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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 December 2005, 13:44 GMT
Holding the line... and your nerve
Elizabeth Thomson
In this week's reader's article, Elizabeth Thomson, from Glasgow, speaks out on that all too familiar experience of being held in a call queue.

THE UNANSWERED CALL

Have you tried to phone anyone other than a personal friend? You dial the number, the requisite ring tone is diagnosed - you wait.

An automated voice tells you to enter your telephone number, your account number, birthday, grandmother's birthday and your great uncle's favourite colour. You comply in the belief that the operator will instantly recognise you and be able to attend to your call.

Telephone generic
For Elizabeth, the experience has been almost too much to take

Music follows, an audible click, the adrenaline is released in anticipation of contact. 'Your call is important to us'. That is repeated at x number of second intervals, until you can hear yourself shouting out - 'if my call is so important to you why don't you..?'

Another click, the voice states you have reached the head of the queue, your call will be answered as soon as the next operator becomes available. You relax, in the belief that you will be answered within the next few minutes.

Again and yet again the voice says you are at the head of the queue - by now you have spilt your coffee and the cat has been kicked away from under the table.

You look at the clock, 15 minutes have passed since you started - do you end it here and now or do you hold, so as not to waste that valuable time already spent.

Your blood pressure is at boiling point.

A totally incomprehensible person cancels the music. The name is repeated at least three times, and finally spelt, to realise that you are through to downtown Delhi!

You understand that you have to repeat all your personal details once again. To be told...'I am sorry your enquiry cannot be dealt with at this number, please phone...'

You are screaming, tears rolling down your cheek. You phone a friend to let off steam, to hear 'Jemima and Jake are unavailable at the moment - please leave your name and number after the long tone'.

You restrain from throwing the equipment the length of the room. It will cost good money to replace.

You lie there sobbing in despair and slowly you begin to realize the phone is ringing beside you. An old friend decided to give you a call for a long chat!

An hour later the receiver is replaced - how on earth could I survive without that wonderful modern invention - the telephone!

Your views on Elizabeth Thomson's article.

I just want to say that I am of the same opinion of Lindsay from West Lothian. I work for a "big" telecommunications company on the outskirts of Glasgow. We constantly have calls waiting to be answered, usually about 500. We don't sit with our feet up as Lindsay said but we are helping other people. We are not all dolly dimple and do have feelings. So I ask u this when u come through to someone in a call centre, It is NOT their fault that u have been held in a queue, and DON'T take your frustration out on them. I myself have just had a welsh gentleman screaming at me on the phone due to being held for 20mins, but its the company's fault not mine. Even though it may not sound like it as when have to take the company's point of view, we ARE on Your side.
Chris, Glasgow

I agree with the sentiments regarding Indian/non UK call centres - although I'm sure the individuals want to help, in many (too many!) instances they are unable to for whatever reason and/or cannot understand our accents - nor us theirs resulting in frustration and anger. I also use RBOS and have found them to be excellent - I wish more companies used UK call centres! Perhaps what we need is a web site showing which companies use non UK call centres and we can then more easily choose which companies we wish to use BEFORE getting ensnared by their non UK call centres!
Andrew Taylor, Stirling

In my last job I worked for the largest independently owned UK computer reseller, now no longer in business. The call centre was UK based, although no better than some of the horror stories you hear about elsewhere. Calls cost 1.00 per minute, and most customers were left holding the line for ages. The jewel in the crown however was the guy with the job title "Call Avoidance Engineer." This chap was employed to tell customers that they were not getting a visit from us Field Service Engineers, AFTER their case had been escalated beyond the call centre staff. The fault does not always lie with the call centres, but with the upper management of companies whose job rests on the profits going back to the shareholders.
Tom, Stirling

Some companies can be truly dire to deal with but, believe it or not, I have also had some very good service from Call Centres and it is useful being able to contact companies at nights and weekends. "More Than", for example, have always been very helpful when I called them, yet Royal insurance their parent company can only be contacted during normal office hours. Does anyone know why? I also agree with all that has been said about the rip off of being kept hanging on to 0870/5 premium rate numbers and have bookmarked www.saynoto0870.com for future reference. Thanks for the information Ian.
Scott Ronald, Glasgow, UK

When are consumers going to realise that companies only provide a good service when they are forced to? Most call centres are set up to actively discourage the customer. If you've bought something and it doesn't work, they don't care if you hang up in frustration - they already have your money! The answer: don't pay for anything until you're happy with the service. If that isn't an option, go elsewhere.
Stuart, Edinburgh

To Megan from Cheshire - I resent, in the strongest possible terms, your suggestion that all call centre workers are stupid. I am currently studying (part time) for my 2nd degree and use the call centre wage to supplement my income. To Shona from Oban - no the recorded messages should not be banned altogether. They are (usually) designed to ensure you get put through to the correct person who will be able to deal with your query. If people have a problem with call centres in India, demand that companies use UK call centres - and transfer your business to companies who do most if not all their call centre business in the UK. I will continue to do my level best to assist all the people I speak to at my call centre - even when they question my parentage or threaten either my life, or legal action against me. That's because I, like most of my fellow call centre workers do actually care about the people we speak to, we do sympathise with the problems they are calling about, and we do want to do our best to ensure that when they finish the call they are happy with the outcome!
Fiona, Livingston

