When I’m Calling You

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

On April 10, Sunil Thenabadu of Mount Lavinia wrote to Lakbima News to express his dissatisfaction with Sri Lanka Telecom. I hasten to say here right up front that my local SLT office staff  have been unfailingly charming and the technical people usually turn up promptly. Once the problem has been dealt with, I generally receive several phone calls from SLT afterwards to check the problem has been resolved.

No complaints then… except..No, I will fight the temptation to go into that here. Another time. Another article.

Mr Thenabadu’s letter prompted some thoughts about call centres. I share some of his pain. I have a particular pain in my left ear because the last time I called 1243 my description of my  ADSL problem (the problem was that my daily disconnection was going on longer than usual) was rudely interrupted by a high-pitched screeching whistle. Is this a new customer service technique? It is not the first time it has happened.  Are the SLT call centre staff blowing dog whistles down the line  trying to make us all deaf so that we don’t bother them again?

At least on this occasion I was able to speak to someone, albeit briefly and unsatisfactorily. On a previous occasion when my ADSL connection deserted me, on May 6, I wasted  a good deal of my valuable time listening to particularly irritating ads extolling the virtues of SLT’s broadband service. This was not in the least entertaining when I was trying to report the fact that SLT’s broadband service had failed me yet again and I was unable to speak to anyone about it.

Even before I got ADSL (now there’s a story) last November, I had many occasions to report disconnections to the dial-up service. One occasion was particularly frustrating as I was put on hold many times; many promises to call me back were unfulfilled; I was given many conflicting explanations, many of a spuriously technical nature designed to flummox me. I sternly demanded to speak to a supervisor. I wonder if the SLT lottery assigned me the same lady who annoyed Mr Thenabadu. She certainly was not  a skilled communicator. One explanation she came up with was that my service had been cut off because there was a phone bill outstanding. I replied that my internet connection had been lost before I received my latest bill and we had not yet reached the due date. Why had the telephone service not also been discontinued?

I assure you that I am not a misogynist. Some of my best friends are women. I married a woman. My mother was a woman. Wonderful creatures. However, when I call 1243, I always pray that a man answers. Since I came to live in Sri Lanka I have had nightmares about big bossy women in saris – as that comic genius, Peter Cook , put it “huge mountainous women who wobble when they breathe”. When I contact a customer service call centre I don’t want a dominatrix. Generally, SLT women adopt a hectoring tone, the underlying implication of which is that I have done something stupid which has led to me being a nuisance.

When I was a customer of Tesco Visa in Ireland I often had to call to find out why I had been again humiliated in a public place by having my card “declined” when I was well in credit. In England there is a comic stereotype “Essex Girl”. The stereotype is always called Sharon or Tracy. On my first call to the Tesco call centre I was expecting to hear an Irish voice but instead I got a Romford Robot. “Helloi’msharon’owmayoihelpyew?” These creatures have been “trained” in “customer service”. This results in an inability to listen to what the customer is actually saying. The robot mask slips when one persists in pursuing a real answer. The dialogue is terminated with a  faux polite customer-service-speak version of “I’ve said all I’m going to say and if you don’t like it you can go boil your head”. In civilian life an Essex girl would express herself in a different demotic.

With Tesco Visa I did not get the Irish voice I expected. With Land’s End I did get unexpected Irish voices. Land’s End is  an American mail-order clothing company whose UK HQ was in the county of Rutland. Rutland is a magical place that disappears and then reappears in various local government reorganisations. I am not sure what a Rutland accent would sound like but it would not be Irish. Mellifluously-tongued ladies with names like Brannagh (“beauty with hair as dark as a raven”) Aine (“splendour, radiance, brilliance – the best-hearted woman who ever lived.”) Aoife (“beautiful, radiant, joyful”) would answer my calls to Land’s End and bend over backwards to please me (I say, steady on!). One could imagine lonely males being tempted to avail themselves of the Land’s End 24-hour call centre service just to listen to the voices of these colleens.

It would seem that Land’s End was outsourcing its call centre from Rutland to Ireland. It is now common practice to outsource to India. Employees in Bangalore read English tabloids and check on weather reports in order to pretend they are in the UK. We have encountered this when trying to get some sense out of Barclay’s Bank. Generally they have been unhelpful, not because they are Indian, but because their employer has an ingrained culture of not giving a toss about what the customer needs as long as the fat cats’  bonuses increase exponentially each year. One stood out as helpful and kept screaming “fantabulous” every we time we gave him some information.

One of my blogging acquaintances who lives in Mexico described some difficulties booking a flight to Philadelphia. The airline refused to issue a ticket because one passenger’s name was too long. The man at the call centre said that his name was Alec Baldwin. The customer asked if he was in India. The reply was customer-service speak. “Our company’s policy is not to discuss information about our company for security reasons. I am sure you understand.” The customer was patient and the problem was eventually solved. “I cannot recall an occasion when one of those earnest young people failed to solve whatever the problem was.”

He wrote about the situation with tolerant humour but an Indian blogger went for his jugular. “Blame your people, greedy American companies that are short selling you – not that poor boy… if I were the boy’s lawyer, I would have sued you for making it look like you are charging the boy and less the company or the way things are run in these companies… This call might have lasted more than ten minutes costing him money. Again they lose money if their call time exceeds the prescribed call time.”

There is some truth in this. However, it is not just a case of the west exploiting India. A large, oriental-style building outside Peterborough houses, battery-hen style, 700 British people working   for the Indian company Tata, which is not the only Indian company to have made inroads into the UK.

Working conditions are often poor with lack of privacy and distracting noise.  Impaired vision and hearing problems are common. Workers have reported stress-related problems, disrupted sleep and eating patterns which have in turn caused social and family difficulties. Continuous sitting in one posture causes  cervical spondylosis, ‘wear and tear’ of the vertebrae and discs in the neck. Dealing with angry customers cannot be good for the health.  There are problems arising out of lack of union representation. There is a lack of transparency about management guidelines and production standards

However sympathetic one might be to the problems of the human being on the other end of the line, the fact remains that as a paying customer one cannot help but be frustrated  at poor service. The experience a customer gets and the results a company achieves on a given call are almost totally dependent on t