Being Modern: Call centres

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The Independent Online

"Hello. I wonder whether you could explain something on my bill..."

"Good afternoon, Mrs Barch..."

"My name's not..."

"How are you today, Mrs Barch? How may I be of assistance?"

"I'm in a bit of a rush actually. You don't need to keep repeating..."

"Yes, Mrs Barch. May I just put you on hold please, Mrs Barch?"

"My name's not – oh, never mind..."

"Mrs Barch? Hello, Mrs Barch. I'm sorry but we do not have that information. Is there anything else I can help you with today, Mrs Barch?"

Those of a delicate constitution could be driven to the point of aneurysm engaging with a call centre. Particularly one on the other side of the world, where the mind-bending circularity of the typical exchange is heightened by mutually limited comprehension.

And the staff? With calls monitored, script adherence enforced and incongruous banter about the British climate encouraged, what hope do they have of telling us what we want to hear? Especially when the caller has already been in automated purgatory for 20 minutes, battling with options they don't want, hateful muzak and a voice telling them how important they are. (It's no wonder a 2007 survey found moving house was the only thing Brits rated more stressful than calling a contact centre.)

So how did they ever come to be? According to Call Centre Magazine, British Gas was an early adopter of the new telephonic technology in the 1970s, and by the mid-1980s, Direct Line had launched – with no branches. This cost-cutting trend developed into the form of the offshore call centre. Paying tiny salaries to staff in India made perfect business sense... just not to us frustrated punters. And so came the backlash – in the past few years, having a UK call centre has become a selling point.

But it's not just call centres abroad that jangle the nerves: one big UK business – in an attempt to boost morale and customer service at its call centres – has reportedly appointed a "minister of fun". Out of the frying pan?