Call centres and the concept of purgatory
“This item of yours, Sir, can you describe it?” asked Vicky, or more likely Vikki, the call centre ‘adviser’, not bothering to hide her boredom. Minimum wage employees in low-prestige jobs where 90% of recruits leave within a year have a particular way of intoning the word ‘Sir’, which conveys both resentment and the cast-iron assurance that, whatever your question, complaint or suggestion, it (and you) will be:
passed to ‘technical support’.
Technical Support is simply the concept of purgatory, updated. Technical Support used to mean Fat Dave from IT. Although always slow, obstructive, incompetent, unwashed, aromatic and covered in crumbs, Fat Dave was at least borderline human. Technical Support has now evolved into a disembodied process, a global machine whose function is to bring slow, obstructive, incompetence to a world-wide customer base.
You may have signed up for ‘services backed by our award-winning technical support’, but they never tell you which. You’re expecting their speed, service and solutions to have been recognised by juries of their peers, but instead they’ve romped home with:
the dead cat behind the fridge prize;
the unexpected dog shit exactly the same colour as the pavement prize;
the month-old Chinese takeaway rediscovered under the sofa on returning from an overseas trip prize; and
the overflowing toilet because the U-bend’s blocked with the fat from ten years’ worth of cooked breakfasts tipped down the drain every day prize.
But don’t let me put you off. There is a remote chance that Technical Support may not, on this occasion, live down to its reputation and might just stumble upon an answer to your question. They might just solve your problem. They might just be able to advise you exactly what you need to do, in order to perform exactly the task you needed to carry out, in order to achieve exactly the result you had in mind. Just how remote is this possibility? Well, perhaps you’ll get lucky, but you’re more likely to see:
irony in the Deep South;
a Belfast Republican wearing a bowler hat, an orange sash, and playing the flute; or
a Taliban delegation at an inter-faith workshop organised by the liberal wing of the Church of England.
But don’t let me put you off. You may elect to hold the line. You may decide that, because you do indeed have a push-button telephone, you might get lucky with ‘one of the following five options’. On reaching the fifth you will, however, realise that none applies to you. No, no, you’re not:
calling about problems setting up a new account;
calling about problems accessing an existing account;
calling about problems making a new booking;
calling about problems canceling or refunding an existing booking; or
calling about problems with terminating an account.
You are, in fact, simply calling because some imbecilic (yet award-winning) system has yet again insisted that there is only one train a day from Birmingham to Manchester and that it goes via Peterborough. So you go for Option Six.
Option Six, let there be no mistake, is Room 101. It is the sum of all fears. It is the dark, gelatinous, evil heart of the global incompetence machine. Option Six is merciless. Option Six is the destroyer of souls. Option Six is relentless. Option Six rips all hope from the human spirit. Option Six knows no pity. Option Six administers only grinding, limitless, frustration. From now. For ever. Until the end of time. Option Six is:
‘Please hold if you would like to speak to an adviser.’
You had a choice. You, yourself, the human being, quite unaided by the internet, really do know there are several trains an hour between Birmingham and Manchester. And you also know, with absolute certainty, that they go nowhere near Peterborough. But you wanted the internet to tell you whether the Family Fun Price-Buster Weekend SupaSaver ticket was cheaper than the Super Special Daysout Megarover. You’d seen the advert somewhere: something about £5 off, or something like it.
So now you’re holding for Technical Support. ‘You are now in a queue for the first available adviser.’ But, don’t you realise, there isn’t one. There will never be an adviser available. No matter how long you hold the line (and you’re just passing £5 in phone bill already) you will never, in all eternity, ever, ever, get to speak with a person who you would consider suitably qualified, precise, accurate, articulate or informed enough to give you advice.
Advice comes from doctors, lawyers and other people with clean fingernails. Inspiration comes from artists, writers, composers. Astonishment comes whenever you contemplate the spectacular achievement of your species:
the capacity to imagine conditions a billionth of a second after the birth of the universe;
the desire to construct a machine capable of replicating those conditions;
the ability to actually build it; and
the capability to share its results with every sentient human being on the planet.
But you are not in the queue for a sentient being. You are in the Option Six queue for Technical Support. ‘Your call is valuable to us,’ the holding-voice said. Then, over and over again, every 30 seconds, ‘we apologise for the delay in taking your call’.
