No Callers Please

The efficiency of any technology or service is, I believe, inversely proportional to the size of the investment in the call-centre or the chief executive’s salary.

That’s my theory at least in a world where responsibility for such vague outdated abstracts as customer service, are increasingly passed to pre-recorded messages or outsourced to one of the new silicon sweat-shops in Mumbai.

This morning, a pre-recorded message at the station is apologising for the delay to a train, due to arrive one day soon on platform two and the BBC tells me that computers are much better at sending ‘spicy’ SMS messages than people; effectively passing the famous ‘Turing Test’ and leaving me to wonder why anyone would wish to spend fifty pence a message flirting with Jordan, a large dual processor unit on one of the domestic cellular networks.

Last week, as I stood outside an office block in Kent, I realised I was early and so, I called 118500 for the business’s number. “We have no record of that company”, the operator told me. “But I’m outside the building”, I said. “I’m reading from the sign”. “I’m sorry sir, there’s nothing listed”.

Ironically, this didn’t surprise me. Last summer, I conducted research into the business impact of directory services deregulation. At the time, 118500 were quite unable to find Price Waterhouse Coopers in London. Wearily, I tried another 118 service, another forty pence plus mobile connection charges and the telephone number I was searching for was returned in seconds, confirming that directory enquiries has become an expensive lottery where considerable effort is devoted to giving native Indian operators convincing Geordie accents. Telephone numbers come second.

Thousands of people, I’m assured, are now ‘Coming back to BT’. Wonderful news I’m sure but why did they desert the company in the first place and indeed having left, what kind of appalling service level experience elsewhere convinced them to return? It’s much the same perhaps with electricity or gas although it’s increasingly hard to determine which is which unless you use a match.

In pursuing technology-driven solutions to CRM and overall customer service, society appears to have lost track of its original purpose. Most recently, unable to get through to electronic superstore, Comet’s customer service, I tried calling the Chief Executive’s office several times to complain and on each occasion I was transferred back to the same unavailable customer service line to deal with my complaint.

Most of us have had similar experiences and the larger the business, the more likely it is that any attempt to connect with any other service except sales and new business will shunt you into some pre-recorded backwater with no means of returning to the unhelpful automated switchboard options, which all rather explains why more and more people are using the Internet, only to discover that the quality of customer service on offer there, can be worse than what we have come to expect from a call centre.

Finally, a technology services offshoot of the company that manages our domestic railway infrastructure proudly demonstrated a new voice automated system to me recently. Written by their offshore software development team, they believe it’s head and shoulders above anything else on the market. Like the famous Turing test, I found the conversation with the computer to be seamless and in fact, I couldn’t tell that I was talking to a machine which was obligingly tracking a parcel for me.

Just imagine then, a future, where like those saucy SMS messages, every unhappy customer call will be answered in three rings and dealt with, using the appropriate level of sympathy and a flawless regional accent. There may be absolutely no connection with any system capable of processing a complaint to any sensible conclusion but at least it will create the illusion that large businesses have an interest in keeping their customers happy in a world where many companies demonstrably use the technology of the call centre or the Internet as a barrier to keep them at arm’s length.

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