“Hi, welcome to room reservations, my name is Miriam, how can I help you?”
I lost count of how many times I repeated this very sentence over and over into my headset during my two and a half years at Teleperformance, one of the various call centers in the city of Lisbon. While it had not necessarily been my long-held dream to become a call center agent, I was grateful for the job opportunity that allowed me to transfer my life from Munich to Lisbon in a jiffy.
Call centers in Lisbon
The call center industry in Portugal has been booming for many years. Having been an important factor in the country’s economic recovery, especially after the crisis that gripped the country between 2010 and 2014, call centers still continue to grow at remarkable rates.
The fact that salaries are low in Portugal compared to other European countries (recent Eurostat statistics place Portugal in 17th place out of 26) leads many companies to outsource customer service and back office work to Portugal. The good, sunny life as well as the ocean continue to make Lisbon specifically attractive to young adults from all over Europe.
Call centers cater to this target group by offering incentives such as free housing in shared city flats, in some cases, and/or support in settling the necessary bureaucratic issues for those moving to Portugal from abroad. My former employer, Teleperformance, even offers free language courses and a yearly flight back home. I also enjoyed the free surfing classes and the huge company parties.
Due to these strategies and the undeniable attractiveness of Lisbon, call centers manage to offer customer service in many different languages. Hence, impressively – and yet not entirely surprisingly, according to the APCC (the Portuguese Association of Contact Centers) – the call center industry hosts almost 5 percent of the active working population in the Lisbon area.
However, the growing pressure on the housing market has adversely impacted the appeal of call centers for young adults looking to affordably stay in central Lisbon. The rather recent development of an increase in remote work, on the other hand, might be advantageous for companies and their employees. While companies can lower the costs for office spaces, the employees can work from the comfort of their own home in a place of their choice in Portugal.
What’s it like working at one of these call centers?
Now, “Enough with all this background info!” I hear what you say.
Based on conversations with former colleagues of mine who left Teleperformance to work in other call centers such as Foundever (formerly Sitel) or Manpowergroup, I know that the conditions and salaries tend to be similar. Your actual work experience ultimately depends a lot on the client and project you work for in any of these companies.
• While in some projects you sell a product, in others you merely provide customer support.
• In some cases, you write only emails or provide support via chats.
•You also might end up being on the phone speaking to customers al l day.
• There are also projects without any direct customer contact, in which for example you monitor web content.
In any of the projects you have to hit certain targets and in many cases a bonus system is tied to them. You often have the chance to advance relatively quickly and get into a different, higher position, for example as a supervisor.
In my case, I enjoyed the fact that I was working in the room reservation of a big hotel chain, which meant that I was selling something I liked – nothing wrong with hotel rooms! – and I did not have to call people. They called me out of their own free will. I also did enjoy the extremely multicultural environment working with colleagues from Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Ukraine, UK, Portugal etc.
Most of my colleagues fell in the 20s-to–30s age bracket, creating a fun and friendly work environment.
Some of my very best friends in Lisbon are people I met at my call center.
I was also able to work only part-time, which I was extremely grateful for, since it can be very draining to repeat the same things relentlessly over the duration of a full working day.
Were there days where I felt like a mindless answering machine? Absolutely! But there have also been many days where I enjoyed chatting away with my colleagues and then there are the small interactions with random strangers on the phone, helping them find a place to stay for a business trip or a holiday.
This kind of service may bring joy and satisfaction.
Read more about working in Europe here in Dispatches’ archives.
Miriam Thaler is a PhD student in Culture Studies in Lisbon. Exploring foreign places and getting to know different people, their stories, ways of life and worldviews has always been her passion. After finishing school she lived and worked as a volunteer for one year in the South of Chile.
Her B.A. in Cultural Anthropology brought her to Munich and Paris. Iceland called her during her Masters for an ethnographic research stay and the shooting of a documentary.