They do not mean it. They are lying to you. Every minute’s more delay makes the call more valuable to the evil global incompetence machine, You are paying to listen to their lies and endure hold-music which sounds as if it was played against her will by a terminally melancholy employee in an animal research laboratory.
“Hello this is Technical Support, my name is Dave, how can I help you today?”
No. Don’t fall for it. He is not called Dave. He’s Sanjay, Raul or Yvgeny; somebody out there in the fringelands of the global economy. Anywhere in the right timezone, anywhere where it costs less to employ him than it costs to keep a prisoner locked up back here. They are compelled, all of them, to call themselves Dave, so that callers may imagine the appearance and aroma of Fat Dave and take comfort from his crumbs.
You explain the problem. Yvgeny’s grasp of the relative geography of Birmingham, Manchester and Peterborough is, you rightly suspect, incomplete, even when you’ve tried, really tried, to make it local for him. “You see, that would be like trying to go from Moscow to St Petersburg via Kiev.”
“That will be stupid. Why want go not in straight line?”
“Indeed Yvgeny, why want go not in straight line indeed? In my country, we call straight line from Birmingham to Manchester West Coast Main Line.”
“And Piotrsburgh, he is not on West Coast?”
“No, Peterborough is in East.”
“Like Vladivostok, yes?”
“Yes, a bit like Vladivostok, but with less vodka.”
“And where Kiev?”
“Capital city of Ukraine, I think? Why do you ask.”
“Because first you say that your Piotrsburgh he is Kiev, but now you say he is Vladivostok. Which is right?”
“It doesn’t matter, I was just trying to explain that Peterborough is not on a straight line between Birmingham and Manchester.”
“Why it not matter? Kiev is only big detour. Vladivostok is giant detour taking many days and nights on Trans-Siberian railway. Is your Piotrsburgh just big inconvenient or giant waste of time.”
“Oh Peterborough is definitely a giant waste of time.”
“Yes. Now I understand this, I see why you not want go there, but you say website forces you go Piotrsburgh?”
“Yes, and I don’t want to go to Peterborough at all”.
“But you are the one forcing website to send you Piotrsburgh. You ask website for SupaSaver and MegaRover, yes?”
“I just wanted to know about those tickets, yes.”
“Some tickets not valid straight line way. Not technical issue, so I put you back Customer Service.”
Now’s your chance to escape, you could just put the phone down. Cut your losses – which are running at about £27 by now, by the way, given the premium rate line. But you’re too deep into hold-hypnosis.
The melancholy lab technician is back with her mournful drone. Your call is once again valuable. You will again be transferred to the first available adviser. You are in a queue and your call will be answered as soon as possible.
“Hello this is Customer Service, this is Nikki speaking, how can I help you today? Sir.”
Things have come full circle. If you’re honest, the only way Nikki, Vikki , Shazz or Cazzie could help by this stage is by giving you hints on assisted suicide. But you’re too far gone to think that positively. So you just hammer it out all over again.
“You don’t want to go via Peterborough then?”
“No, I don’t. Neither do I want to go via Kiev or Vladivostok.”
“There’s no need to be rude. Sir.”
Despite the razoring sneer of her ‘Sir’, despite your overwhelming, caveman-adrenaline, urge to slaughter and feed to the dogs the Bollinger-swilling Spawn of Satan who own ZoomTrains.com and who are profiting (right here, right now) from your misery, your last ounce of humanity helps you resist smashing the handset through the computer screen. So you just sit there and take it when Nikki tells you that it was your own fault anyway, because SupaSavers and MegaRovers are only valid on indirect routes.
She gives you the prices and times of the direct trains. But you’re too overcome with that seething mix of anger and impotence brought on by call centres. You don’t care anymore. You can’t even remember why you wanted to go to Manchester in the first place. It doesn’t matter anymore. Nothing matters. Nothing.
“Oh yes, thanks for your help.”
“Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“Yes. There is. Please just tell me why everything nowadays is so shallow, so hateful, so insincere.”
“That’s not an issue I’m trained to address. Sir. Have nice day.”
And with a click the pain, and £42.37 in call charges, is gone. It’s over. You know nothing more than you did £42.37 ago. You are filled with hate. You wish to kill.