I could have done with him next to me when I stepped out of the lift and on to the balcony at British Telecom's Newcastle Call Centre. Another vast human canvas rocked me back on my heels. Opened 12 months ago in an oversized warehouse in the middle of downbeat estates and rag-tag fields on the outskirts of the city, it is a place the size of three, maybe four football pitches, housing hundreds upon hundreds of people who generate a steady hum of noise. It is simply breathtaking in scale. My BT host smiled proudly. "It always takes people like that." Staring out over this factory of the 21st century in a city that is struggling to leave the 19th, again I couldn't decide whether the scene before me had been dreamt up by angels or demons.
The workers - or "advisors" as they are officially designated - each has an identical booth, with desk, chair, phone and computer, all done out in the BT corporate colours of blue and grey, and all neatly lined up into groups of 12 as far as the eye can see. On the horizon, you can barely recognise the dots in their two-tone dens as human beings. They are worker ants. But nearer to the balcony vantage point, the nature of the centre's work is quickly apparent. For around pounds 4.50 per hour, 35 hours a week, advisors cold-call numbers selected anywhere in the country by a central computer, read from a pre-prepared script on a computer screen and try to charm the voice at the other end of the line into buying trimmings for their phones such as charge cards, extra lines and the Call Minder answering service.
It is estimated that by 2000 call centres will account for one in every 50 jobs in the UK. Some put the figure higher - one in 30. Already they dwarf traditional career avenues such as car-making, mining, shipbuilding or steel works. They are clustered mainly in towns where heavy industry disappeared in the 1980s - Warrington, Doncaster, Sunderland, Dunfermline, Leeds - and where as a consequence there is a ready pool of cheap labour. Yet on average 70 per cent of the employees are women - it's 98 per cent at Littlewoods Call Centre in Preston - and the jobs that have been created have not replaced those predominantly male ones lost in manufacturing.
Some old industrial areas have been more favoured than others by the centre operators. Brummie and Scouse accents at the end of a telephone line are considered offputting to customers, so the Geordie, Scottish and, to a lesser extent, Welsh and Northern Irish heartlands, with their attractive lilts, have stolen a march.
We all, whether we know it or not, use call centres. They have, almost unnoticed, established themselves at the core of the much-vaunted flexible market, service economy of Britain in the 1990s. They come in two main varieties, the ones that make calls to us and the ones that receive our calls. Currently the makers - although this is an odd misnomer for telemarketing centres such as the one at Newcastle, which "make" nothing - are the junior partners while the customer care operations - the central places you ring to book your train tickets, fiddle with your bank account or complain about faulty ball-bearings in your washing machine - constitute the bulk of the sector.
But the balance of power is changing. The makers are also the movers and shakers in this precocious infant industry. The combination of telephones and technology has given a new lease of life to a somewhat tainted vocation that stretches back through foot-in-the-door double-glazing salesmen, via numerous exposes on That's Life, to the friendly Co-op Insurance man who popped in once a month to collect your tuppenny premiums. And this hi-tech cold-calling is working so well for BT, which leads the way with five dedicated telemarketing centres and 7,000 staff on the case, that others are following. Already the alternative telephone service providers have set up operations and the day may not be too far off when Rail Enquiries ring us to see if we are interested in bargain fares on the 7.27 to Penzance via Taunton.
If such a scenario sounds like a recipe for constant interruptions in the estimated 20 million homes in this country that have a phone, then it is also worrying unions and research bodies. For the telemarketing end of the call-centre industry has been likened to, in one much repeated phrase, William Blake's "dark, satanic mills". Where many customer-care centres have realised that they need to offer the sort of pay and conditions that attract and retain workers with initiative, a mind of their own and the ability to do a whole variety of tasks from placating angry customers to - in the case of some of the home-shopping operations - advising callers on what shade of curtains go with a harvest beige carpet, their telemarketing cousins are bleak and brutal environments. The Communications Workers Union published a briefing paper on them this summer highlighting the lack of training available, the tendency to cut costs by using agency staff on lower rates of pay with few employment rights who can be hired and fired at will, plus the complaints of many ex-workers about the regimented working patterns, the screen-related strains, aches and pains, or simply the boredom and frustration.
