Contact centers in movies – how accurate are they?

Lake Falconer
21 December 2023

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Ever watched a movie with a contact center scene and wondered, “Is that really how it happens in real life?”. Or perhaps you work in a contact center yourself and a movie had you shouting at the screen “That’s not how it works!” Let’s take a closer look at some of the most iconic contact center scenes in movies and analyze just how accurate they really are.

RED (2010)

RED stands for “Retired, Extremely Dangerous” and centers around a retired black-ops CIA agent called Frank Moses (played by Bruce Willis) who is being targeted by his former employers.

In the opening ten minutes, Frank is seen calling Pension Services to speak to call center employee Sarah Ross who answers the phone with her elbow, while reading a novel at her desk

Once she hears Frank’s voice, she perks up, and they begin to chat casually about his avocado plant and her travel aspirations. When her supervisor appears, lurking over her cubicle, she ends the call – much to Frank’s dismay. It’s clear from these scenes that Frank and Sarah have gotten to know each other over time, with Frank making up spurious excuses to phone the call center just to chat with her.

During one call, he tells her that he’ll be heading to Kansas soon, where her call center is based, and they should meet up for a drink. Later on in the movie, Frank ends up kidnapping Sarah to protect her from the assassin sent to kill them both, and they go on a wild adventure together.

Is it accurate?

The interaction between Frank and Sarah in “RED” might not be as far-fetched as it seems. Gartner predicts that by 2026, 75% of customers who call customer service will do so out of loneliness, not because they have a genuine issue.

But while some level of rapport and friendly conversation may occur between a customer and an agent, especially if they have had previous interactions, it’s not common for agents to be chatting about personal matters or making plans to meet up outside of work. Call center calls are typically monitored for quality assurance and agents are expected to maintain a professional demeanor at all times.

Moreover, as most call center employees would vouch for, it’s unrealistic that Sarah would have time to read a novel while on the clock. Call center work is fast-paced and requires constant attention to multiple tasks, including speaking with customers, documenting information, and navigating various software systems. So don’t expect your next call center experience to involve a romantic adventure with your agent!

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011)

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a heartwarming movie that follows the journey of a group of British retirees who decide to ‘outsource’ their retirement to India.

In the opening scene, before her move to India, we see one of the main characters, Evelyn (played by Judi Dench), attempting to speak to her broadband provider.

After waiting on hold for a painfully long time, she faces a roadblock – the account is in the name of her husband, who has recently passed away.

Instead of responding empathetically, the agent repeats back to her, “since the account is not in your name…” which leaves Evelyn feeling frustrated and unheard.

In a later scene, Evelyn finds herself working in an Indian call center training the local staff on how to communicate to their callers with empathy. “Just talk to me,” she says, encouraging the agent to communicate genuinely and connect with their callers. She then reflects on her earlier call with the broadband provider and points out how the agent was so constrained by the script that she “spoke without a trace of humanity”.

Is it accurate?

The opening scene, where Evelyn’s situation doesn’t seem to register with the representative, reflects a surprisingly common scenario in customer service. 96% of consumers view empathy as important in customer service, but 59% believe that companies have actually “lost touch with the human element” in their customer interactions.

Contact centers are supposed to have protocols for talking to grieving customers, and in the UK this is actually required by the communications regulator Ofcom. However, grief educator Megan Devine says that she has “yet to come across a good model for how companies should talk about death with customers.” 

When it fell to Devine to close her late partner’s credit and utilities accounts, multiple representatives repeatedly asked to speak to the account holder. An impossible and insensitive request. Devine’s clients and students describe similar experiences, and in one case a representative tries to upsell a new credit card when the caller had phoned to cancel their late wife’s account.

Some agents, on the other hand, know instinctively what to do. In one example, the agent pauses and says “I’m so sorry, what an impossible thing to live through.” They then go off-script and help the caller figure out how to preserve their late partner’s final voicemail message before it gets wiped from the provider’s systems.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Slumdog Millionaire, a British drama film directed by Danny Boyle, portrays the life of Jamal Malik, an 18-year-old orphan from the slums of Mumbai who goes on to win ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’

Jamal works as a chai wallah (tea server) at the call center before participating in the game show – a job which ultimately aids him in answering the questions on ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’

In one scene, a trainer schools the call center agents on the latest entertainment news in the UK, trying to improve their ability to relate to their British customers. Later on, a call center agent pressures Jamal to take his place for a few moments on the phone. Jamal protests, but eventually he picks up a call from a Scottish woman.

He unsuccessfully handles her inquiry, telling her that he lives next to Loch Big Ben, around the corner from Sean Connery’s house.

Afterward, he uses the call center systems to look up the number of his brother Salim and his childhood love interest Latika. Later in the movie, when he’s sitting in the ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire?’ hot seat, he uses his knowledge from the call center to answer the question “Cambridge Circus is in which UK city?”

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Is it accurate?

Most call centers would consider Jamal’s accessing of customer information for personal reasons a breach of protocol. Additionally, accessing customer information without a good reason could breach regional data protection laws, such as the GDPR in Europe, which would have severe consequences for the employee. In some cases, agents can’t get into customer accounts unless the customer supplies a password or other identification details. 

Many call centers have some level of live monitoring as well, so Jamal’s “Loch Big Ben” and “Sean Connery’s house” answers would probably have been flagged by a supervisor. 

All in all, the dingy, chaotic call center of Slumdog Millionaire doesn’t accurately portray the reality of offshore call centers, which are usually modern, well-equipped, and professionally managed. However, offshore agents do often get training in cultural sensitivity and (somewhat controversially) accent neutralization to improve communication with callers from other countries. So while aspects of the call center depicted in the movie may not be entirely accurate, there is a grain of truth.

What’s the verdict?

Cinematic portrayals of call centers may not always be a realistic representation of the real thing, but that’s okay. Movies and TV shows often take creative liberties, and while they might be frustrating for industry insiders, at least it’s entertaining! So sit back, grab some popcorn, and try to put your real-world knowledge on hold for a bit.

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