My Big Mouth: Cull the call centres so we can get back to real customer service

By Jeremy Culley

“Thank you for calling us today. So we can process your call more effectively, blah, blah, blah.”

There is never a good time to hear this after making a phone call.

You may be in no rush whatsoever. The children might be at school, the dog content after a walk and you are dressed and ready to get the tram into central Manchester ten minutes before you need to leave for work.

But the sourness of this machinated greeting will still send you into a frenzied fury for several good reasons.

Their opening ice-breaker is outright needless – after dialling the number, the company should assume you intend to speak to them, not Barry’s Butchers in the High Street to order some more sausages.

Secondly, it marks the onset of a period in which you will plough through dozens of options before eventually holding the line to speak to an advisor, something you could have told a human being you wanted at the very start.

You will also inevitably make a mistake, from which there is no point of return. Tap the seven button instead of the six on sub-menu five and you may as well have spent the last five minutes in bed.

Not only this, companies increasingly have such little faith in your intelligence they assume the information you want will be on their website – it never is – and that you’re just incompetent, before giving you the web address at the pace of a snail.

Whatever happened to ringing someone up and asking them a question?

Or, god forbid, being able to visit the Crumpsall, Heywood or Chorlton branch to sort something out?

Walk into most banks these days and, aside from handing you a plethora of leaflets, they can do nothing.

You may as well discuss your need for a personal loan in the greengrocers, the good it will do you.

“Sorry sir, we don’t deal with that in branch, you’ll have to ring…”

Trust me, I know the number.

But, all this enduring reliance on call centres does is make institutions appear faceless, bureaucratic, over-complicated and that they do not really care about giving you the best personal service.

According to a survey by YouGov in 2007, only 4% of people said they were satisfied by the service they received from call centres.

This figure has climbed slightly since, with the move of many companies to shut call centres in India and other parts of Asia cited as the main factor.

But things have not radically improved.

The crux of the problem – that the response to your request is totally reliant on a computer screen providing the confused soul on the other end of the line the answers – remains.

Our lives have undoubtedly improved because of the computer, but one quality they failed to give it was the unique common sense of most human beings.

If what you want is deemed impossible by a machine, you may as well continue the conversation with a five-year-old chimpanzee.

In fact, they’re probably more likely to give you a straight answer being more closely related. The computer says no etc.

As with most things, firms willingly damage their reputation with this practice because of money.

Employing an ombudsman to log into a database is surely cheaper than stocking each High Street branch with the expertise to deal with complicated problems.

Crucially, it does not really matter to them if you are annoyed.

The cost of alienating you, for mobile phone companies, internet providers and banks, is low because they know their competitors employ similarly infuriating systems.

The reality is that unless we en masse revert to using telegrams, encyclopaedias and stuffing mattresses with cash, there is nothing we can do to stop companies wasting our time.

Although you can always give them a ring.

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