This article has been written to challenge readers to come up with a justification for the continued existence of any Call Centre in the world.
As those of us who specialise in tax know, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has yet again launched an attack on HMRC's performance in answering telephones.
We are all very much aware that phones don't get answered but putting a cost on the amount of profit made by either the telecoms companies or HMRC and by extension the government through hanging on the telephone should provide a salutary lesson.
The figures provided by the National Audit Office of £33 million in unnecessary call charges and £103 million in customer time are enough to make anyone ask serious questions about what in other circumstances might be called a racket.
A recent personal attempt to correct an erroneous tax code foundered after 20 unanswered and incredibly frustrating minutes.
It sometimes seems that not a day goes by without a run in on the telephone. This could just be because your columnist is awkward and argumentative. However, it does seem form discussions with others that no call centre is fit for purpose.
Whether they are in India (the local rail company) the Philippines (one of the largest suppliers of software in the world), China (a computer manufacturer) or the United Kingdom (a telecoms giant, a centrally-based transport company or the dear old Revenue) the results are the same.
- You will typically be put through to either an exercise in pushing buttons on the phone or making statements that are not recognised by a voice activation system.
- In many cases, you will give up before you even get to the succeeding stages.
- Next, if you are patient will speak to someone who does not appear to understand your problem at all. In some cases, they do not even speak your language.
- You will then be put on hold for an inordinately long time.
- Another person who also does not understand the issue will be put on and in many cases, fail to resolve the problem.
- You will make another call and start all over again.
- Repeat ad infinitum.
All of the time, you will be clocking up untold call time either at a serious premium rate of £1 a minute or more or alternatively merely a fixed local rate that still clocks up after the first 10 to 20 minutes. Your stress levels and blood pressure will also hit the roof.
An alternative is to ask for a (non-existent) manager. This will get one of two responses. The stock answer is that “they will just tell you what I have already told you”. This is almost always an untruth. So is “there isn’t one available at the moment but they will call back within 24 hours”.
This is just not good enough.
If certain companies did not uphold high standards, it would be easy to sound like one of those old codgers saying "things were much better in my day".
Having very carefully and diplomatically not named any of the companies previously referred to (other than the government department) it is a pleasure to cite Arcam, suppliers of the rCube and Powertraveller, whose minigorilla is an awesome piece of kit too.
In each case, if you telephone their helplines you get through to a helpful individual who has a full understanding of their company’s products and is desperately keen to keep customers happy (or for that matter just to keep customers). This level of care deserves praise, although why it is necessary to comment when people merely do their jobs is open to question.
There are several simple solutions that would alleviate these problems, over and above HMRC relocating their call centres to India, which would at least cut costs.
First, we could just ban all call centres. This is the favoured route.
Secondly, it could be a point of law that all call centres showed provide freephone telephone numbers so that if they are inefficient, they pay for it themselves. To be fair to the large software supplier, they call back their customers rather than charging premium rates.
Thirdly, and it sounds like stating the blindingly obvious, it would be helpful if call centre staff received some kind of basic training. To work for a train company having never heard of the names of the stations on your line sounds like a joke but is also true. Similarly, to have no idea how the London Underground system operates when you work in customer service for a company that specialises in plastic cards used on those lines is unfortunate.
The chances of any of this happening are practically zero. In the fullness of time, we might as well computerise all call centres. At least we can guarantee that computers will do what they are told and never give correct or helpful advice but keep us on the line for a set period.
This will also alleviate the slight risk of human error or an individual accidentally providing assistance where the only intention of their employer was to profit from call charges or to make exhausted and frustrated customers give up and buy an upgrade of their product.