No call for incompetence

When dealing with customer complaints, are big corporations guilty of using polite banter as a cover-up for ineffectual, time-wasting service?

SBHD: When dealing with customer complaints, are big corporations guilty of using polite banter as a cover-up for ineffectual, time-wasting service?

The voice was chatty. “Good morning. You’re through to British Telecom/Gas/Rail/ Home Stores/Insurance Group/ Banking Services. Donald speaking. How may I help you?”

“Yes Madam, I quite understand. Yes, I do see your problem. Now, I’ll need to look up your details first and then I can look into it for you. No bother at all.

“Firstly, what’s the account number? Can you confirm your current address and how long have you lived there? Oh, we have your old address on file.

“Now can you give me your new address including the postcode, speaking clearly and slowly please. Yes…yes. Sorry, how do you spell that last name please? Is it capital `D’ for Donald like me, ha ha, or is it little `d’ as in don’t know a thing?

“I’ll just look you up on the accounts file…I won’t be a moment madam. Sorry, system’s a bit slow today. Oh yes, quite so, I do understand your dilemma, now wait just a second, I’m almost there…I think I’d better put you on hold for a short while.

“It’ll make a nasty noise, but I haven’t cut you off, don’t worry. You’ll hear some music next, Scott Joplin I think.

“Ah yes. Danby Gardens. No. I’m terribly sorry madam, I really can’t help you at all. That’s another department, in another building, another time zone, on the planet Venus, actually. Do you have a spacecraft telecommunicator to hand?

“Yes, I’ll willingly give you their telephone number, but I’ve no idea if they’re open today. No, no one in particular, just explain the whole thing to the first person who answers the phone, repeating your name, address and account number very slowly and clearly please.

“Sorry for the delay, I’m still looking for the number, I may have to ask my colleague when he comes off the phone.

“Now `i’ comes before an `e’ except after `c’, but is it `t’ after `s’, or the other way around? These internal phone directories are such a nuisance, aren’t they madam?

“Madam? Madam? Madam?”

Now, I’m all for politeness on the telephone; there’s nothing worse than a sulky voice at the other end when you’re trying to find out why your usually modest electricity bill has been mistaken for that of the whole of Kent in a cold snap.

But the current fashion for ineffectual politeness, where the smiling voice masks a woeful and deep ignorance about how to actually help the customer once the preliminaries are over, is in danger of disappearing up its own expense sheet.

To begin with, names. It’s all very well for you, the customer, to have access to Donald or Davina’s Christian name while they cringe-makingly refer to you as “madam”, but wouldn’t it be more useful to be offered a surname instead?

Just recently, I spent 20 minutes on the phone to my building society in Bradford finding out why the completion statement for my recent house sale hadn’t been despatched as promised.

When it still hadn’t been sent a week later, I phoned again, only to be told: “No, there’s no record of your query. Who was supposed to be dealing with it?”

My reply, “I think he was called Justin”, sounded more lame than a one-legged centipede.

Just recently, the wheels of BT ground to a halt over my new fax line.

“Jenny-from-customer-services” was most kind; she called me virtually every day to assure me that I hadn’t been forgotten and to give me progress reports on the, I quote, “bolshie engineers” who took more than three weeks to get me faxed up.

But when one day I had cause to call her, it turned out that “Jenny” was nothing but a codeword, a generic term for all the women in customer service.

“We’ve got six `Jennys’ here,” I was informed sneeringly. “Which one were you dealing with?”

But at least Generic Jenny was able to offer some help.

My insurance company also operates a fawning-friendliness-on-the-phone policy, but to rather less effect.

When I got through to Sean in the complaints department, I naturally assumed that he’d be able to find out why I was being over-charged for my home insurance policy.

But in his own words, Sean was only there to “smooth the path,” to act as a “liaison between customers and accounts”. And when it came to the nuts and bolts of direct debits, Sean didn’t know his all-risks from his acts of malicious damage.

For all his grand-sounding liaison duties, Sean was unable to put me through to accounts, the latter being on an altogether different exchange. What a clever wheeze, I thought, to put the freephone service on the line to friendly-but-clueless Sean, while the serious business gets hammered out at the customer’s expense.

I got through to accounts in the end. No fawning friendliness there, just a suspicious-sounding Scot – Cameron if you please – who takes the view that anyone querying premiums is out to deliberately defraud his employers. But he sorted things out.

Post-Spiel Incompetence (PSI), where a person learns how to say his name and gushingly offers help before demonstrating that he is a badly-briefed nincompoop, is just one of the drawbacks to this new spirit of corporation friendliness.

But if PSI is a pain, and an infuriating waste of customers’ time, how much more fearsome is NBD.

Nothing Better to Do is the syndrome which turns even the most helpful switchboard operator into a meddlesome busybody who demands to know your business before he or she connects you.

At pensions companies, the affliction is restricted to asking your surname – too often so that an Anderson can be put through to the clerks who deal exclusively with M to Z and anyone called Nicholson will be put through to the early alphabet department.

But NBD has spread to other sectors. Last week, I phoned Boots to enquire whether it stocked a new multivitamin I had read about.

I told the switchboard operator the department I was looking for, and why, but she still insisted on knowing more before she put me through.

Where had I read about this wonder pill, who was it intended for, had my GP recommended it and did I have any history of vitamin deficiency?

Patiently disregarding the fact that the call was from Sussex to Nottingham, peak time, I answered her questions, only to be told at the end of the interrogation: “Sorry for keeping you waiting dear, but I hadn’t heard about that one before. Putting you through now.”

And then she proceeded to cut me off.

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