Tuesday 21 June 2011

The Hann Perspective: My Number is Up

The most regrettable business development of my lifetime has been the relentless drive to downgrade the skills and wages of the average worker so as to maximise corporate profitability, and hence the related salaries and bonuses of top management.

I recently did some work for a restaurant company and encountered a research report lambasting it for falling behind its peers by not “deskilling” its kitchens.

Because why go to the expense of having a meal cooked by a trained chef when someone with the IQ of a rather backward Border terrier could just slam it in a microwave?

Not that you the customer would receive any discount for that, obviously. The saving would simply enhance the company’s bottom line.

Similarly, having long ago trained us to select our shopping ourselves, why should supermarkets employ several workers to scan the stuff at the tills, when you could pay just one to glower at us doing it for them?

The supreme example of ‘deskilling’ is, of course, the automated call centre. Mrs Hann was literally reduced to tears by one the other day as she ran the apparently endless gamut of multiple choice questions. She pleaded loudly just to speak to a fellow human, though soon wished that she had stuck with the robot.

A friendly Indian call centre
It was all to do with personalised number plates: a vain and stupid affectation, I know, but handy for those of us with failing memories.

I have one on my own car that begins ‘AI’. This seemed uncontroversial until I went to stay with a vet friend recently, and he asked what on Earth I knew about Artificial Insemination. Not as much as he does, that’s for sure. I once made the mistake of asking if he could lend me a cool box for a picnic, and ended up walking across the lawn at Glyndebourne bearing a large polystyrene box across which was blazoned in large red letters ‘Semen: Handle With Care’.

I bought another number containing the initials ‘XPR’ to celebrate my retirement from the public relations business. When I had to re-apply my nose to the grindstone, I donated this to my wife, who has been vainly trying to arrange its transfer from her old car to a new one she is buying. Dealing with our insurance company’s call centre has all but destroyed her will to live. And the bottom line is that the new car, which she hasn’t got, is now insured. While the old one, which she actually needs to drive, is not.

I have waged an equally wearing battle with my electricity supplier’s call centre for years. They consistently refuse to believe my own meter readings. Often they won’t believe their own meter reader’s efforts, either. The last time he gained access to my house they insisted on sending someone else around shortly afterwards to install a brand new meter, but it hasn’t helped. A month ago they sent me an estimated bill for several thousand pounds, with a proposal to settle this by increasing my direct debit by 400% to around £700 per month.

After voluble protests, they finally agreed to use my own meter readings, but then transposed the day and night numbers (for I have the old-fashioned Economy 7 rate for storage heaters) with the result that my debt went up by another few hundred pounds and my monthly direct debit to £800.

Eventually they acknowledged this mistake and sent me an accurate bill, but were still proposing to charge me the £800 a month. Which, the latest call centre person admitted, was more than she earned in a month.

This at least demonstrated that I was dealing with someone here in the UK, rather than one of the overseas call centres so beloved of banks, insurers and BT (Bangalore Telecom) where £800 per annum would probably be considered an enviable wage.

I liked it when you could go into an old-fashioned bricks and mortar building and sort things out with an old-fashioned flesh and blood human being who knew what their customer was talking about.

If I have to speak to a call centre at all, I want to deal with well-trained, well-informed and charming people. The sort I could share a pint with after they have solved all my problems for me. And, above all, I want to talk to a Geordie. So let’s all commit ourselves to North East job creation by affecting accents so thick that only a fellow Geordie can hope to understand us.

The nation's sweetheart: howay, pet!

People from other regions consistently report that they find the accent reassuring. And why stop at UK domination? Once Wor Cheryl has won over the doubters in the US, we should be aiming to take over call centre duties for the whole of North America, too, before giving our friends in India a taste of their own medicine.

Keith Hann is currently a PR consultant, but is likely to be seeking work in a call centre quite soon – www.keithhann.com

Originally published in nebusiness magazine, The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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