Opinion: Mills On ... Telephone Helpline Tyranny

For reasons too complicated to explain in full, I am, for my sins, a member of the Britannia Music Club. This is the sort of club where every month they send you CDs you don’t want and then you have to figure a way of cancelling the order before it’s too late. In my case, this involves ringing the Britannia helpline. And very efficient it is too, except when it comes to speaking to a person. Despite hanging on for ages - during which time I am repeatedly told how much ’we at Britannia really value your custom’ - I have yet to speak to a human being or, as I believe Britannia calls them, ’customer service operators’.

For reasons too complicated to explain in full, I am, for my sins,

a member of the Britannia Music Club. This is the sort of club where

every month they send you CDs you don’t want and then you have to figure

a way of cancelling the order before it’s too late. In my case, this

involves ringing the Britannia helpline. And very efficient it is too,

except when it comes to speaking to a person. Despite hanging on for

ages - during which time I am repeatedly told how much ’we at Britannia

really value your custom’ - I have yet to speak to a human being or, as

I believe Britannia calls them, ’customer service operators’.



I dare say we all have similar experiences to recall. While I bow to

no-one in my admiration for the push-button phone and the automated

service line - just think of all the wonderful transactions you can

carry out in an efficient way - increasingly you come to realise that

one vital ingredient is missing: the human being.



The Guardian columnist, Matthew Engel, last week cited the example of a

man who wanted to speak to the Orange customer complaints department,

only to be told that it was ’non-customer facing’. You can imagine that,

even if you understood such management speak, how this would be almost

too incredible to believe. A complaints department that doesn’t speak to

anyone! In a phone company whose very reason for being is to allow

people to speak to one another!



And there we have the paradox. Far from being an instrument to

facilitate communication, in today’s corporate world telephone

technology has become a means to actively prevent communication, an

instrument of dehumanisation.



What I find most curious is that in marketing terms this is the

equivalent of committing suicide. On the one side of their mouths,

companies talk blithely about the need to get to know their customers

better, about building one-to-one relationships, about two-way contact

and, above all, about the importance of connecting (no pun intended)

with their customers. Out of the other side of their mouths, they drone

on about how their staff are their best assets, how their staff are the

brand and how customer service is the be-all and end-all.



So you give them some phone technology - the perfect means to bring the

two objectives together - and what do they do? Why, they use it to strip

out staff costs and reduce levels of customer service. How perverse,

when by actually increasing their levels of customer service they could

not only differentiate themselves from their competitors, but also keep

their customers for longer.



Funnily enough, this is beginning to happen in, of all places, the US

internet retailing and services sector. Far from allowing (or

encouraging) their sites to become ’humanless’, site owners are

providing service staff who, from the other end of a phone line, can

take prospective buyers, if they wish, through a transaction. It may be

quaintly old-fashioned, but it’s not a bad idea.



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