• S. E. Burr

The Writing Life: Lessons From a Call Center

"Forming connections with people matters. I have something to give each person; they have a need to interact with me and with my writing or they wouldn't have reached out."

I work in a call center. I speak to many, many people every single day. The calls blend together and most of the interactions I have with people, good or bad, I soon forget. Most of the calls involve having one of a few conversations which I have had hundreds of times before and so each call is totally forgettable. Sometimes I forget a call within moments of hanging up the phone, which can be a problem if I haven't filled out the ticket while they were on the line. I 'm pretty sure I fixed their problem, but what on earth was it?

But a while ago, I had a favorite customer. I don't know what he called about or what I helped him with, but he called several times over a short period, and by chance, each time the phone queue rang me. He was friendly, funny, and had an unusual name. I don't remember much of what we talked about.

And then he disappeared. I didn't hear from him for a long time. A while ago I got curious and looked him up in the ticketing system, and found that he was still calling pretty often. He was just never getting me.

Last week, I picked up a call from him.

"Wow," I said, "the last time I talked to you, you were about to go on a vacation to Wyoming. That must have been..."

And with a laugh, he finished the sentence for me, "two years ago."

Two years.

I helped him with his problem. To be honest, I have no idea what it was, and that was only a week ago. We chatted amiably. I thought, he doesn't remember me. He's being polite, but he has no idea idea who I am. Customers tend to forget me just as easily as I forget them. I have kind of an unusual voice, unusually girly and young sounding, so it amazes me how often they'll ask me, "Were you the person I talked to when I called a few minutes ago?"

"Why no, that was Bob, the old timer with the garbled voice from fifty years of smoking."

But then, my one-time-favorite customer said something that made me realize that he did remember our earlier interactions. He knew exactly who I was.

He remembered me. And I remembered him. Even though two years had passed, we remembered each other. We never met in person; we likely never will, but there was a connection between us. And that's a powerful thing.

At work, since that call, I've made a small change. At the end of each day I take a minute or two to remember someone, one interaction I had with one person. I look up their ticket. I remember their name and what struck me about them. "That person said I had a soothing voice." "This person made that silly joke about Mondays." "That person's voice reminded me of Sylvester Stallone."

I try to keep it positive. The negative interactions are best forgotten. The next time that person calls, we'll start fresh, at least on my side. I'll have no idea I talked to them before.

What does this have to do with writing? Well, obviously our writing is influenced in a million different ways by interactions with others, but I don't intend to make any of my customers into to characters in books. I think the way that that interaction with my once-again-favorite customer, has influenced my thoughts about writing is more about the way I think about marketing.

I suck at getting people to read my stuff. I suck so bad. Social media, mailing lists, book blurbs, and especially telling people about my work in person feels completely unnatural to me. It's like trying to learn a foreign language, but not on the scale of learning something like Mandarin; it's more like trying to learn something like Space Alien (this analogy is shaped by the movie Arrival I just watched. I liked it, by the way.)

At it's heart I think marketing, at least at the stage where I am when very few people know anything about my work, is about forming connections with people one on one. I believe it was Tara Gentile on an episode of the podcast, The Creative Penn, who said that in the beginning it's about literally putting a book into someones hands (paraphrasing.) I'm making an effort to pay attention to the people who choose to interact with me on Facebook or through email from my mailing list, to remember their names and the things they said about my work. Forming connections with people matters. I have something to give each person; they have a need to interact with me and with my writing or they wouldn't have reached out. I'm also kind of, maybe, sort of, starting to think about ways I could introduce my work to people in person. Gasp. Sigh. The idea terrifies me. We'll see how it goes.

Book of the Week:

The Raven Boys. This is the first book in a four book series called "The Raven Cycle." It's paranormal. It's set in our world but a lot of weird, magic stuff happens. The main character, Blue, is a non-psychic being raised in a house full of psychics, a situation that can be uncomfortable. The story is about her friendship with four boys from a fancy area prep school. They're involved in a quest together, but its their relationships with each other that most intrigue me. They're all damaged or broken in some way, and it's the leader of the group, Gansy, who holds them all together. He's met his match in Blue, though. My favorite character might be Noah. He seems like a side character much of the time. He's more cautious than the others, can come across as timid, and sometimes opts out of their adventures, but there's two times in this series, once in this book, and once in the last book, where I said, "Holy crap, Noah. I had no idea. I never saw that coming." Sometimes the most important people aren't the ones who get all the attention.

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