Megan comments that people who work in call-centres are stupid people who, if they had more than half a brain would be looking for a decent job. I worked in a call-centre for 6 months alongside a number of very intelligent and able people, many of whom had good degrees and other qualifications. Of course there are people in call centres who aren't as capable - I now work for a very well respected organisation, and there are people there who are lazy and not so bright, so to specifically brand call centre workers as thick is pretty ignorant. and a wee tip - if you're polite and reasonable rather than a snob then you're much more likely to find the individual you're speaking to willing to help.
Alex, Glasgow

I too am in the process of moving my business banking to RBS from Abbey, following frustrations using the "call centre" which culminated with "No I won't put you through to a supervisor, call this number to complain (and quoted the number I was already "connected" to). The complaint number I was given next linked to an answer phone - three working days later no-one has called back ...
David Ross, Troon

I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments expressed by Lyn Williams. I also object to those companies who think it is acceptable for them to extract a profit from their business activities in this society, but feel it is also acceptable for them not to employ people here. I for one, DO refuse to do business with these companies. My response to Norwich Union's exporting of jobs to India was to withdraw 60k of pension funds from them and re-invest them with a company who do not show such disdain for their employees here. Similarly, my Lloyds TSB credit card has not been used since they also exported jobs from the UK. Hit them where it hurts people and you might just have an effect.
Bill B, Stirling

I have to say I have nothing against call centres per se. I do have a problem with people who have little understanding of the problem because they either cannot understand your accent. This I have experienced from UK call centres as well as those overseas. When recently trying to call the Child Benefit Office I received a recorded message to tell me that all of the lines are busy and I could try later...far better than please wait in the queue which gives the impression that your call just might be answered in the next hour! An improvement on this would of course be to simply have an engaged tone. Why oh why do so many companies feel that customers will be turned away by an engaged tone rather than the half hour wait which is costing them money? My second biggest gripe with call centres is the inability of the software the company has provided to deal with the details you are trying to log...example the Inland Revenue Tax Credits system can only log one change per day so when I called and didn't have all the paperwork to hand I was told I would have to wait until the next day. We must all realise that it is not the fault of the person who answers the phone that you have received poor service, rather it is the company who has not provided that person with the necessary tools and training to competently deal with the wide range of problems people may be calling with.
Jo, Glasgow

It is a complete rip-off to be charged whilst listening to silence or a recorded voice telling you absolutely nothing. All these automated menu systems should give you an instant option of speaking to a person instead of going through five minutes of menu options to find that none of them suit your purpose. I think it is about time the government forced these companies to stop charging for a call until you are actually connected to a person. All these premium charge lines should also inform you what you will be charged when you actually start speaking to someone - before you are charged so that you can hang up before charging takes place.
Tony, Dalgety Bay

I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments expressed by Lyn Williams. I also object to those companies who think it is acceptable for them to extract a profit from their business activities in this society, but feel it is also acceptable for them not to employ people here. I for one, DO refuse to do business with these companies. Hit them where it hurts people and you might just have an effect.
Bill B, Stirling

When are consumers going to realize that companies only provide a good service when they are forced to? Most call centres are set up to actively discourage the customer. If you've bought something and it doesn't work, they don't care if you hang up in frustration - they already have your money! The answer: don't pay for anything until you're happy with the service. If that isn't an option, go elsewhere.
Stuart, Edinburgh, Scotland

One suspects at times that there are no help people. The idea is that you stay on infinite hold until you quit and hang up.
Graeme Stickings, Newcastle upon Tyne

Everyone I talk to HATES these call systems. Be of no doubt that they are installed to save the company money, they are NOT done to enhance customer care.
Keith Hart, Hilton-of-Cadboll, Ross-Shire

Call centres are dead. Land Lines and telephones are dead. Some backwards people just haven't figured it out yet. With the advent of Internet banking I haven't spoken to nor set foot in my bank (which may possibly be closed now) in over 10 years. If any product is offering support over the phone I refuse to have anything to do with it.
Andrew, Glasgow

If more of us refused to deal with companies who have shipped their customer services to "downtown Delhi" then perhaps companies would be forced to bring their call centres back home where we could at the very least get someone to understand our problems when we have to call. I have now, on principle cancelled insurance policies, etc whenever I find out that it is a foreign call centre who is dealing with any enquiries.
Lyn Williams, Edinburgh

I work in a call centre and it's attitudes like this that make our job 100 times harder. What do they think - that were sitting having cups of tea while they are waiting to be dealt with - I don't think so. Generally we are dealing with other people just as intent on making our lives a misery while we try our hardest to make at least one person happy.
Lindsay, West Lothian

