For 12 years now, Anita Pires has been working at the call center for Camelot, the company that runs the UK's national lottery. She is one of a staff of 30 who answer calls from potential lottery winners, checking their numbers for prizes that range from £5 to the multi-millions. "In 2009, I had one of my biggest winners, who won £45m," she says. "Even I couldn't believe it. We only get an automated prompt just before they're put through; it's always very exciting. The claimants are in shock and don't really comprehend that it's millions in cash. There's a real buzz in the office, with everyone anticipating who might get the call from a big winner that week."
According to a 2016 report, more than 700,000 people in the UK are employed by call centers The work is often tough: it can be a difficult mix of monotony, stress and the emotional labour of staying friendly for hour upon hour of calls. But for a few call-center employees such as Pires, the work is pure joy.
She describes her job as her "permanent part-time employment," and fits the shifts around looking after her children. "I couldn't do anything else. You're spending so much of your day giving life-changing, amazing news to strangers. Even though I'm not allowed to play [the lottery] myself, being the first one to tell people they've won gives me a feeling that money just couldn't buy."
The next step in the lottery process for major winners — anything over £50,000 — is to be referred to a winners' adviser; a team of seven who speak to the winners and then visit them to ensure the cash transfer. "There's a lot of mystery around what happens," says Andy Carter, who has been an adviser for 13 years. Like Pires, he can't imagine working anywhere else. "It's a very high-energy job, but because the emotions are so positive, I'm happy to take it home with me," he says. "You owe it to the winners to make it exciting, to make them feel like they are the only ones ever."
Carter says winners' reactions have ranged from fainting to vomiting with excitement and incredulous silence. "You get some people having a party when you go round, others who don't believe it and haven't told a soul — it's a real privilege to be there when they tell others for the first time. It's never underwhelming — no two days in this job are the same."
Katie Garrett has been an adviser for almost 10 years. "Ever since I started I've been bowled over by the difference this news we share makes to people's lives," she says, "I remember one 20-year-old who won £50,000 and who was about to be kicked out of his flat with his mum because she had been made redundant. This money changed everything. No two winners are the same and I always get that warm, fuzzy feeling when I get to speak to them." Garrett says training for the job includes life coaching, communication and body language skills. "You need to be able to relate to people from all walks of life. You can go from people in caravans to people in mansions."
It's not only lottery employees who can make someone's day — and potentially change their life — in a phone conversation. Michael Kelleher has been the director of the Windham Campbell prize, one of the largest literary awards, since its inception in 2013 and has called each of the annual winners to share the news that they have won $165,000. "It's a complete shock to the writers when they win, because we work really hard to keep it anonymous," he says. "So much so that at the beginning people thought I was pranking them."
One of Kelleher's earliest calls was to the late American writer James Salter in 2013, who, apparently suspicious, asked him to send the news "in the mail". When Kelleher does manage to convince a writer of his authenticity, "people are always speechless," he says. "One winner burst into tears — his phone was going to be cut off the following day because he couldn't afford the bill. We really saved him and had a huge impact in allowing him to keep practising his art." Kelleher has made the call many times but still finds it nerve-racking. "If anything, I get more nervous now," he says, "because I know how much it means to people and how life-changing the acclaim and the money can be. It's a job I never take for granted."
Of course, good news calls don't always involve prizes. On A-level results day thousands of 17- and 18-year-olds will have called the Ucas helpline, some elated with their results and confirming university places, others panicking about low grades and looking for a place through the clearing process. Courtney Sheppard began working at the Ucas call center in 2011. "You go from the euphoric highs of people getting their results with their parents cheering in the background, to then having someone in tears and worrying they don't have a place, so we have to be prepared for that," he says. "Everyone who works here wants to make a difference and support people; we're that calm, reasonable voice on the end of the line who outlines the options, to give them some hope."
With as many as 30,000 people calling the team in a day, it is a demanding job, but one that Sheppard feels is potentially life-changing in how it prepares students as they embark on their adult lives. "Every person who works with us on A-level results day comes back saying it was such an important experience. Even though it's intense, they feel a real sense of achievement in supporting these students."
One of the most momentous cold-calling tasks each year is undertaken by Göran K Hansson, who, as secretary general of the Royal Swedish Academy, informs Nobel prizewinners of their triumph. He has made the call to 44 laureates in the past 10 years; it is a much-mythologised moment, featured most recently in the film The Wife, starring Glenn Close, which opens with a couple eagerly anticipating the news.
The reality is just as tense. "We meet in the first week of October," says Hansson. "Tuesday for physics, Wednesday for chemistry and the following Monday for economic sciences. We start at 9.30am to decide the winners and then around an hour later I go and make the call. We never give the winners advance warning. We just establish the connection, make sure it's the right person and then I say that we have just decided to award you the Nobel prize. They are always surprised — even those for whom there has been speculation. They are always happy and they always accept. The calls always go out at the same time, so part of the joy is waking people up in the US or calling them in rush hour traffic in Japan."
Some have assumed the call must be a prank and asked for email confirmation, while others haven't picked up at all. "One laureate was travelling and his son was house-sitting when we called," he says. "We woke him up at night and he was really pissed off and said to not call here again. When he came to celebrate his father's Nobel prize he was pretty embarrassed when I reminded him of that." Hansson says he feels genuine elation in being able to pass on such career-defining news. "In some ways, it would be nice to give the winners more time to take it in, but because of the element of surprise, it has to be this way over the phone.
"All I do in my work now is make people happy – how many people can say that? You form a special bond with that person, even though it is through a phone call, and with many of them we become good friends afterwards."
Back at the Camelot call center, Anita Pires is expecting another bumper jackpot — the EuroMillions draw is worth £63m when we speak. "Because of confidentiality, the people operating the phones can't even tell each other if they have the main winner at the end of the line, but that's all part of the excitement," she say. "We'll all be sitting and waiting tonight, hoping for that call to come through — it gives me butterflies even thinking about it."
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Thanks to dannyct for the tip.