“Your call is important to us”

I know it shouldn’t, but my heart sinks whenever a call centre is involved in a process, as you just know in advance that there is going to be something about it that irritates you. Whether it’s the singing lilt of the operators voice; or the endless ‘Vivaldi Four Seasons’ music on hold, punctuated with the repeated messages about how important my call is to this organisation that leaves me waiting eternally for an operator. Or the mindless questions you get asked to confirm your identity despite already having gone through an extensive menu choice and entered your sixteen digit account number and date of birth, only to get a recorded message saying “this office is now closed. Our opening times are…..” Two of my recent exchanges with call centres has done nothing to improve this view, however they have served to make me think about the inappropriateness of these mechanisms, the inability of operators to ever really be able to answer the query I put to them with the information they have available to respond, or the impossible task they have of trying to make up for poorly designed business processes.

Moving a mobile contract from one service provider (BT) to another (O2), along with the transfer of an existing telephone number, as I tried to do recently, must be a standard transaction in these days of mass mobile usage? However, what was supposed to be a simple process didn’t turn out that way, and involved me making six calls to the O2 call centre. I replaced my existing ‘BT’ SIM card with the one provided by O2, and then waited the requisite twenty-four hours before trying to connect to the network. When the time elapsed the connection couldn’t be made. I called O2 ‘Customer Services’, and having gone through the obligatory security exchanges I informed the operator that my mobile phone service wasn’t working. Obviously reading from a screen of information about my account the call centre agent rejoiced in informing me that everything was “OK” with the account! Clearly everything wasn’t OK as I couldn’t use the phone (having gone to extreme lengths to explain how I had to use a different phone to make the call to them)! Despite this, the agent was insistent that everything was in working order when I once again repeated the explanation that the phone didn’t work, and yet appeared incapable of understanding that, despite what the system was conveying, the phone would not connect to the network. A week and a further five calls later (each time speaking to a different operator and having to explain in full the content of all the previous calls), we established that the SIM card O2 issued had not been set up correctly and if I had ignored their advice (and processes) and just kept the original SIM in my phone all would have been well – so why was I ever sent a new SIM? Luckily they were empowered to make an account adjustment for the loss of service for one week (but only after I prompted them), but I haven’t yet plucked up the courage to look at my account statement to see if a credit was actually applied, especially if that means further calls to the O2 ‘Customer Services’.

Utility companies have regularly become the focus of ridicule as a result of the growing trend of using overseas call centres as was reported recently that British Gas is sending yet further work to two centres in Bombay and Poona. The dash to outsource these call centres has invoked a substantial backlash to the use of non native speaking agents, based in some far flung location, trying to adopt English colloquialisms in an attempt to match and pace local accents, which also includes the use of dialects and slang. Yet when Indian call centres ground to a halt amid emotional scenes of grief-stricken fans mourning the death of the Bollywood film star Rajkumar, causing much disruption to UK based companies and their customers, our love affair with overseas call centre outsourcing began to wane. UK banks are now positively promoting the use of UK based call centres, and Nat West positively differentiate them by advertising UK base call centres 24/7. HSBC ‘Premier’ customers get a differentiated service by being directed to UK call centre operators, obviously recognising the need for a premier service for premier customers. So what does that say about the rest of their customers who have to endure overseas call centres?  If this wasn’t bad enough, the Austrian Justice Ministry have set up call centres in prisons employing convicted fraudsters and hired them out to private companies. It might just be worth checking that your bank isn’t amongst those companies taking advantage of this ‘captive audience’, and that you could be handing over your personal banking details to a fraudster on the payroll. It brings a whole new meaning to the term ‘cell phone’!

E.On (formerly Powergen) continue to send me correspondence regarding an unknown account, quoting an account number that, when referring to their records, shows that the account doesn’t exist. I can, and do on a regular basis, confirm that there is no account with these details at this address. I’m not entirely sure that the operators believe that I could possibly be in receipt of any correspondence so addressed, with an account number containing insufficient digits, but I enclosed the originals as proof (if any should be required) in a letter to their ‘Customer Service Manager’ over six months ago, needless to say I haven’t received an explanation, apology, or even a reply. Yet despite their constant mantra of this being an invalid account, they seem unable to stop producing correspondence for it!

It is inappropriate to brand these call centres as ‘customer service’. From my own personal experience I consider they are inherently flawed and wonder if they really do have a chance of providing a positive customer service? You never speak to the same person twice, thereby having to repeat the nature of your enquiry in full before the next operator can try and help. The nature of your call is often to complain when you are not satisfied with something, often as a result of poor processes and procedures, and invariable the operators are not empowered to construct solutions.

I suspect that the efficacy of the call centre is probably directly proportional to the efficacy of the organisation it supports. Unfortunately, the lasting impression of the caller will be impacted by the service they receive from the call centre. So before you buy a product or service from an organisation, contact their call centre.