Tuesday 28 August 2007

Because we really care

Why on earth do they do it? “They” being large corporations whose mission statements emphasise that they care for their customers above all else.

Yet how do they treat us if we try to get in touch with them? First they make us run a ludicrous, multiple choice obstacle course on our telephone key pads. And if that does not shake us off, they put us through to a call centre on the other side of the world where the poorly paid staff are equipped only to read out pre-determined answers to a handful of blindingly obvious questions.

They know that customers hate this. That’s why “a direct line to your branch” and “UK only call centres” feature so prominently in the advertising of certain banks and insurers. So the others can only be persisting with it because it’s cheap; and because not enough of us are summoning the energy to take our custom elsewhere.

For the last few weeks I’ve had a problem with my emails: rather a lot of them simply vanish, and are neither delivered nor returned. It’s a bit of a lottery, like checking a bag onto an airline, only with even worse odds. I’d stand a much better chance of getting through by old-fashioned snail mail, but I’ve got attached to the principle of instant communication, so I wanted to get it sorted out.

I knew it would be a hellish process. The last time I had a serious IT issue I spent two solid hours on the phone to a very charming young man in India, who finally concluded that my problem was insoluble and regretfully hung up on me. Remarkably enough, given my technical illiteracy, I worked out the solution myself about ten minutes later.

While I was looking up the right phone number on the Internet, I came across reams of postings from aggrieved customers. Amongst these were many claims to have discovered the Holy Grail of IT problem-solving: a number that would get you straight through to a customer support centre in the UK with knowledgeable, interested and helpful staff. “They” had swiftly responded by making all these numbers unobtainable.

I’d wonder if the British IT support centre were not simply another urban myth, if I did not have a friend who got transferred to one after she had been reduced to tears by the uselessness of the overseas operation. The next time she rang, she naturally asked to speak to the same individual and was told that no such person or facility existed, before being treated to a stern lecture about racism.

By some mischance, I got through to sales rather than technical support. Well, I thought, they keep advertising fabulous broadband packages that sound much better value than mine, so why don’t I have one of those? You’ll know the answer already, of course. They’re for new customers, like those amazing interest rate offers you see from some banks. Why should we give it to you, sucker, we’ve got you hooked already? But amazingly, after long periods listening to music while consultations took place, it was agreed that I could upgrade. Yippee!

I then got transferred to technical support and started explaining my problem. “Ah,” he said very slowly, “It’s because you’ve ordered an upgrade.” I patiently explained that I had done that about five minutes earlier, while my email problems had been going on for weeks. But he just kept repeating the answer on his card: I must expect my broadband service to be intermittent or even non-existent while they were in the process of upgrading it. (A bit of an issue for someone like me in the communications business, and one that sales might just have mentioned in passing, don’t you think?)

I gave up at that point and am sitting at home with my fingers crossed. I wonder if this email will ever reach The Journal?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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