Ham-Handed Management 101: My Year of Failure at Cellular One

“Your employees — they just don’t like you” — Melanie Coyle, Cellular One Customer Service Director, to me in 1995

Cellular One 1
The author in 1996, in the Fraud Resolution “supervisor pod” at Cellular One, South San Francisco, CA.

No, I wasn’t always the sure-footed, wizened, mentor-to-many corporate leader and in-demand management guru that I am today. In fact, my first real job as a “manager” began as something of a train wreck. Cellular One in 1995 almost broke my spirit, sapped my will to live and nearly got me sent packing for the high crime of being a nervous-Nellie, fumble-footed, greenhorn manager.

My adventures in the nascent world of cellular telephony started in the Fall of that year, when I exited after six years at Monster Cable (more on thatexperience here) and excitedly joined South San Francisco’s Cellular One as a Customer Service Supervisor. This was a pretty heady and massively profitable time for that industry, although the “mobile landscape” looks amazingly quaint by today’s standards.

Back then every market in the United States had only two cellular network carriers — an “A” carrier and a “B” carrier. Most of us didn’t have cell phones yet. “Car phones”, installed on the floorboards of an automobile, were actually still a thing. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the two mobile operators were GTE and Cellular One, the latter of which was a joint venture between AirTouch Cellular and AT&T Wireless. Down in Los Angeles, those two actually competed against each other, with the “A” carrier being L.A. Cellular (AT&T) and the “B” carrier being AirTouch. Confusing, sure, but nothing like it later became with the arrival of Sprint and many others. Competition was minimal, in other words.

Cellular One really had two problems at that point: counting all of the piled-up money they were making from the exploding mobile phone industry, and something called cloning fraud. This is how I came into the story.

First, a little bit about cloning fraud, which, again, sounds totally ridiculous in the 21st century. Anyone’s analog phone signal back then could be “cloned” by dastardly tricksters and malicious thieves. These guys waited by roadsides and at intersections with “cloning devices” that eavesdropped on signals and could easily capture a phone’s unique information, which could then be quickly reprogrammed into a new phone. Seriously! Now said phone number would be associated with two devices, and unbeknownst to the legitimate bill-paying Cellular One customer, the other phone would then go off and place calls to Mexico, Canada and Timbuktu. All of these calls, local and otherwise, would show up as massive (and very expensive) surprises on the monthly bill. This would, of course, immediately prompt a fretful and angry call into Cellular One from the legitimate bill-holder.

After my initial company training, I was told that I would be leading 8 call center representatives on the “Reactive Fraud” team. We would “react” to people whose phones had been cloned. I’d sit in a cubicle with my reps — later this became a pod-like “hub” in the center, with all of the reps in a circle at smaller desks around me — and I would intelligently coach them on bettering their craft, using my accumulated six years of wisdom from answering phones at Monster Cable. I was also warned that my job had very nearly been given to Kathryn, who was the team’s “Lead” (sort of an associate manager or the team’s Vice-President), and that she was none-too-happy for having lost out on a promotion to the job in favor of this new guy from outside the organization. As I came to find out, neither was my new team.

So here’s what I walked into. Cloning fraud was totally out of control, and angry bill-receivers were calling up en masse to scream at us — “I didn’t make these calls to Mexico!!!” etc. We had eight reps answering calls, but when those reps were all on the phone, calls into our “queue” would stack up, while callers listened to inane hold music. When there were ten calls in queue, a scary red light on the wall would light up, and someone would have to mute their line and yell “ten calls in queue!”, just in case there might be someone available, eating a snack or otherwise ignoring the tense pandemonium of the Reactive Fraud call center.

The Cellular One building, South San Francisco, CA.

Like a doofus, I saw my main job as hustling these reticent phone-answerers into their headsets as fast as I could. My secondary job, green and inexperienced as I was, was to “listen in” on their calls, then coach them during quiet periods on what they might have done better to resolve the customer’s concerns, or how they might have shaved a few seconds off of the call in order to more rapidly answer another one. I decided that the Cellular One Reactive Fraud Supervisor would need to be friendly but tough, a straight-shooting customer and company advocate with a smiling face. Even as I eavesdropped on your every word, then gingerly picked apart your faults, I’d be your friend — your buddy — the best goddamn supervisor you’d ever had.

Yet what I didn’t do was answer calls, even when the light glowed hot red and bedlam ensued. I totally talked the talk without walking the walk. Why not? I guess I felt at the time that it was “below” my lofty perch as a newly-minted supervisor. I not only wouldn’t walk even a millimeter in their proverbial moccasins, I also had something of a fussy, perfectionist orientation at work back then that almost certainly rubbed some people the wrong way. I had even taken a work-administered personality test that flat-out called me a “perfectionist”, and it wasn’t described as being a desirable trait. This, I’m certain, came off in how I coached and managed the team.

A team that was already peeved that Kathryn wasn’t their leader now found an instant way to dislike me, and rightly so. I divined a chilliness bordering on hostility from most of them even after only a couple of weeks, and this truly pained me, so I made more than a few ham-handed attempts at “team building” to overcompensate. These mostly went nowhere, and likely made things worse. They ranged from forced “Hey, how was your weekend?” talks to morose team lunches that I tried to liven up with jokery and witty banter. I wore my weakness and nervousness on my sleeve, and even I was very aware of it at the time.

I never really figured out if Kathryn helped to rally the troops against me, but I do know that 3 employees, led by a rep of mine named Ann, went to my boss’s office to tell her just how awful I was. This then resulted in a “performance talk” between me and my boss. Ann — wow. She really, really hated me, and absolutely dripped contempt every time we talked. Was it unfair? I certainly thought so at the time — but I’m not so certain of that now.