Sue Fernie of the London School of Economics entitled her recent report on call centres, "The New Sweatshops", and compared them with the panoptican, the nightmare circular prison described by the 19th-century philosopher and fledgling free-marketeer, Jeremy Bentham, where every activity of the inmates could be monitored. And John Robertston of Income Data Services, writing that independent research organisation's second report on call centres, described them as factory farms. In such an analogy, the choice for those of us who take advantage of call centres is as straightforward as the one we face every time we pick up a box of eggs in our supermarket.
From the balcony in the Newcastle Call Centre, the features of those advisors I could see were obscured by the regulation head-set and mouth-piece they wear to link phone with screen. But even within such constraints, there was a definite uniformity to the human as well as the physical landscape. Where, I wondered, were the people with brightly coloured hair, ill-fitting clothes or a weight problem? There is a rigid appearance and behavioural code. "We expect that everyone looks and acts professionally as a mark of respect to our customers," says Kathleen Dobie, the centre manager. It took me back to the days when radio presenters had to wear a shirt and tie before they could broadcast in case the listener might somehow catch a glimpse of them in the wireless set. "I'll make no bones, Peter," Dobie went on - in this temple to marketing techniques, they like to give you a name-check every few sentences - "this is a disciplined environment".
The smack of firm management has left little room for individuality. One or two advisors - mainly from among the minority of men who work here - stood up at their desks, juggled stress balls or walked around with their head-sets on extension leads as they talked, but most were anchored to their seats, shoulders hunched, partings straight. In between calls, chatting over the cubicle walls is discouraged. Even if they get a series of answer-machines - it is company policy never to leave a message - filling the gap by reliving last night's episode of The Bill with your neighbour is tantamount to talking during assembly at school. Unsurprisingly, then, the body language of the advisors is curiously at odds with the bright orange corporate billboards dotted around the walls urging them to "Get Fired Up". It was only as I was getting back in the lift that the angle of the balcony rail changed and cut off the last word on one board, making its message more relevant to what seemed to be the mood on the shop-floor. Keep your head down or "Get Fired".
There are, granted, a few perks to soften the long hours on the phone. The subsidised canteen, grandly entitled "the bistro", is less generous when you consider that the nearest shop is probably a 15-minute walk away. And the rank of call boxes, from which free personal calls can be made to anywhere in Britain, attracted few takers. After an eight-hour shift spent talking down the line, who would want to make yet more use of the telephone. And unlike many of the more relaxed customer-care centres, at Newcastle there is no creche, few comfy sofas, no pot plants and even regulation BT cups if you need a drink to wet a dry throat after your 50th sales pitch of the morning. Smoking is banned.
Down at the coal-face, it is 3.45pm. "Fifteen minutes until we go live," announce the huge scoreboards all around the building. Going live is suitably upbeat telemarketing jargon for starting the new shift. For a quarter of an hour every day at this time each evening shift team leader briefs their 12 staff who come on duty at 4pm. It's all about targets to be achieved, repeated warnings about allowing customers off the hook by agreeing to "paper referrals" - ie giving them time to go away and think about it - and harsh words for any team or individual that is languishing in the nether regions of the internal sales league table.
This is not just a job. In telemarketing there is a whole competitive philosophy you have to embrace to stay afloat. It is the hard-sell at its most polished and its most primitive with little room for those who will not, or cannot, conform. The promiscuous consumer in me is profoundly impressed. If this is the way of the future, one side of life is going to get an awful lot easier. The citizen in me though is disturbed. Do I really want one in 30 of workers in this country to end up dragooned in such a fashion so that I can avoid delays at the bank and get my telephone answered when I'm out?
Karen - pronounced Kieran - Adamson, one of the Newcastle team leaders, is using her 15-minute pep talk to inspire her group of moonlighting students, flexi-time mums and an under-employed drummer in a fledgling rock band, to reach for the stars. In BT terms that means selling eight chargecards each over the course of the evening. An attractive, apparently sincere thirtysomething woman with long-flowing hair and Nana Mouskouri specs, Adamson's patter is delivered with so much gusto that she almost has me won over to a career in telemarketing. I may be a bit old - most advisors are under 30 - and a bit dubious about the real benefits of the products to the human soul, but this telemarketing evangelist made it sound like the most challenging thing in the world.