One of the reasons I am with the RBOS is that during working hours I speak to a human at my branch when they are closed I have access to digital banking. Call centres are one of those ideas that seem a great from the viewpoint of an accountant but in reality the service provided is superficial. One of my experiences of using an 0875 number was the call centre (in India) advised me to contact the company direct as they could not deal with my question. The service neither met my expectation nor need. That is the key issue in the Consumers Act in deciding whether a service is competent or not. After sales service is part of the deal when purchasing most goods - for the period of their warrantee. How the company pays for this service and ensures it meets appropriate needs and expectations is a commercial decision. While it is true you get what you pay for it is also true that repeat sales are core to a business and one thing that is certain is ineffective call centres are a dead cert that I will not use that company's services or products again.
Peter Thomson, Twynholm

I agree with Elizabeth's frustration and it is made worse by having to dial an over-priced 0870 number. Small hint: access www.saynoto0870.com to find an alternative 'land-line' alternative number and at least a 20 or 30 minute wait won't cost as much. Why should we bump up companies profits while they waste our time??
Ian Morrison, Edinburgh

Having worked in a call centre for a number of years I can see both sides of the argument. I got all too used to customers coming on the line already frustrated by the queuing system, let alone whatever problem had prompted them to call in the first place. I have also had frustrating experiences calling companies who have their call centres in places like India. I can see why they do it (i.e. to keep costs down and allow them to remain competitive in the marketplace), but I don't think it helps them to provide a good service to their customers. However, these people are there to make their living and verbally abusing them does not help anyone - they're only trying to do their job.
Katrina, Edinburgh

I can totally understand Elizabeth Thomson, I go through the same carry on and it does upset you very much. I think these recording messages should be banned all together. It must be really upsetting for the elderly people to go through all that carry-on.
Shona, Oban

Unkind as it may seem, remember that if the call centre operator seems stupid - maybe they are! If you had half a brain you'd be looking for a better job.
Megan, Cheshire

I think it's great that they are able to outsource work to needier parts of the world but I resent calling a helpline only to find that the foreign voice at the end of the phone can't understand my Scottish dialect! It's so irritating!
Pamela Cruickshank, Edinburgh

After phoning a Glasgow Lloyds TSB no. as requested I was told I would have to ring our local EK branch for an answer to my question. On doing this something didn't sound quite right .On asking where I was connected to I was told INDIA. End of conversation!
James T Miller, East Kilbride

Perhaps Elizabeth's journalistic approach is overdone, but her understanding of the issue is spot on. Customer care is poor in this country with so many of the essential services and utilities that we need to avail ourselves of using inadequate and customer unfriendly telephone systems. The transfer of so many of these systems abroad, ostensibly dressed up as offering us a better service, leads to frustrating and bitter conversations. Those operatives at the other end of the line usually do their best to assist someone whose patience is fast running out, but frequently the conflict in our dialects and accents, and the fact they are working to prescribed questions and answers as on a website "Help" facility, can only lead to customer and operative conflict in a fair percentage of cases. Sadly, the only to improve this issue is to dismantle the overseas call centre culture and reinstate the opportunity to talk to local people at local branches, as capitalised in the Royal Bank of Scotland's marketing. Of course they could only be expected to maintain a service during working hours and that's where the after hours "collective" call centre comes into play, but surely we can simplify the automated programming system to the point where a friendly "live" individual guides you personally where you want to go on this system. After all, we are the customer... something sadly forgotten by so many companies and utilities today and to whom surely they must want to come back.
Donald MacRae, Elgin

And to add insult to injury, the customer has to pay for this! Trying to resolve a problem earlier this year cost me over 64 in customer service calls, eventually being told no-one could help! Needless to say, no compensation and I won't touch the company in question ever again!
Jen, Isle of Mull

All such commentary about how frustrated callers become in call queues must be weighted against the following factors. 1. At the point Elizabeth purchased the relevant good or service, did she enquire as to whether customer services would be provided via a call-centre? If not, she has no right to complain. 2. Was lowest cost, enabled by a centralised customer service function, part of that buying decision? If not, she has no right to complain. She is paying a price that is artificially low, designed to fit the British consumer's addiction to purchasing goods at below market rates wherever possible. 3. Why did Elizabeth buy a product serviced from overseas? Eight per cent of Glasgow's working population are employed in call centres - it should be five. By buying products serviced from overseas, she's unwittingly helping to cap the wages and prospects of her already poor fellow Glaswegians; and our government says this is a good thing - something to do with 'globalisation'. 4. One hopes that her frustration at having been made to wait while a computer routes calls through to people being shouted at, verbally abused and having their livelihoods threatened by the great British public does not prevent her from being polite and civil to people being paid 6.20 per hour to fix impossible problems largely created by other people.
Martin Kelly (The g-Gnome), Glasgow

1. These days everything is done via a call centre so asking the company in question about their customer services department is a no-brainer. 2. Not necessarily. For example, BT, the most expensive telco company, outsources to India. 3. I would have thought that point of this is that if you are paying for a British service you would expect customer services to be based here in Britain. 4. I'm sure Elizabeth was polite to the Indian call centre worker but from past experience sitting on the other end of the phone in a call centre I can appreciate why people get upset, although I don't condone throwing abuse at someone who is only trying to do their job.
Tracey Main (ex-call centre worker), Grangemouth




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