Everyone with a phone is a victim of call centre agents. In this extract from 50 People who Stuffed up the World, the authors look at how unimportant your call really is.
The call-centre drone
The human you eventually speak to, after navigating the labyrinthine hell-cycle of automated responses put in place to prevent you from doing so, when you call a helpline; Kafka’s worst fucking nightmare
Your call is important to us.
Does anyone buy that line any more? Does the widest-eyed doe-blinking horoscope-touting Santa-believing teenaged fly-catcher still fall for it? Is there the smallest iota of honesty, or even meaning, vested in that godforsaken line?
Your call is so important to us that we’ve been ignoring you for seventeen minutes at your expense.
That would at least approximate something closer to the cynical truth, but for words to have any real meaning they need to convey a truth understood by those who speak them. In this case, there’s a machine playing words but, if you’ll indulge us a little pop-philosophy a moment, they’re not really being spoken, are they?
They’re simply being initiated by a series of ones and zeroes programmed to execute a pre-recorded voice, a voice without any value whatsoever assigned to it because computers, even those vested with human qualities, don’t intrinsically know what is important and what is not.
Your call is important to us? That’s as absurd a notion as Sony being responsible for the genius of a Mozart concerto. Or a thousand monkeys on a thousand typewriters writing the greatest novel known to man. It’s not even a lie. It’s simply a great big digitally executed up-yours.
Sorry, silky-voiced and soothingly soporific electro-Scottish lady of some Call-Centre Land narcotic fever-dream, but what kind of blithering halfwits do you take us for? No, our call is not important to you. Our call is an irritant and, worse, a line item in an Excel spreadsheet of costs that need to be managed.
Wait! Hallelujah! Somebody is answering! Excuse me? Can you speak up? It sounds like you’re in a Bangladeshi train station … Is that a goat? What, wait, you are in a Bangladeshi train station?
Okay. Hocus pocus time to focus. What do you mean is it plugged in? Of course it’s plugged in! What do you take me for, a deranged toddler? Can you please just answer my question? No? You have a script, and if you stray from the script you’ll lose your job? What? Are you selling me an upgrade now? Or are you telling me something about my actual problem? Wait wait, no, don’t put me on hold …
What kind of modernist hell-with-elevator-muzak have we constructed here?
In the end, it seems, economics may win this argument for us. A misunderstanding of economics and the human capacity for tolerating surreal mental torture once made the operations director of GigantiCorp Corporation Incorporated outsource their call centres to Delhi or Dhaka or Paraguay or Pianosa, and in most cases this has made the experience so tormentingly ghastly for the customers of GC Corp that they’re starting to buy other people’s stuff.
So the call centre in the Philippines got a rocket up its CEO to employ people who have at least met somebody whose aunt once knew somebody who spoke English, or they’ll close down the call centre and open a workable one back home, write it off to experience, and cash their bonus cheque anyway.
You think we’re making this up? Nope. In recent years, the movement has been for companies to start repatriating their customer service call centres due to overwhelming customer dissatisfaction.
Not only do the locals speak a betterly type of the English but it ticks the patriotic jobcreation box. These corporate honchos know how to follow a trend. And they have, of course, made up the budgeting difference with expanded exponentially unnavigable self-service technology (don’t even bother, just press # repeatedly) and email communication that will be responded to within 48 hours (by someone in Bangladesh, no doubt, but at least he has a spell checker).
Now, we’re not proposing here that home-stocked call centres offer a decent service by definition – some of them are in some ways worse, if only for their sheer lack of enthusiasm – but we are saying that it’s easier to have an apocalyptically bad call centre at the far ends of the earth where it’s always the middle of the night GMT, English proficiency isn’t as common and there is no cultural connection whatsoever between caller and customer service agent.
Either way, at home or abroad, very rarely an extraordinary thing happens – a moment that fills your life with an ephemeral flash of dazzling light. You ring the number, a person who can communicate in English answers the phone and this glorious representation of all that is good about humanity has been actually trained to help you. They know the business and they know how to fix what’s wrong. They sound like they actually care.
Would I like a voucher as an indication of the company’s regret that things went wrong? Really? I may literally cry. They laughed at your dumb joke? Just marry me.
This completely irrational adoration of your company, directors of GigantiCorp Corporation Incorporated, is yours for the taking. All you have to do is have a functional call centre staffed by nice people who speak a reasonable approximation of the language of your callers and who keep you holding for less than seventeen minutes. (The eighteenth minute is when the Michael Douglas in Falling Down meltdown kicks in.) Your customers will be so blown away that they will forget why they were upset in the first place. The power of good customer service – the outcome of which is the total reversal of a damaging narrative – is invaluable and, seeing as you have to have a call centre, why not just make it a good one? Or, you know, don’t. Make us email you. Yeah, we know. Our email is important to you.
‘Thank you for calling Megacorp. Your call is as unimportant to us as every human action and may be recorded for purposes that are unclear. All our operators have identical names right now. Please listen carefully to the following options although they all lead, eventually, to the same outcome. Press 1 to hear this message again, cyclically, for ever. Press 2 to keep perfectly still for seven years, listening. Press 3 to speak to your three-greats granddaughter, who is also your three-greats grandmother. Press 8 to experience the interpenetration of nondeterministic reality with rational unreality. Press 5 to be engulfed by a plot hole. Press 9¾ to find yourself amid a popular fantasy. For all other options, please sacrifice the goat that your family ate last week. After the tone, you will be executed by firing squad and reincarnated as a jaguar. Thank you for calling Megacorp.’
– Frank Upton, reader competition in The Spectator in which entrants ‘were invited to take something mundane and filter it through the lens of magic realism’
• 50 People who Stuffed up the World by Alex Parker and Tim Richman os published by Burnet Media, Distributed by Jacana Media. Recommended retail price is R250. Available at all good bookstores, or you can buy it here.
Click here for more information.