Adamson blew any stereotypes I had formed about the staff at Newcastle straight out of the water. She is a graduate in art history and told me that Georges Braque might have appreciated the brutal beauty of the call centre's architecture. It would have been an interesting point to argue, but part of the system at such a centre is that every second has to be accounted for and set against sales targets. There is no bonus in banter about artists.
Like all the senior staff at Newcastle, Adamson has seen the negative reports about call centres. Does she consider her workplace a prison? She smiles. Like all advisors, she has been trained never, ever to take offence. It is the cardinal sin and means immediate dismissal. However rude the people you call, and I was assured many times with an air of mild bemusement that customers can get very irate when they are interrupted in the middle of Neighbours to be asked if they would like to try a three-way conference call facility, the sine qua non of the call-centre employee is to keep on smiling.
Adamson explains that she enjoys the work, enjoys managing people, enjoys selling and moreover is good at it. The pay - around pounds 16,000 per year for a team leader - is as good as it gets in a depressed post-industrial town but, most of all, Adamson likes helping customers to get a better deal. It is during this last phrase that her eyes go opaque. It is as if she is reading off some mental pre-prepared script just as her team read off the screen.
Before I can seize on what she clearly knows is the weakest line in her argument, she moves effortlessly on. Do I have a car? Well, yes. What is it? A rusty, malfunctioning sports car, I say, almost defiantly. Aha, she comes back, without so much as a blink, if there was a new paint that would make it sparkle again and she knew about it and I didn't, wouldn't I want her to call and tell me? It seemed churlish to say that I liked the rust. Instead I did my best impression of a BT telemarketing smile.
Every conversation in this environment is a sales pitch and you can quickly get caught up. The concentration is on small things, endlessly analysing and questioning whether or not customers will want a chargecard or Call Minder. The bigger picture just doesn't exist. Indeed some ex-employees argue that all the sales jargon about customers, the "Get Fired Up" posters, the psychobabble that underpins them, the strict dress code, the hierarchical structure, the endless assessments and reviews, are there to add gravitas and "science" to the fundamental point of the whole operation - the entirely straightforward and basic task of pushing up BT's profits and protecting its market share in an age of deregulation and ever more demanding consumers.
Anthea, one of the Newcastle advisers, is busy at work on a call and lets me listen in on a mute phone usually staffed by her team leader. She begins by telling Mrs Brown of Middlesex that BT has "a special Christmas gift to offer her" - free three-way conferencing on her line for three months. Now Mrs Brown can scarcely hear, and certainly doesn't understand what it is that's being offered, but Anthea skilfully extracts from her the information that she has a grandson and a granddaughter. I can almost picture their proudly displayed photographs.
This is a key moment in the call. Too much oohing and aahing and Anthea will get a wrap over the knuckles from her team leader for taking too long, too little and Mrs Brown might just realise that she can live without three-way conferencing. Wouldn't it be nice, she tells Mrs Brown, to talk to both her grandchildren at once on Christmas Day. After all - slight softening in her voice - it's a time for families. The offer is duly accepted.
As someone who finds it hard to discuss money with the milkman, I can only marvel at Anthea's sang-froid. But how would she feel if Mrs Brown were her granny? In three months' time, she will like as not find herself landed with phone paraphernalia she doesn't want, has to pay for and cannot use? "No. I'm helping the customers, making their lives better." It's the same story all the way up to the top. "The customer always comes first," says Kathleen Dobie, a middle- aged Scot whose benign smile only wanes when she refers to the academics who write reports about "her industry" without understanding it. "Once upon a time customers only heard from us when our bill fell on their mat. Now we are providing the level of service they require."
Though they will never admit it, it is said that most of the BT directors responsible for the telemarketing division - or "channel" as it is called - have all quietly removed their home numbers from the computer. They don't want their evenings ruined or their grannies cold- called. For most customers do not "require" this level of service. If it were simply all about the opening gambit of the sales pitch - giving customers discounts such as the Family and Friends scheme which allows you to save 10 per cent on 10 selected numbers - then surely it would be quicker and cheaper simply to knock it off every domestic customer's bill? The discounts are the window-dressing, the loss-leader, the tin of beans for 10 pence on the poster in the supermarket window that lures you in.
