Friday, 16 November 2012

Direct line

   I love taking calls from customers, I really do.
   You might think that the whole hello-my-name-is-Frank-how-may-I-help-you routine is corny but believe me; customer service is the best job in the world.
   When they get round to calling us the customers are like wounded animals. They’re confused and scared about troubles usually of their own making. They’ve foolishly ignored the maker’s instructions and our clear, simple product operating guide; they’re in such a terrible state that we have to be at the top of our game from the get-go. In most cases they’re so hyper they won’t listen to the advice which is the only thing to fix their problem. Customers are inarticulate at the best of times and beside themselves with fear by the time they call us and what they usually want is to talk for hours about how upset they are about the problems in their lives and how furious they are with the company for not solving them and how it’s all our fault.
   This latter accusation is particularly unfair because the company still maintains an extensive (and expensive) network of branches in most towns and villages even in this online, on-demand brave new world. These are fully staffed so customers can, at almost any time (even weekends and holidays), speak to someone in person about the product and so benefit from our very high delivery standards. This is on top of the reams of publicity material that the company’s agents and resellers make freely available year-long; plus regular hands-on promotional events and the famous seasonal campaigns. But many ignore all that and go straight to Head Office expecting a quick fix - which by that time simple logic should have told them is unlikely without some effort on their own part.
   Their aggravation obsesses them and our chief task is getting them to accept by gentle persuasion if possible or by getting tough and laying it on them good and hard if not, that the product isn’t working because they’re not using it properly by following the instructions or because they expect it to do something other than its advertised purpose. They expect it to make them rich and successful and happy all at once and without any effort on their part; least of all by paying the bill. They forget; it’s a great product but there’s a price and non-payment is the chief cause of the service suspension. When that happens all our publicity prominently proclaims that they simply need to get in touch, pay up, and service will resume per contract. Getting them to shut up and listen is our most valued skill.
    I blame the Internet for our recent troubles. Company philosophy was always about excellent personal service. From the chairman down it’s always been about relationships because people buy from people, right? He doesn’t get into the field as often as he used to; instead overseeing general operations and staying in close contact with our earliest customers. He doesn’t need to try to be everywhere at once; delegation’s the thing. The junior partner and his son to do the up-close and personal stuff; pressing the flesh, talking the talk and so on. It’s not that the chairman spends all his time on the golf course these days, though he’s there too; it’s just that he’s established Direct Line to handle the numbers. And we’re needed as never before because frankly (hah!), the Internet is killing us. It’s the ideal marketplace for the competition’s shoddy, inferior, but superficially attractive products. It can make cheap trash seem as enticing as (or even better than) our own rather dull-seeming, conventional product range. We’ve been blindsided by competitors’ new products a couple of times before (it’ll be ages till we make up the losses suffered after the Apple debacle) and the Internet is a fast, vast battlefield in which operators devoid of business - or indeed any - ethics can fool the marks into signing crooked contracts on easy terms that turn out to be nightmarishly expensive in the long run and in return for glitzy rubbish. It sickens me, what some people have got themselves into when they could have come to us and be free and clear and fully satisfied. But we at Direct Line will set it right if we can.
   We come from a wide variety of backgrounds, countries and qualifications: from the old-timers of the company’s pioneering days in agricultural services and catering; through our educational and hospitality enterprises to the third millennium hosting and networking business that’s put our product at the fingertips of an estimated two and a half billion people worldwide. The exact figure is a company trade secret.
   Answering calls, though, you have to be a karma chameleon; adapting yourself to fit the anguished voice on the line. I’m known as Frank to the African farmer whose crop washed away and where’s his compensation?; Francesco to an Italian businessman who doesn’t want to pay fire insurance to the source of fire; and to the poor New York priest who’s had to comfort one widow or one grieving mother too many between whiskeys I’m always plain Francis. I do all I can to set them straight though we never give cash refunds. I don’t have a penny myself, having given all of mine away back in thirteenth century Assisi


Helen said...

See you never really know who it is on the end of that direct line!

Nice story.

AB Singer said...

Well, write about what you know, and I know call centres. Got to wonder what his work station looks like. Icons? Doughnut boxes? Lego Cherubim? please, Lord, no Garfield...

Steve Green said...

A nice bit of writing AB. That guy certainly has been around for a while. :)

I always treat any customer services people with respect, I think they have a very difficult job, and it's always worthwhile bearing in mind that whatever the problem is, the person on the other end of the line is not the one who caused it.

Dawn Huddlestone said...

An interesting perspective on the decline of good customer service, AB!