange tape does the Dax. That is comparatively mild. It is common for superiors to overhear customer calls and for the supervisor to electronically monitor the duration and number of calls. Siegfried Leittretter, call center consultant for the Hans Böckler Foundation, which is close to the DGB, can only shake his head: "The companies afford an absurd control effort instead of motivating their employees with decent pay."

Sonja Zekri, 31, lives as a freelance journalist in Berlin. Her focus: topics from culture and economy