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Once the customer was always right. Now the customer's always put on hold
23:58 GMT, 18 December 2012
Surrounded by paperwork at my kitchen table, I put my call onto speakerphone and begin to do battle.
I press option one, I press option two, I press the hash key more times than I care to remember. I’m passed from one department to another, via Manchester and Mumbai.
I’ve been battling like this with three different companies on automated phone lines for countless hours since September 21. But three months on, I still have a strip of asbestos in my mains electricity box.
The shocking indifference to customers and individuals by large modern corporations and Government services is commonplace. They treat us as though we are a mob to be kept at bay (picture posed by model)
British Gas, my energy provider, discovered it during a routine visit. But since their engineer came and went, insisting it was not his responsibility to remove it, no one at the end of the 0800 numbers I am forced to call to ask what is happening will take the slightest bit of responsibility for sorting it out.
In order to get a simple thing that used to be called ‘service’, I have been locked in a bureaucratic battle of epic proportions with disinterested call-centre staff who would test the patience of Job.
This shocking indifference to customers and individuals by large modern corporations and Government services is, as everyone knows, commonplace. They treat us as though we are a mob to be kept at bay.
Yesterday, the Mail revealed that waiting on the phone to talk to the taxman cost us 30 million in premium phone charges last year.
And the bill for the time we wasted was put at a further 100 million, according to the National Audit Office (NAO), which was scathing about the poor customer service offered by HM Revenue and Customs.
Last year, around 20 million phone calls to HMRC were ‘not answered’, according to the NAO. In fact, the figure was certainly higher because the revenue claims to have answered a call even if the caller hung up while an automatic message was played.
My experience with British Gas began a few hours after the engineer left, when I rang them and their staff informed me without a hint of helpfulness or sympathy that ‘the job’ had already been outsourced to UK Power Networks.
I rang UK Power Networks, only to be told by another disinterested voice that they had, in turn, outsourced it to a company called Skanska.
So I rang Skanska and they were even more unimpressed by my desire for information. After passing me around various departments, and making me hold for long periods each time, their operatives then told me they could not give me a date sooner than the end of November to come and change the mains box.
Their engineer finally turned up on November 28 — more than two months after the strip of asbestos was discovered.
Wasted time: Last year, around 20 million phone calls to HMRC were 'not answered', according to the NAO
‘Thank goodness you’ve come,’ I said with relief as I showed him the old mains box. He pulled a camera from his bag and took a photograph, then made for the door.
‘What about the asbestos’ I called, desperately. ‘Aren’t you going to take it out’
‘I’ve just been told to take a photo. I don’t know anything about taking it out,’ he droned in his best jobsworth’s monotone. ‘You’ll have to ring British Gas and ask them.’
‘What Oh no, no, no . . .’
‘Look, I’m sure someone will ring you and tell you what’s happening.’
But, of course, nearly a month later, no one has rung, the asbestos sits under my stairs, and if I want it to go, it will be up to me to get back on the 0800 numbers and beg the firm to which I pay exorbitant amounts of money to come and make my supply safe.
The saga is an all-too-familiar one in this automated age.
There was a time — not so long ago — when the attitude was that ‘the customer is always right’. Now the customer is always put on hold.
Power shift: The attitude used to be that 'the customer is always right'. Now the customer is always put on hold (picture posed by model)
The customer was once king. Now the call centre is king.
Petty officialdom has grown from something we used to encounter when we applied for a council parking permit to something we encounter every time we try to get satisfaction from a bank, an airline, a mobile phone company, a supermarket.
A friend told me of his attempts to cancel the mobile phone contract of his brother who had died. He was left to hang on for 45 minutes before T-Mobile bothered to answer.
What used to be called ‘customer service’ has now lost the ethic of service to such an extent that most big companies have expunged the word ‘service’ from their lexicon and refer chillingly to ‘customer experience’.
(I’ve complained by email to two firms recently, one a High Street shop, another an insurance giant, and both times I received a letter back from their Customer Experience Manager.)
It would be funny, in a bleak way, if it were not so wasteful of time. The cost of the lost working hours we spend fighting call centres on expensive phone lines is now so crippling it is in danger of adding to the national debt.
In my experience, utility companies are probably the worst offenders, although everyone has their own bete noire.
As someone who supported the privatisation of public utilities in the Eighties and who proudly bought shares in the first ones sold off, it pains me to say I am appalled by the way they treat customers.
We all have experience of a public service or organisation which has tied us up in knots: for example, when waiting in A&E and the hospital staff want us to fill in ten forms about our lifestyle choices before they begin treatment.
But when we are treated in a similar fashion by commercial bodies that ought to know better, it’s much more offensive.
And yet banks, insurance companies, even High Street stores, are becoming so bogged down in petty rules and regulations that when you get cross in frustration while talking to their unhelpful staff, they respond by warning you about ‘verbal abuse’ and threaten to put the receiver down.
‘This call is being recorded for quality and training purposes,’ the patronising voice bleats.
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I would have more respect for them if they admitted: ‘This call is being recorded because we are so useless we may need our lawyers to pour over the transcript if you sue us for the horrifically bad service you are about to get.’
We all now know the ruses they get up to. It seems barely credible, for example, that when you ring a company to remove channels from your satellite TV package, the waiting time is so long you invariably give up. But when you ring to add channels and increase your monthly subscription you get straight through.
Also, what on earth is going on with the increasingly obscure questions they demand you answer to get through security
The third digit from your ‘telephone passcode’ — something you probably agreed to in a hurried conversation five years ago; your mother’s maiden name; your postcode; the long number across the front of your card; your first family pet’s blood group. It’s ridiculous.
There are exceptions, of course. I’ve always got a decent service out of Barclays bank, but only, I suspect, because I pay extra to have access to a hotline where a crack team have obviously been trained to be courteous and efficient.
They answer within two rings and never ask for more than one piece of information to identify you, which just shows that it can be done.
It would also be very easy to improve service if call centres were forced to start dealing with customers within a minute, or the cost of the call reverts to them.
To their credit, British Gas have voluntarily paid me a moderate amount of compensation for the time I have wasted trying to sort out my mains box, which is better than nothing.
But as for their sub-contractor Skanska, which purports on its website to be ‘one of the world’s leading construction groups with expertise in public and residential infrastructure projects’, I cannot work out how they do business at all.
When I last rang to ask what they proposed to do about the asbestos, a weary-sounding man spent ages complaining that he really couldn’t understand why British Gas wouldn’t help me. So I rang British Gas and they, in turn, said they couldn’t understand why Skanska wasn’t getting on with it.
I have toyed with the idea of calling both British Gas and Skanska on separate phones and putting the handsets together in a bid to get them to talk to each other.
It’s worth a try. After all, why bother with the customer