BloPoMo conclusion

I’ve run out of October days, which means Blogtober is over. And just like the time I tried to post a blog a day a couple of years ago, I found it really hard. I don’t understand how other people do it…

At this point I am satisfied I managed an average of a post “(almost) every other day”.

As far as work stress is concerned, I probably should have chosen a different month… I’ve been really tired after work, feeling like I never get enough sleep, even though I did usually manage my 7-8 hours of shut-eye.

C&H timeout.gifSo maybe I should give it a go again in the new year, when things have settled back down at work and my energy levels are restored.

To all of you that completed the Blogtober “blog a day” goal: you are awesome!!!


Oh hi there, November… You sure sneaked up on me. Make yourself comfortable, old friend. You are most welcome here!



Odd Jobs #5 – phoney me

When I wrote my first “Odd Jobs”-blog in September 2015 I was just starting to settle in at the job I currently still work at and was still very much in the honey moon phase. Don’t get me wrong, I still love my job and am not planning on leaving any time soon, but things have changed since then, which is logical and good for my development (or so people keep telling me).


Looking back across my CV and the different jobs I’ve done, I see one big trend: the telephone. The odd one out in that sense, is my time at the notorious tax office (aka the most miserable you have ever seen me). And thinking about it now, I think I only said yes to that job because it involved no phonework whatsoever and I had decided I needed to take a big and conscious step away from call centery work if I wanted to move forward.

When I started taking my frustrations from work out on my favorite people, I changed my mind quickly and ran back to the first phone I could find.

My current job involves picking up the phone but is very un-callcenter-like in every other aspect. My previous work experience made this part of my job a walk in the park and very gradually shaped me into the company’s unofficial “phone coach”, as a surprisingly large group of people is either not very good at this or genuinely afraid of the ringing machine… Helping my co-workers find their telephone courage taught me several things:

  • Maybe, perhaps, probably, possibly, could and should are words that express doubt and avoiding them not only makes the person on the other end of the line feel more confident about the message you are communicating, but also has a positive backfire-effect on the person who speaks them.
  • “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer (when it is true) and is more helpful than offering a solution you are unsure about.
  • A sincere “I am sorry to hear that” is sometimes all that is needed.
  • Words are powerful things and should not be underestimated.
  • There are many ways to say “No”.

An interesting transformation I have seen happening in “newbies”, that I recognize now in myself as well, is the following:

  1. The beginning:
    Internal dialogue: So much new information, I will never get the hang of this!
    I feel unsure / hesitant / overwhelmed / Argh!
  2. One month later:
    Internal dialogue: Customers are not calling to make my life miserable and I actually know quite a bit!
    I feel more confident / proud / relieved.
  3. Getting the hang of it:
    Internal / external dialogue: “Yes, yes, no need to finish your sentence, I know what you want. Probably better than you do. Let me get into my flow and tell you everything I know so you can be on your way.” Next!
    I feel over-confident / impatient / repetitive / superior / judgmental.
  4. Slightly frustrated
    Internal dialogue: I’m quite sure I was giving customers the information they needed but now that I’ve been told to try a different approach I feel like an idiot.
    I feel insecure again. I feel like my words sound insincere and unnatural. I feel rebellious.
  5. Telephone zen
    Internal dialogue: First, I’m just going to listen….
    I feel relaxed / open minded / self-confident / ready

What I disliked about callcenter work:

  • most-important-call-center-metricsScripts.
  • Being evaluated using silly standards such as
    • Did you mention the client’s name the right amount of times?
    • Did you ask the client if there were any further questions (even when the client has clearly said he / she had no further questions)?
    • Did you say all the sentences in the right order?
    • Did you manage to keep your average conversation time under 3 minutes?
  • Strict break times.
  • Good hair days turning into bad hair days after constantly getting entangled with headphones.
  • The constant buzz of people talking around you, for 8 hours straight.
  • The unhealthy air / lighting.
  • The clear limit there often is to the amount of critical thinking that is tolerated.
  • Crappy tea (and apparently also bad coffee, but that doesn’t affect me)
  • The fact that I can’t pick up my own phone without automatically mentioning my employer’s name as well.

What makes my current employer different:

  • No real script, apart from the greeting when you pick up. The rest of the “script” consists of general pointers and tips (that by now have mostly been written by me).
  • Break time is very flexible (up to the point that many of us forget to take a proper one).
  • Relatively small budget, so pretty crappy phones & underlying technique.
  • It is encouraged to come up with alternative ways to do things and every idea will be looked into seriously. Disappointment when your plan disappears into the bin after one (or two) looks, is not really allowed though. You must be able to get yourself together quick and move on.
  • No evaluation (or none that I notice).

