Big business bunkum is one commodity we’re not short of – David Behrens

At a time when almost everything is in short supply, the amount of hogwash being churned out by corporations to mollify their increasingly exasperated customers knows no bounds. Hyperbole, it seems, is the one commodity we have too much of.
We're running out of almost everythingWe're running out of almost everything
We're running out of almost everything

“We’re experiencing unusually high numbers of calls at the moment,” said a voice at the energy company who wrote to me this week asking me to call them.

I tried several more times before giving up, and got the same message each time. Unusually high call numbers that occur all the time aren’t really so unusual, are they?

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But insulting our intelligence with disingenuous jargon is a speciality among our largest institutions. It’s all that some of them are actually good at. They can’t bear to own up to their shortcomings so instead they try to make them sound like benefits.

Corporate call centres are a world away from small businessesCorporate call centres are a world away from small businesses
Corporate call centres are a world away from small businesses

“We value your privacy” is how they choose to disguise website notices which are engineered to do exactly the opposite. “Safety is our first priority” and “we are working closely with our partners” are catch-all excuses for shortages of staff, resources or a general inability to do whatever it was that we expected of them.

Such phrases have come straight out of the corporate “tone of voice” handbook. It’s one of those cod sciences practiced within large organisations to influence the way they talk to the rest of us, but it always results in talking down to us. You’ll be familiar with proclamations like “we’re passionate about changing the world”, “we’re always looking for new ways of helping”, and others picked at random from a copy of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Communication. Middle-managers build their careers on believing these to be true, but the rest of us know that the jargon is there to disguise the meaning, not explain it. So when we hear a company claim that “to serve you better, we’re changing the way we talk to you”, we know that what they really mean is that they’ve outsourced their call centre to Mumbai.

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This mangling of English is, of course, as old as the language itself, but seldom has it been so institutionalised. Misplaced greengrocer’s apostrophes, or the words “polite notice” on a sign which is thus rendered anything but, are national quirks. But being taken for fools by companies carried away with their own image is more insidious.

As if to compound the insult, these same outfits have become obsessed with getting online “feedback” from customers. “How did we do today?” is the knee-jerk response to even the smallest interaction. Ignore the request and they’ll bombard you with more. But improving their rating on Google comes at the expense of irking customers – who are more likely to leave excoriating reviews as retribution. This week alone, Plusnet, E-on and Hermes are among the corporations who owe me a favour for not having done so.

It isn’t until you encounter smaller, down-to-earth businesses with a value system rooted in reality that you begin to appreciate the liberties taken by bigger institutions. For Mrs B and I, one of the many pleasures of exploring our new surroundings in the East Riding is discovering the wealth of businesses and services that are run by and for local people. Even in the more remote areas, speciality shops, tradespeople and essential amenities are more readily available than outsiders might imagine.

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These are not the nice-to-have novelty emporia squeezed between WH Smith and Clinton Cards in suburban town centres; they are the backbone of their local communities. Without them there would be no high streets at all. And without exception, they are better than almost any of the corporations. It is to be hoped the Chancellor remembers this when he finally overhauls the business rates system that is such a burden to them.

It’s true that for us, big-ticket items are harder to come by without driving all the way to Hull, but it’s still preferable to ordering online and entrusting them to Hermes. That’s especially so at the moment because a fortnight after moving in, we still have no broadband. Oh, there’s fast broadband aplenty in the village – just not at our house, for reasons Plusnet seem unable to explain.

In the final analysis, the difference between faceless corporations and local firms is accountability. For a small business, a lost customer costs money; for a big one it’s just one less person hanging on the line for the call centre.

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