They are usually polite. They introduce themselves by their first names, and address you by yours. They assure you at every opportunity that they are there to help you. Then they take you into a nightmare world where all normal standards of behaviour are reversed and nothing is quite what it seems.
Is there any relationship which encapsulates the wonders and frustrations of the modern world quite as perfectly as that between a customer and a call-centre operative somewhere on the Indian subcontinent?
As in many toxic relationships, there is an unhealthy level of dependence on one side, a tendency towards evasiveness, perhaps even dishonesty, on the other. It is often difficultto escape from.
Having spent many hours this week in my own call-centre hell, I read with some sympathy the case of George Bates, a self-employed carpenter who has just discovered the power that a disgruntled telephone adviser in a distant continent has over his life.
A client of the Abbey bank, Bates rang for discussion about his overdraft and, after being treated rudely, dared to give the operator a low rating on a customer satisfaction survey. The next time he tried to reach his account online, he found it blocked for “security reasons”. His overdraft facility had been withdrawn and his direct debits cancelled. His identity had been changed to that of a Ugandan.
Abbey eventually admitted that an error had occurred which had subsequently been corrected. They offered compensation of £200.
There was, of course, no comment on the behaviour of the bank’s employee, nor even an admission that someone had done anything wrong. Incall-centre hell, no one except the customer has a name; no one is ever accountable. No one makes an error. It simply occurs.
For all the smarmy use of first names, and in spite of the utterly pointless satisfaction surveys, big business is ruthlessly opposed to individuality. Humans are units of profit. The call centre is the face whichmodern capitalism shows the world: smiling, sinister, empty. It has no physical presence, no postal address, or nationality. It is specifically designed to disempower and confuse thecustomer.
Call-centre horror stories tend to resemble one another. This week,having spent a morning trying to resolve a problem caused by my internet server AOL and having been given unhelpful advice, all on a premium rate phone-line, I made a terriblemistake. I tried to lodge a complaint.
That was where my problems really began. I was directed to no fewer than seven different departments. No one could take my complaint, nor give me the name of a person who could, nor provide their own full name.
Rashly, for this was yet another expensive call, I persevered. Eventually someone agreed to accept the complaint and reimburse some money to my account.
Could he, I asked, just confirm what we had agreed by email? He could not. Could I have a reference number in case there was a problem? That was against company policy. I hung up, defeated. The machine always wins. It is designed to keep the customer at bay, to grind him into despair. We can communicate across the world in a variety of astonishingly sophisticated media but the result, paradoxically, is less communication.
Vast corporations can spend billions on their image and on advertising their products but, rather than have to deal with humans in a normal way, they have created the call centre. Between the overpaid executive and the poor saps whose business pays his salary and bonus, there sits a man from Mumbai. No wonder if now and then, even he cracks and changes the identity of an English carpenter into that of a Ugandan, just for the hell of it.
We’ll brainwash our own kids, thanks…
There has been much huffiness and outrage after an anti-racism group set up by the local council in South Norfolk asked primary school children to welcome the children from a nearby travellers’ site who may shortly be joining their school. It was a shameful act of propaganda and brainwashing, said angry parents.
The idea that young children are usually brainwashed by their parents in favour of prejudice against travellers, rather than against it, seems not to have occurred to these champions of freedom. The council, rather feebly, has apologised.
If man boobs are out, what about self-portraits?
The breasts of the golfer Colin Montgomerie are in the news once more. A few years ago, they were the subject of a taunt by an American fan during the course of the US Open. “Nice pair of tits you’ve got there, Colin,” the man called out while Montgomerie was standing on the tee. Now the artist Jack Vettriano has rejected an offer to paint the great golfer, below, for the National Galleries of Scotland, on similar grounds.
“I don’t do men with breasts and I don’t mean that as unkind to Colin Montgomerie,” he said. He could only paint a face he liked, he added, presumably in the same spirit of kindness. “Have you seen Colin Montgomerie’s face recently?”
It is said that those who dismiss Vettriano’s work as lightweight are cultural snobs but, if he paints as he thinks, there would seem to be ample grounds for snobbery. Which other Scots will he reject as failing the breast-test? Alex Salmond? Gordon Brown? Robbie Coltrane? Perhaps it is not the shape of his subjects which is the problem here, but that of his talent.