What I hope to master in time to come (or at some time in my life):

  • Time keeping
  • Making decision with “the bigger picture” in mind
  • Making a plan and sticking to it.

My final conclusion is that call center work is often seen as the bottom of the career food chain, and yes, any slacker could probably do it… but people that are really good at it need to know so much about so many things, starting out with empathy. I think that it every human being would work in customer care for a while and would really make an effort, the world might be just a little more friendly…

Odd jobs – #3

In a previous blog I told you about my job at a car dealership after which I travelled to Ecuador for a couple of months to recharge my battery and re-calibrate my compass. I came back to Holland with a smile on my face but very little money in my pocket. That was OK for a while but after a month or two it started to get worrying… For a second I thought my colleagues had been right when they called me crazy for quitting my job in economically trying times.

BelastingdienstI pressed on, wrote and called, smiled and presented myself the best I could and finally got a job at our government’s most unpopular institution: de Belastingdienst , aka the tax office. My mother was very pleased to hear I had landed a government job and was convinced I was finally set for life.

From the moment I set foot in that office all the rebellious fibres of my personality acted up. We were treated like unruly children in my opinion, which in turn made me want to behave like one.

I was required to sign in and out by writing my name on a form on our supervisor’s desk every day. The fact that we also had a keycard to enter the building and they therefore already knew when we arrived and left, was irrelevant. The one time I arrived on time, forgot to sign the paper but went straight to work (usually before everyone else had finished their coffee corner chats), I was registered as being too late. This drove me nuts. Especially after the train was delayed later that week and I received an official warning for being late so often. After the third time the employment agency would be informed and my chances of getting my contract renewed would be slim.

It was all so puzzling to me. I remember this one time I was working on a tax return request and wanted to finish it before I went home. The working hours were from 8AM to 4:30PM and when I hadn’t joined the queue at the exit by 4:32 my supervisor came over and said this behavior was not appreciated because now he had to stay longer too… O.o It felt like I had travelled to another country and had not yet learned the language and customs.

I had never felt such reluctance to go to work in the mornings and you can imagine the relief I felt when I had found (and was accepted for) a job elsewhere. All though the list of negatives goes on and on, I will try to make a list of things that I learned from the 3 months I spent here.

  • Humor is an awesome coping mechanism, but it is important for me to keep checking myself and step on the break when my jokes become too sarcastic/cynical as it may be perceived as bullying by some.
  • More boundaries do not necessarily create more discipline.
  • Some big institutions “don’t even know on the front side that they’re alive on the back side”, as we say in Dutch.
  • I do not do well in an environment where “why” is a dirty word.
  • Your parents don’t always know what’s good for you.
  • When the annoyances from work seep into your out-of-office time, it is time to grab a parachute and jump.

Odd jobs – #2

After leaving the health insurance company where I worked during my years as a university student I had a hard time finding something in my field. Or no, let’s be honest, I just gave up on my childhood dream of working in the field of development aid… Or I made peace with the fact that the economy was shitty and this field was one of the first things to disappear off of every country’s list of priorities. Completely understandable too… And the fact that NGO’s were no longer hiring westerners to set up projects but working with local people was only a good thing. In a way it is exactly what these projects usually have as a final goal anyway, right?

Anyhow, I am straying completely off track. My point is that somehow, I ended up working at a local car dealership. First for three months, covering for someone on maternity leave but in the end I stayed there for nearly two years. It was simple administrative work, a lot of excel sheet magic and a daily routine that was surprisingly enjoyable. The work atmosphere was very different from the health insurance company I worked before and again, I learned all sorts of new things about myself, about people and about (work)life.

Which lessons, I hear you say? Well to name a few:

  • I enjoy being part of a predominantly male workforce
  • MS Excel is a blessing and a curse,depending on the time of day and task at hand
  • I am actually no good with numbers
  • A dirty mind can be a great asset, in the right context
  • I do not enjoy having to look “presentable” every day
  • Everything they say about car salesmen is true
  • They can be nice guys, nonetheless (just never trust them 😛 )
  • Guys gossip just as much as girls do
  • Cars are serious business
  • Volkswagen drivers and Audi drivers come from completely different planets and can be recognized from a mile away
  • Audi Q-series are cool rides, but I am too small to feel completely comfortable driving one
  • Men are better at parking on average, I’m not even going to deny it
  • There are always exceptions
  • I can drive any car
  • Audi A1 (in Shiraz red) is my dream car
  • A VW Polo would make me very happy as well…

I could have worked there for many more years and would have had a better income than I do now, but at the end of the day I just got fed up with working in such a materialistic environment. I realized that I was getting way too comfortable doing uninspiring work. I decided to quit and travel for a while, and I’m still so happy I did!

