Here in Cedar Rapids, if you ever worked at MCI, you probably worked at McLeodUSA.
Back in early and mid 90s, MCI was really strong and a huge employer of Cedar Rapidians. Then MCI started going downhill in the mid-90s, and there was a new telecommunications company in Cedar Rapids snatching up all the fleas that were jumping off the dog. This new company was called McLeodUSA, and it was started by a retired math teacher who was bored one day and decided to start a telecommunications company. He bought a few acres just beyond the suburbs of Cedar Rapids, and he built Technology Park. It was two connected buildings that could house a couple thousand workers; it had a man made lake that was stocked so you could fish; and walking trails, a short one around the lake that you could cover in about half your hour lunch, and long ones that you could walk or jog before or after work. It had a gym. It had two big cafeterias and enough java bars with vending machines that anyone there didn’t have to walk much farther than 50 yards to score some junk food from vendo-land. To people who had worked at MCI for a few years, it was The Promised Land.
Speaking from my experience in inbound customer service calls, it was like a breath of fresh air to us peons. MCI had goals to hit like AHT (average handling time) 213 seconds, and MB (make busy, the time between calls after the customer hung up until you were ready to take the next call) of less than 30 seconds. Initially McLeodUSA *gasp* didn’t have goals for their cst svc reps. To some of us burned-out vets who had been on the phones for literally years, this was like taking a long, hard pull on an ice-cold bottle of beer on a sweltering July afternoon. McL had a brand new concept: take good care of the customer no matter how long it took. They promised absolutely no voice response menus to wade through to get a real person. And at the end of the call, you gave your name, and advised them to ask for you directly should they have to call again. I can’t even tell you how great it felt.
Well, like most things that actually make good sense in this world, the concept was trashed by numbnuts (whose work ethic lobe of their brain was fried) who abused it by spending most of their shift walking around talking to their friends or taking 30 minute long trips to the restroom. At first, they brought forth goals, but anyone with half a brain and a conscience could hit them. Then, gradually, they adjusted the goals until we might as well have been working at MCI all over again. They put a voice response menu in place. If a customer asked for a certain rep, we were required by QA to say, “If you don’t mind, I’d like to try to assist you before I transfer you” and then they would have this mile-long story about their billing dispute that the other rep had already started a trouble ticket for, and just needed a little more information. So what could have been a transfer and a 2 minute conversation turned into no transfer, and a 20 minute long conversation. Brilliant. Then McL really started having problems. Mr. McLeod, his fortune made, got bored again and left. Brilliant, fearless leaders who stepped up got greedy and ran the company into the ground. They ended up going bankrupt. Over the next couple years, I and literally hundreds of other employees were laid off.
Here I was with about six years of telecommunications training and experience that meant absolutely dick in the town of Cedar Rapids and its two essentially dead telecommunications companies. I found myself going from making almost $14/hr, to prospects of maybe $8/hr, if I was lucky. It was time to reassess. What was devastating and scary was actually the best thing that could happen to me. I went to the local community college and took a skills and interests assessment test that matched you to an occupation. Turns out, I wanted to be a graphic designer when I grew up. But that’s another story for another day. Over a package of Oreos and a half gallon of ice-cold, 2% milk.
Anywho, I told you that story to tell you this one: I’m back out at Tech Park. McLeodUSA sold the building to two other companies about a year ago, and I’m temping for a small company within one of those companies. And the gal who sits across the aisle from me is my step-brother’s wife’s sister (true story). And if we carry that pattern one more time, then I’m, apparently, my own Gram-maw (National Enquirer Story). And, see, there, now I went too far.
The first day I was here, I went out for a smoke, and I looked around me slowly. The red bricked ground, the winding cement path leading back out to the parking lot, the two story tinted glass walls on either side of me, the square heavy metal picnic tables; it all felt absolutely surreal. Was I hallucinating, and it was 2001 and I was out sharing a smoke break and commiserating with my fellow cust care reps, re-hashing the last call from Hell to one-up each other in a rollicking game of Who Got The Stupidest Idiot Call Of The Day? Because if misery really does love company, than we were in friggin’ Mardi Gras. Or was I smoking alone, 35, and out of sheer desperation temping to pay the bills?
Ghosts float around here everywhere. I can almost see me smoking with my buds out there; training the next round of
victims newbies over there; hugging That Guy for the first time over there (a very stupid mistake that turned into A Fling). Even the cubicles feel spookily familiar but completely foreign at the same time. I’ve seen several people out here that I used to work with at McL and are now working for YellowBook. For that matter, I just saw someone after lunch yesterday that I used to work with at the print shop a little less than a year ago. I talked a little bit about her on one of my first posts on this blog.
I feel like a stranger in a strange land with familiar yet foreign surroundings.
It’s not a highly enjoyable feeling. I don’t like it.
Oh, and… AND… I have a dream about a whole barn full of rescue horses to therapy for victims of domestic violence… but that is a story for another day. Over a chicken fingers and fries basket and beers. Because there definitely should be beers.
Rip it, roll it, and punch it, dude. But don’t squeeze The Charmin.