I struggled with maintaining my serious I’m-here-to-coach-and-develop-you job role with my more natural state, which is to want to get along swimmingly with everyone. I tried to raise the meek defense to Stephanie, my manager, that at least some of my 8 employees liked me — Wayne did! Amy did! I was told, with regard to Amy, that “everybody already knows she’s your favorite”, which I had no intelligent retort for, because this was in fact true.

Very quickly, after another complaint from an employee, I was put on an “action plan”, the failure of which to fulfill would result in my termination. This was devastating. The job not only paid well, it was in one of the hottest industries on the planet, and I’d just gotten serious with a new girlfriend (now my wife). We were looking into moving in together and building a life together, as one does. I’d been, if not a “rock star” in my six years at Monster Cable, a highly-regarded employee who got really good performance reviews and had almost no friction with anyone, neither bosses nor co-workers. To now be called out as a “bad manager” was dumbfounding.

Worse, my eight reps were about to become twelve reps. My reactive fraud team soothed angry bill-receivers down by explaining cloning fraud to them, then “writing off” (zeroing out) their entire bill, rather than have them pick through the bill line-by-line saying “this one’s mine; this one’s not mine” and so on. Yet there was also a Proactive Fraud team on a different floor. These 4 reps were led by a cowboy boot-wearin’, pickup-truck drivin’ dude named Tim, whom they all adored. These reps had a magic terminal that they used to look into call activity as it was happening. They’d pick out those numbers that were spiking with calls to Mexico and elsewhere, then proactively call the customer to let them know they’d need to change their phone numbers. Back then, that really was the only way to stop it — change the number, which is what my reactive fraud team did as required.

I was informed that the Proactive Fraud team would now be mine as well, and that they were moving to our floor to sit with my other reps. You can imagine that this went over like a fart in church when Tim had to break it to them. At least two of the new women on my team, Julie and Rhonda, were vocally clear about how displeased they were to have to work for me.

Thankfully by this time, in early 1996, I had gathered my wits somewhat and returned some small semblance of pride. I was now personally answering calls, sometimes when there were even less than ten sitting in queue. I was able to share and revel in the lunchtime tales of some of the morons who called us, such as the reactive fraud call I once took in which the caller, whose bill I refused the write off in full, prodded me with “The fact that I have an MBA doesn’t impress you? The fact that I have a juris doctorate doesn’t mean anything to you??”.

Most importantly, I was off of my action plan, having successfully “resolved my issues”. It wasn’t easy, and it stressed me out no end to have to win over the reactive team while integrating the highly resistant proactive team. I wasn’t sleeping well. Julie, in particular, was consistently “snippy” and overtly hostile with me, but now that I finally had a little wind at my back, I was able to authoritatively remind her what her job was and what was expected of her, without having to worry about it boomeranging back on me. Somehow, just as the management books said it would, this approach worked.

The 1996 Fraud Resolution team, in happier times.

As 1996 rolled on, the job actually became something approximating what I’d hoped it might be. We changed our name to the Fraud Resolution Team(we made it up ourselves), and the team continued to expand with the further snowballing of cloning fraud. I became somewhat proficient in providing constructive call feedback and performance appraisals to my team, even at the cost of having to silently listen into their calls via my on-desk monitoring device or in a special “call monitoring room” that the company provided. I twice caught one female employee engaging in exceptionally filthy sex talk with a boyfriend on the phone, talk so over-the-top that I decided it better to just pretend it never happened and to refrain from bringing it up.

Another employee of mine was more problematic. While he could be outwardly charming and fun, he often brought a massive chip on his shoulder to work, which then infected his calls. I’d listen in to him actively arguing with customers for no good reason, or ignoring their concerns by changing the subject — even going so far as to flat-out hang up on them during difficult calls. Now it was time for me to put together an “action plan”, which I sweated and agonized over because it was likely to lead to my having to fire him. We endured this sort of tense tête-à-tête with each other for about a month, and somehow I got out of canning the guy by quietly pawning him off on another department by arranging for a transfer (!). I still feel a little guilty about that one.

After my abysmal start in 1995, the comparatively better 1996 gave way to 1997, when I announced to my boss that I’d be leaving Cellular One in the late summer to get my MBA at the University of Washington in Seattle. I’d talked with some of the happy marketing people upstairs, and found out that they were doing much more creative & interesting work than I was, and were simultaneously making a great deal more money. They told me that an abrupt career change at that point in my life, aged 29, could be smoothed out by possession of an MBA, and while I’d much rather have gone back to school to study global literature, journalism or political science — really, just about anything other than business — I’d felt my path had already been set, and my risk-averse nature pushed me out the door toward my fate.

I never picked up a phone in a call center again, nor told anyone else how they might do it better. I never again found myself shamed and stained by an action plan. I learned a few things about what not to do as a newly-hired manager, which came in handy later on, particularly on one relatively recent occasion in which I again stepped in to lead an existing team of ten people.

Cloning fraud itself began to fade as new digital technologies were adopted both in the network and in handsets themselves, and as I was leaving Cellular One, the world was agog about the runaway success of the most advanced phone to date — the Motorola StarTAC, a flip phone with limited “SMS” capabilities. I cut virtually all ties with anyone and everyone at Cellular One, as I still held onto residual paranoia about what I envisioned was a widespread perception of my managerial incompetence, something that I’m now pretty certain I was merely imagining.

The whole experience seems to have been one of those trial-by-fire toughening events that make a life what it is. In the grander sweep of things, it was a decidedly minor bump in the road that I reckon I’m glad happened when it did, even if I’m still totally pissed at myself for not grabbing that tenth call in queue, thereby maybe avoiding the whole fiasco in the first place.

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