Odd jobs – #1

My current job is the first one I feel pretty much satisfied with. I have been here for almost 8 months now and am quite certain my co-workers and supervisors are satisfied with my work. I get along well with everyone and look forward to every new day. I’m happy!

Before I landed my current job I had many different jobs. My first ever money-earning job was a summerjob I had at the age of thirteen. I worked on a farm, harvesting potatoes with several of my friends. It was fun. It was work we couldn’t really mess up, the weather was nice (mostly) and the company was the best. We had music playing in the background and I earned a small salary that bought me my first stereo. Life was simple and relaxed.

From that moment on, I pretty much always worked and all though it was seldomly inspiring work, each one had their interesting things and taught me valuable lessons that have made me who I am today.

The job where I worked the longest (almost 5 years) and where I met some of my best friends was at a health insurance company, where I worked as a helpdesk agent. Phonecalls, phonecalls, phonecalls, eternal phonecalls. No claim, deductible, premiums, declaration forms, policies, invoices, bayliffs, terms and conditions. How can I help you? Have I answered all your questions? No problem, I can explain it again, if you like. I know it’s complicated, let me try a different angle… Or maybe I need to speak slower? I hope this helped. Have a nice day!service03

It’s actually a miracle I ever even got to know my co-workers, as we only had a couple of minutes and sometimes seconds between one phonecall and the next.

The reason I stuck it out so long was that it paid reasonably well, that I could plan my hours flexibly and that my colleagues were great fun. A lot of young people worked there and the ones that weren’t were very young at heart. Fun, open people and awesome team leader, what more can a poor student ask for? Definitely better than waiting tables!!

And in hindsight I must say I did learn so much from that job. I learned that:

  • …being part of a team is a great feeling.
  • …for some people €30,- is a lot of money.
  • …an angry person calling is never angry at me.
  • …a day with more than two unpleasant conversations usually says more about my state of mind than theirs.
  • …you can make a difference, by just listening. This doesn’t mean giving them their way, but if you manage to give the person on the other side the feeling that they have been heard, that’s just as good (or better!).
  • …there is always room for exceptions.
  • …complaining does pay off (sometimes).
  • …some people are just ass holes, and that’s fine.
  • …I can handle any conversation.

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I was planning on walking you through my entire CV but I just realized I might as well make it into a series of blogs. This way I can discuss the different jobs I had, without it being too overwhelming. I want to highlight the valuable lessons that I took from them and explain how they influence my life today.

Any one of you ever work in customer service?

Mission Impossible – Cocoa protocol

choco protocol

Have you every heard of the Harkin-Engel protocol before? It is often referred to as the cocoa protocol. Never heard of it? Me either, even though it involves the world’s favorite snack: chocolate.

This protocol is “an international agreement aimed at ending the worst forms of child labor and forced labor in the production of cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate”, according to wikipedia. The two initiators of this agreement were Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Eliot Engel. The protocol was signed in September 2001.

choco childlabour

In 2004 investigative journalist from the Dutch TV program “Keuringsdienst van Waarde” found out that non of the major chocolate producers were complying with the rules formulated in the agreement. As they themselves were regular chocolate consumers, they feared they might be contributing to the problem. One of the journalists, Teun van de Keuken, then ate one more chocolate bar and then turned himself in, confessing he was a knowing accessory to child slavery.

The indictment was not accepted by the court of law after which they appealed to a higher court to reconsider. This drew great media attention to their case and re-opened the discussion about slavery and especially the exploitation of children in the cacao sector. In the end, Teun van de Keuken was not convicted due to lack of evidence.

This was not the end of it though… Teun realized he couldn’t beat them, so decided he should join them instead. So that’s what he did. He started his own brand of chocolate, guaranteed to be slavery-free, and named it Tony’s Chocolonely.

Ofcourse they were sued by other chocolate companies stating they couldn’t guarantee their chocolate was 100% child labor free either. In 2007 a Dutch judge decided in favor of Tony’s Chocolonely and stated they had demonstrated sufficiently they their chocolate was indeed being produced without slavery or child labor playing a role.

