The way call centres run their business, treat their staff and their customers is patronising little short of madness, says Colin Beveridge.
I’ve finally worked out why customer response centres always expect callers to press the star key on their telephone keypad. And it’s not really just a means of quickly identifying those users who can navigate their own way automatically through a complex call disposal menu structure.
Plausible that reason may be, but I still reckon that the true purpose of pressing the star key is, in fact, an esoteric symbol of mutual consent to suspend our perceptions of reality for the duration of the call.
The act also indicates, from the very outset, that the customer should readily respond to the greater needs of the call centre, rather than vice versa. And, of course, we must all follow the scripts closely, or woe betide us.
The automated call centre is king in the land of the touchtone telephone and we are all merely its enthralled vassals. It seems that, even though we clients pay our piper handsomely for the privilege of playing us endless music on hold, we are not allowed any chance whatsoever to call the tune.
This is progress, and we must like it or lump it.
But it is not just call centre customers who are the only unwilling hostages to this tyrannical technology. The real victims are the call centre staff who must sometimes envy the leisure opportunities and working environment of battery-farm chickens.
Too often it seems that we sacrifice the personal dignity and comfort of our customer service representatives, together with the goodwill and patience of our customers, on the tarnished altar of cost efficiency.
So I think that the time has come for those of us who are responsible for managing customer service departments to look, very long and very hard, at the way we use people in our call centres.
Especially our overseas operators, who are expected not only to work under constant commercial pressure but also to sacrifice their own basic human rights in the process.
This aspect has concerned me for quite a while, both as a call centre customer and as an employer, and I am not at all comfortable with the well-established practice of asking overseas operators to adopt “westernised” personalities and accents in place of their own natural identity.
Why should we pretend that Geet from Gujerat is Gary from Gateshead, or that Lech from Gdansk is Larry from Liverpool. Who’s fooling who?
This stupidity is demeaning to the individuals concerned and an insult to the intelligence of the customer. It smacks very much of outdated colonialism too, making our modern businesses little better than the 17th century slavers who baldly renamed their “property” as they saw fit.
I can see no reason why we should continue to collude professionally in such pointless charades when it is common knowledge that our call centres are routinely placed offshore.
For me this is a deceit, and a conceit too far, on the part of otherwise responsible businesses.
After all, we are happy enough to label most of our other products accurately with their country of origin and manufacture. So why should we try to disguise our call centres and operators?
We live in a global economy and should welcome wholeheartedly the commercial reality that entails, instead of giving our customers and staff the impression that we have something to hide.
If you agree with me, please press the star key twice. Your response may be recorded for training and quality control purposes…
Colin Beveridge is an independent consultant and leading commentator on technology management issues. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
This was first published in June 2004