Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Talk to me

This is a story about the evolution of the Customer Care Call Centre.

Many years ago, when you had a complaint, you wrote a letter.  You wrote (or typed!!) it up in a formal manner, stating your name and address and detailing your complaint.  You stuck this letter in the mailbox, and waited two weeks for a response. 

Depending on who the company was, they might write or call, if they thought you had a valid complaint.  Most would reply with a nice-sounding letter stating that you somehow got it wrong and you’re stuffed.

Then some wise-guy decided to create the concept of the Customer Care number.  This magic number would be staffed by a friendly person who was always willing to help. 


Soon they found out that these numbers got overloaded due to the fact that most companies suck at service.


So, the next concept evolved.  They called it the Customer Care Centre.  A whole room full of people who sat there answering phones all day long.  Some care-giving companies even started populating them 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Unfortunately most of these new employees were somehow not placed in the executive salary-scale, and hardly got paid enough to travel from home to the bright shiny CCC office every day.

So, they just did the auto-pilot thing and acted as if they care, although they actually didn’t give a rat about your problem.  Neither were they suitably qualified to really understand your complaint in the first place.  They answered in generic codes and gave you reference numbers to frustrate you in your future endeavours to solve the problem – if you had the guts to try calling them again.

And then it got worse.

Some silly nerd decided to get a computer to do the talking.  This is all part of what they like to call VAS, Value Added Service.  It probably depends on what your definition of “value” is…

The phone rings, and is promptly answered by a male voice.  The voice asks you a bunch of questions, offering a series of possible outcomes.

Some companies, especially mobile phone companies, started experimenting with the buttons on your phone.  They would request you to “press 1 if you have billing enquiries”, and so on.

What they didn’t tell you is that the term VAS actually means that they add value to their own bank account.  While you’re waiting for option number 25 to come up – this is the relevant one – the voice slowly goes through all the other options one-by-one, while your phone bill keeps on ticking over on the not-so-free special VAS number that you dialled. 

Mostly your expected option never comes up, and then you can’t remember the other one that was nearly like the one you wanted.  Was it 7, or 12?

$15 later you press the wrong button, and have to ring them up again.  What a great idea.

The nerds went one step further by forcing you to talk to a computer.  In stead of letting you push buttons, this friendly voice wants you to actually talk to it. 

Now here’s where I get really frustrated.  No one told this computer that half of the residents in Australia are immigrants who have foreign accents.  It can barely understand a basic “yes” or “no” reply, and you can forget about it recognising numbers.  The poor immigrant ends up screaming and swearing at a stupid computer who cannot even respond to the basic verbal abuse that most human operators would understand. 

The only way to get what you want is to keep on harassing the computer until it finally gives up and frantically tries to put you through to a human operator.  The music starts playing, and the waiting game is on…

But it still gets worse.  When you finally get put through to a real person, it’s actually a guy called Muhamatifupila from Pakistan who is “plentifully assisting” you today.  He can barely understand you, and vice-versa.  He sits in a cramped office somewhere in the middle East, on a contract with a multibillion-dollar Australian company that turns out to be too cheap and greedy to pay local people decent wages.

It ends with you getting cut off in the middle of your conversation with your new friend Muhamatifupila, too intimidated to even consider starting all over again.

It’s only the die-hard super-beings with immense amounts of patience who finally get any response, pushing up the KPI’s and other customer care indicators to an acceptable level.  Acceptable to the multibillion dollar company, that is.

It all gives the word “service” a new meaning.