Andrew Vine: My call to arms... how we can win the cold war against telephone tormentors

The phone’s ringing again. It’ll be another one.


Yes, sure enough. A cold caller. Double glazing, this time. That’s payment protection insurance, cavity wall insulation, British Gas and somebody trying to persuade me that the Nigerian government will send me several million dollars in exchange for my bank details, and it’s still not yet midday.

A curse on them. A plague on their random number-generating software and data harvesting that collects our every detail every time we go shopping or pay a bill, or buy something over the internet, in the process ensnaring us all in the clutches of call centres.

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Of all of them, the one I’ve come to know best is British Gas, which calls more often than most of my friends or family. It’s at least once a week, can be a couple of times, but in truth it’s unusual for them to ring during the day.

It’s usually about 7.30 in the evening, and happens with such regularity that when I’m in a certain sort of mood and the phone rings around that time, I pick up and say with feigned cheeriness: “Hello, British Gas. How are you this evening?” When it hits the bullseye and it is them, the response at the other end is satisfyingly baffled. That said, when it happens to be a friend or relative, there’s even greater bafflement and some explaining to do.

After I’ve greeted British Gas with all the bonhomie I can muster, the conversation always goes the same way. Would I like to swap my energy supplier? Well, yes if it saves me money. Can you put it in writing to me, so I can read and consider what’s on offer? Sorry sir, this is a telephone-only offer. Well, as I’ve been explaining at least once a week for a while now, I won’t do business on the phone. Okay? I’ll talk to you next week, then.

Now, the whole cold-calling exercise depends on us being polite enough to listen, and that’s precisely how we should be, even when we’re furious at having our evenings interrupted, or our chain of thought broken while trying to work. Swearing or banging the phone down simply won’t do. Rudeness and crudeness must be avoided at all costs to the cold caller, who, after all, is only trying to earn a bob just like the rest of us.

So in the pursuit of getting unwanted callers off the phone as quickly and effectively as possible, while remaining impeccably well-mannered, I’ve developed a series of stratagems over the years that seem to work, and which I’m happy to share.

Feel free to regard them as a cut-out-and-keep guide, and remember the key objectives of the exercise are to get the caller to put the phone down before you do, hopefully to get your number taken off whatever list they’re working from as it’s plain there’s absolutely no point ringing you, and also to leave yourself feeling that bit better for scoring a small victory for the sanctity of your own home.

Act like a cult

When they ask: “Is that Mr Smith?”, respond with: “Have you always been conscious of a void in your life, a longing for something indefinable, a feeling that there has to be something more? We can help. We’ve helped many others, and we can help you if you’ll only trust us. I too was lost, but now I belong, and I’m so happy since I signed over my house to The Leader and moved into a yurt in the garden. Let me share our philosophy with you.”

The phone has usually been put down by this point.

Insist that you’re a takeaway

“Is that Mr Smith?” “No mate, this is Charlie’s Pizza and Kebab. Are you the bloke that wanted the Hawaiian with extra pineapple? (As if calling to a colleague) Fred, two doners with everything on and a can of Sprite for the gentleman. Now, if it wasn’t the Hawaiian, were you the bloke that wanted the meat feast with extra meat?”

The caller will have rung off by now.

Pretend to be Arthur Askey

A favourite, this, though I admit it will only resonate with readers of a certain age with fond recollections of Big-Hearted Arthur, the pint-sized bespectacled funnyman. “Is that Mr Smith?” “Hello playmates! (Sings) Oh what a wonderful thing to be, a busy, busy, busy, busy, busy, busy bee.” Further buzzing noises are optional.

Get this right, and the phone will go down before you reach the closing “I thank you!”

Inquire after a job

“Is that Mr Smith?”

“I’m so glad you’ve called. I’ve been waiting to speak to a call centre for ages because I’ve always thought that this must be really interesting work, you must get to speak to all sorts of people, and I’m a real people person, I just find people so interesting, don’t you agree? If you’ve got a moment, I’ll just run you through my CV.”

You won’t need a CV – fake or otherwise – to hand before the call is terminated.

I’d better go, the phone’s ringing again. I think I’ll show them my Arthur.