There is a danger, in discussing the pitfalls of telemarketing, in focusing on BT. But, since they are Britain's pioneers in the field, the problems that are causing such concern are much more obvious in an operation of their unparalleled scale. The issue of employees' rights in particular comes up often. As well as using the latest in technology in their call centres, BT prefers with its advisors to use the latest in employment techniques and that means flexible, cheap contracts with third-party agencies both in their telemarketing centres and in their more traditional call centres dealing with 150 and 192 enquiries. Kathleen Dobie cannot confirm the number of agency staff used at Newcastle - it is, evidently, commercially sensitive information - but she defends such "partnerships" with employment bureaux on the grounds that they cut down on routine personnel work for her and her senior staff and "they allow us, in what has to be a cost- conscious environment, to flex up and down numbers of staff so as to provide the level of service our customers expect at peak times".
Simon Holding - not his real name, because his wife still works in telemarketing and now, more than ever, they need her wages - worked in a BT telemarketing centre for two and a half years. Like, he estimates, some 90 per cent of the advisors he worked with, Holding was on an employment agency contract, renewed at regular intervals. With its own people BT is a model, union- friendly employer but agency staff are paid at lower rates, have to rely more heavily on bonuses, do not get BT pensions, sick pay, discounts on the company's services and they cannot apply for internally advertised staff jobs. In short they have no job security.
In Holding's experience, only those singled out for future promotion in the call centres got staff posts. After a clash with one of his senior managers, he was, he believes, blackballed from such promotion. The disciplined system that Kathleen Dobie spoke of can also allow power without responsibility among managers. Last September, at four days' notice and despite a highly successful sales record, Holding's contract was not renewed. As an agency employee he had no way of fighting back and the agency itself had no interest in supporting him. It was anxious not to lose its contract with BT. He just had to take it on the chin.
"In one sense," he reflects, sitting in the sitting-room of his rented terraced house, "I was glad to get out. I'd started to think of it as Colditz. They had steadily dehumanised it over the time I was there. It became totally regimented. If you tried to be honest with the customers, say, `I don't think that service is for you,' even if you knew they just wanted someone to talk to and would buy anything, then your name was marked down as a troublemaker."
Terry Jones (a pseudonym) is another of the many shown the door because his face didn't fit. Turnover in call centres is very high. Most employees don't make it to their first anniversary. At 21, younger and more carefree than Holding, Jones had just left college and got his job at the telemarketing centre to supplement his income while he tried to set up his own business. "They told me I could earn up to pounds 1,000 a month. In the end though I was one of the best in my team - I never cleared more than pounds 350. One day our main computer broke down and so we were all sent home early. As agency staff that meant losing several hours' money even though it wasn't our fault. When I asked my manager about it, she said, `If you don't like it ...' That was the attitude."
Jones swallowed hard, but his manager subsequently accused him of swearing under his breath. After what he felt was the most perfunctory and one- sided scrutiny by senior managers at the centre, he was sacked for gross misconduct. He has subsequently taken his case to an industrial tribunal and won damages for breach of contract, but remains bitter about his treatment. "They control their staff rigidly - if you are too bright, or can think on your feet or have a conscience about what you're doing, you're out."
In Mediterranean countries, the idea of organising your life, your home, your holiday and your finances by telephone would be anathema. They prefer face-to-face contact. I think I must have some Latin blood somewhere in my veins. But we live in northern Europe, in a consumer society, much influenced by North American attitudes towards customer convenience and customer service. And so call centres are a logical development and telemarketing the latest manifestation of that culture.
In Britain, we have half of all Europe's call centres. Despite efforts by unions to improve conditions, and hopes that Fairness at Work legislation will apply more stringent standards, we should be concerned. However much we may like to avoid facing it, that cheery voice on the end of line providing us with consumer durables is currently working in a dehumanised environment for low pay in an area of high unemployment so as to service our whims cheaply and effectively. It is an uncomfortable thought