Hanging on (and on, and on, and on)

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The Independent Online
Incomprehensible and "robotic" operators, endless time left dangling with no one to talk to and the incessant tinkling of electronic muzak. No, it's not a Dennis Potter tale of futuristic hell - you've just tried to call your local utility office.

A survey by monitoring organisation Teleconomy found that in 2,000 calls made to 101 utilities offices, 22 local authorities and 100 private sector companies, the utilities turned in a "disgraceful" performance.

The results showed a widespread inability to grasp even the basics of telephone use, such as a failure to greet the caller.

"We always suggest saying 'good morning' because people don't hear the first few words on the telephone. They need time to tune in and hear the useful information, like the company name," said Joanne Gascoigne, business development manager at Teleconomy.

But companies who did use a formal greeting were often just as unsuccessful. The survey said: "At times a laudable attempt at good customer relations ended in lengthy introductions such as 'GoodmorningBritishGassserviceHeatherspeakinghowcanIhelp- you' at breakneck speed."

Other utility companies, it said, "peppered callers with a rapid burst of verbal grapeshot" such as "Name? What address? Which area?" in quick succession. Rapid speech often reduced sentences to marathon one-worders while the tone was often "off-hand or wooden" or "robotic and abrupt".

It also suggests voice-messaging and interactive voice-response devices, a massive growth market in Britain, are not as effective as previously thought. A third of all offices offered "music-while-you-wait" or recorded messages of the "You are held in a queue" variety, and the majority of callers were left waiting for an unacceptable length of time.

According to Ms Gascoigne, customers are increasingly irritated by electronic queuing and voice-mail systems and are voting with their receivers. Callers, she said, prefer a "warm body" response. "People do respond badly to those mechanised voices. If you're being held in a queue you're paying for it. And if the companies know they've got a problem with time-and-answer, why don't they address it?"

Overall the survey found that only 19 per cent of electricity offices, 10 per cent of water offices and 8 per cent of gas offices provided an "acceptable" telephone service, compared with 40 per cent of local authorities.

In terms of the quality of responses, the utility companies performed even worse. Not one gas or water office and only 2 per cent of electricity offices answered queries acceptably, compared with 64 per cent of local authorities.

But then simply speaking to your local utility office is often an achievement in itself, it seems. In the survey 93 per cent of all calls to British Gas in Leeds were abandoned. A spokesman for Ofgas said he was aware of complaints about service, but suggested the problem could be partly due to its recent split into four companies.

This year sees a new section in the 1995-6 Ofwat annual report, to monitor the ease with which customers can make contact with their water company.

Only Scottish Power provided a "consistently excellent" service in the tests carried out earlier this year - perhaps unsurprising in a company that has just launched its own telecom service.