A Look At Life: Please Hold

3rd January 2014

Please Hold - Your Call Is Important To Us

Jo Plumridge

Press 1 to hear a list of options bearing no relation to those you’re looking for

Press 2 to talk to an agent who will accidentally disconnect you within a minute

Press 3 to hear our atrocious hold music on a never-ending loop until the end of time

Press 4 to begin banging your head against the nearest brick wall in frustration

Press 5 to be plunged into a telephonic abyss from which there is no escape

Is there anything more likely to induce rage in most human beings than the prospect of dealing with a call centre in any capacity? Long gone are the days when you could simply pick up a phone, key in a number with a proper dialling code and actually speak – immediately – to a real person. Nowadays, everything is computerised and involves dialling a number that will cost you the price of a small semi-detached per minute, before it hits you with a baffling list of options.

Everyone knows that the key purpose of an automated menu is to prevent you from actually having to bother the staff with your query. If something can be dealt with by automation, then it will be. Unfortunately, as cost-saving as this may appear for the firm, it has its problems. Automated systems are notorious for not being able to deal with accents. In my case, it appears that they can’t deal with my boringly BBC English voice either. I’ve lost track of the number of times the computer has apologised profusely to me for ‘not understanding’. The trouble is that I inevitably find myself shouting, with a side order of muttering under my breath. This only confuses things further and generally ends up with my call being transferred to some obscure department in Outer Mongolia.

While most companies will eventually admit defeat (if you’re devious enough) and transfer you to a human being after a wait of only a week or so, government organisations are made of sterner stuff. And none more so than HMRC. Being self-employed, I have the unfortunate need to contact tax office departments from time to time. So committed is their automated system to helping its staff avoid all human interaction that I have been known to spend 20 minutes on hold, so that an automated message can tell me that they are too busy to talk to me and promptly disconnect the call.

Of course, screaming obscenities at an automated system is only the start of our woes. There are plenty of people who work in call centres who are lovely and extremely helpful. However, even the best of them usually have to follow a script – and for some this seems to come above using any common sense. One company I speak to regularly is obsessed with checking, every single time I call, that my phone numbers haven’t changed . Even when I cut across their spiel to inform them that nothing’s different, they usually carry on rattling them off: mobile… landline… I thought I’d succeeded in getting through to one worker the other day when she stopped as requested – but I should have noticed the rising panic evident her voice as our conversation progressed. Sure enough, just as I was about to conclude, there was a strangulated yelp from the other end of the phone and a voice said, ‘let me just check your phone numbers’. I didn’t have the heart to stop her.

In my household, I deal with all our bills and, by extension (see what I did there…), 90% of the calls to call centres. This is because, by my husband’s own admission, I am far better at dealing with them. Having spent years being teased for ‘sounding posh’ at school, I’m now reaping the benefits when speaking with call centres. Nine times out of ten, I find that putting on an even posher accent and being terribly polite gets me what I want. On the odd occasion that it doesn’t, I’m nevertheless told I do a fine line in complaining.

My family motto is ‘don’t mess with a Plumridge’. Compared to my father and sister, I think I’m an amateur, but even so, it seems that most call centre workers cave fairly quickly once I get my rant on. I suspect it’s probably that I simply wear them down with my relentlessness!

However, even I have been defeated on occasion by the sheer inability of some people to seemingly understand what I’m talking about. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve actually got through to those ‘real’ people at all, or even if they exist.

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