Jayne Dowle: Existential hell of hanging on the telephone

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WHAT is it with telephone call centres? In my darkest moments on hold, waiting for someone to answer, the old Blondie song Hanging on The Telephone seems to come into my head. It matches my mood better than a squeaky rendition of Greensleeves or relentlessly cheerful Olly Murs on a loop.

That’s probably why I will never run a call centre. I’m always on the side of the customer. I’ve reached this conclusion through bitter experience. I must have spent actual days of my life waiting to be dealt with by so-called helplines. The mortgage company, utility firms, the local council, you name it. I’ve been there waiting. And waiting. And waiting.

Now a new survey by consumer organisation Which? finds that the time we spend hanging on the telephone is getting longer. Up to 47 minutes per call in the case of the energy companies, under constant bombardment from customers wanting to complain about rising costs and find a cheaper deal.

That’s 47 minutes of your life wasted; 47 minutes of your life where you are likely to be clocking up the premium rate mileage on your own telephone bill. Waiting is bad enough. Paying for the privilege though? Nothing short of robbery. Not to mention damned inconvenience.

Just imagine if we still kept our telephones on a table in the hall. We would be a nation frozen to the spot, blue with cold and catatonic with boredom. At least we can roam free with the hands-free these days and get on with other things while we’re waiting.

Perhaps it’s a good idea that video phones haven’t taken off as they could have. What insight would they offer into the domestic lives of your average Briton on hold? Yes. I admit going to the loo whilst waiting in a queue. Filling the dishwasher. Feeding the cats. And even, on occasion, bathing the children, although that is always a dangerous one.

The last thing you want is for your mobile phone to fall under the water. This would involve having to put in an insurance claim. And one of the greatest ironies is that mobile phone companies are amongst the worst offenders for keeping us waiting. You might think that firms which specialise in communication would er, communicate. Try getting to speak to one though and you will find the opposite is true. Manage to make contact with an actual human, and then they must be the worst for “just putting you through” to the next department.

In my most existential moments, I ponder just what “just putting you through” is. It’s that awful feeling of being suspended in space and time. They insist “your call is important to us”. Pah. They would rather you didn’t talk at all but send them an email. What if you don’t have the internet though?

And don’t even think about going into the store for advice. Mobile phone shops proliferate in our town centres, but expecting them to actually serve you is a bit much. Most of these outlets don’t exist to sort out problems or sell you anything useful like a spare battery. They are simply store fronts for the latest upgrade.

Anyway. That’s another problem altogether. What can be done to cut down on telephone trauma? For a start, every customer services department should live up to its name. Instead of passing on profits to shareholders, the companies which purport to serve us should do just that.

If this means investing in more call centre staff to deal quickly with our complaints, so be it. Also, there should be more direct lines straight through to the department you want. How many of us have pressed one, then three and then five and hash to get to claims, only to be sent right back to the beginning because we’ve made a random error?

It’s like a crazy game of snakes and ladders where there is never a winner. And, those services where you have to “say your name” to a recorded person? No-one could ever accuse me of having a quiet voice, but even I can’t seem to get through to them. And how daft do you feel, shouting into the phone? Get rid.

Sorry if I sound cross, but this major challenge of modern life has the potential to send a person over the edge. It’s annoying to have a complaint. Getting cramp in your hand, a burnt dinner on the hob and shooting blood pressure whilst you wait for it to be dealt with makes it even worse. Take heart though. I have a suggestion. It’s a quaint, old-fashioned idea, but you may have heard of it. Try writing the company under question a letter. Send it recorded delivery for extra security. It won’t get a plumber out to mend your central heating by the end of the day, but it will put the home “care” provider on the spot. They will be obliged to take up their keyboard and reply, and you will have written evidence of your grievance. If you’re still not happy with the response, it’s but a short step to a formal complaint and possible compensation. A time-consuming approach I know, but a reminder that the customer should always come first.