And the best part is that Tony’s chocolate bars are really tasty! They started out with only milk and dark varieties but have expanded their selection in recent years, now including:

The classics:

  • melk (milk)
  • puur (dark)
  • melk hazelnoot (milk hazelnut)
  • melk noga (milk nougat)
  • melk caramel zeezout (milk caramel sea salt)

The exclusives:

  • melk coffee crunch (milk coffee crunch)
  • puur meringue kers (dark meringue cherry)
  • puur sinaasappel rozemarijn (dark orange rosemary)

Special editions:

  • melk pecan marshmallow (no translation needed)
  • melk rabarber crumble  (milk rubarb crumble)

The ones that are written in chocolate are the ones I have already tried. My favorite is the one with caramel and sea salt. I actually just opened a bar of milk pecan coco, which is a special edition from a previous month and it’s pretty darn good. Not as coconutty as I would’ve thought, but real nice. And guilt free! 😀

What a difference a morning makes

Any one who has been to Holland knows it is a very organized country. Maybe even over-organized. Both the Dutch weather and landscape are quite predictable, as is our infrastructure. Every thing really works quite well all though you would never believe it if you heard my fellow countrymen complaining about the train delays every day.

In some countries they wouldn’t bother to put out an announcement about a delay unless it is several hours overdue. In Holland we organize our days up to the minute which means a 5 minute delay is a big deal.

Den Haag zonesMy job is located right in between two train stations, being The Hague Central and the Hague Holland Spoor. This means I have the luxury of being able to choose which route I take to work each morning and no delay ever really affects my plans for the day. All though I love the variety I always end up regretting it when I decide to start up my day by getting out at the central station. I’ll tell you why.

In the map provided above you can see the two stations marked in red and the area that I work in marked in green. If I choose to walk from the central station I walk through an area with a lot of high government buildings and offices. This is roughly the area marked in yellow. The shops and lunchrooms on these blocks are well adjusted to the many men and women in fancy suits that come buy for a quick coffee or more elaborate lunchmeeting. Wifi and superfoods all around…

People tend to be in a hurry here, and tight deadlines make for short fuses, I guess. When the train pulls in, people squeeze to the door and start pressing on the “open” button even before the train has come to a full stop. When the door opens the rush begins, in quite an unapologetic way. They push their way to the public-transport-check-out-scanners in a survival-of-the-fittest kind of way and then click clack click clack their shiny shoes onwards towards their desks. I imagine their is a picture of their children there to remind themselves why they do this every day and some sort of inspirational card on eye-level as motivation.

I am not often in a hurry. On the one side that is because I always get up quite early and on the other side it is because my job doesn’t require me to be in at a very specific time. I also just don’t enjoy the feeling and try to avoid it as much as possible. If fate makes it so that on some morning I end up arriving at Den Haag Centraal station it is what I consider to a bad start of my day, because even though I am not in a hurry myself, the frantic atmosphere there does get to me.

It’s hard to explain how the sound of someone walking can spike someone else’s stress levels. I don’t see the person behind me. I don’t know where they are going or anything else about them. Just the sound of high heels in this determined, short-interval kind of way makes me want to turn around and slap them…. or trip them… or maybe give them a massage and help them relax. It varies. 😉

And there’s not just that one person behind me. They’re all over the place! Some are already getting their caffeine fix (and maybe a muffin) at their favorite coffee house. Some are smoking one last cig before entering the office building. Some are on bikes or even skateboards. And in that little moment in time I am one of them. One of the tiny little insignificant ants pouring out of the ant-hill that is the station. Following the flow. Walking, going, clicking, clacking. No eye contact allowed.

And then there is the other station; Den Haag Holland Spoor, on the other side of the city center. This side of town is more of a residential area (the blue areas in the map above) and some might even consider it to be a bad neighborhood (all though it’s definitely much better than it used to be). It is an area where a lot of immigrants live and the shops and restaurants illustrate this as well. People don’t rush here. They give you their blessings when you sneeze. There might even be some eye contact and an apology when you bump into someone. Either that, or you could get stabbed… at least that’s what people tell me… But I’m hoping that only happens to people with karma issues.

As soon as I walk out of this station and cross the street I am pretty much the only person walking there. The Turkish baker is already open as are the fruit and vegetable stalls. The hair dressers (for all types of hair) are usually still closed when I walk by but the occasional one might be open for the early cabbies or what not.

Sometimes I walk past the mosque where some activity might be taking place depending on the day of the week or time of year. Then I walk through China town where smells, colors and alphabet change again. Everything is still closed. The only shoes you hear are mine. I can also choose to walk another route that takes me past a park and an urban garden area. The last part takes me past the red light district where it is always surprisingly busy…

And then I arrive at work; completely chilled out but very much awake.