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The Trader: Beware - the `ax' man is coming

`A virtual call centre: to have virtually no contact with your customers'
NEVER LET yourself be taken over by a company with "ax" in its name. Before you know it, heads are rolling in the interest of streamlining operations. But, as any idiot - but not that many business advisers, apparently - knows there's only so far you can cut the payroll without damaging your end-product.

"Well, exactly," Laura said when we heard the news about the redundancies at the all-too-aptly named Axa last week. "I would have thought they needed all those layers of people to stop you ever getting through to the one who's supposed to be dealing with your claim."

Hmm, I said, but what about the wonders of modern technology? We've all come across those answering systems that start, "Press 1 if you are enquiring about an existing claim". Couldn't they just set up one of those and boast proudly about it being a 24-hour operation?

"They're way ahead of you on that," Laura said. "According to this they're cutting the number of offices where they take calls from the public to 4 from 24, and linking them as a `virtual call centre'. Presumably they label it that so they can have virtually no contact with their customers. I still think they're making a mistake."

She was right, of course. The trouble with machines is that no one really likes them, and if they find themselves confronting one too often they'll up sticks and head for the hills or, at the very least, a much smaller rival.

Not that Laura and I are experts on insurance. I've never even met anyone who works in that field. Perhaps they don't get invited to dinner parties. "No, you're confusing them with actuaries," Laura said. "They don't get invited anywhere."

"Very funny," I said and settled down while Laura fielded a call from my least favourite broker. "Look," I said when she finally hung up, "you've missed something. They've announced they're only having six centres for processing claims instead of 17. So it'll still take ages, and people will give up before they've been paid a penny and the profits won't suffer."

Then suddenly it was time for lunch and a plastic box of sushi - followed by a very large piece of cake to stop us being hungry an hour later.

We were sitting there trying to squirt each other with the soy sauce containers and saying how glad we were it wasn't us out of our jobs when Rory strode over.

"I don't want to worry you," he said, "but there's a rumour that someone's about to launch a takeover bid for us."

"Oh no," I answered. "Don't tell me they've got "ax" in their name ..."