One easy way to raise GDP – just get companies to answer the phone

Automated responses and a lack of human flexibility cause unnecessary delays

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Last week I tried to find out when our car needed to go in for service, as the erroneous reminder popping up on the display was annoying me. Time and again, my call went through to the “menu”, then a welcome invitation to dial 0 “at any time” to reach “an operator”. I dialled 0 instantaneously, only to find myself right back in the infernal loop, which was even more frustrating than it would have been had the escape option not been there. I finally reached a human, on the umpteenth attempt, by pressing the “sales” option, figuring that they might want to sell me a car more than service one.

It wasn’t my only tiresome encounter last week. There was the bank – of course, the bank – which has reintroduced direct lines to branches, but redirects you to a call centre at the fourth or fifth ring. Guess what the branch staff do: they can count to five rings as well as you can, so you still can’t reach your branch.

And then there were the pensions people. You can email them, and they reply nicely, promising answers. But they will only send those answers by post, and only within 10 to 14 days. True, you can ring them, and sometimes speak to a person, but the response is the same: by post, in two weeks.  The drawback is that when the reply drops on the mat at the appointed time and doesn’t answer the questions, you’re back where you started, with another two weeks’ wait ahead, and so on...

What is it about all these people that they’re so reluctant to talk to you or even reply by email by return? Does it really take 10 days plus to find the answer to your query, or is it rather that 10 working days is the company’s target for responding, so everything takes that long and is generally dealt with by someone other than the person you first dealt with – in the event that he or she actually gave a name?

Around the time I was trying to coax a response about the car, the Office for National Statistics released the latest GDP figures. And it occurred to me. If George Osborne wants to know what UK plc could do to raise that 0.3 per cent growth rate, I have an idea. If any of the companies I’ve just dealt with really answered the phone and replied promptly, they would up their productivity, and mine, by a good deal more than 0.3 per cent.

This was the day of Maying

Today, most of Europe is enjoying a day off. Some will spend it marching cheerfully in support of workers’ rights; others will take time out with the children. In Paris, they will fête Joan of Arc and sell lily-of-the-valley on street corners. But here in Britain, we will be hard at work, because one of the happiest of holidays, one associated with some of our few remaining folk customs, such as May queens and maypoles, is now fixed at the first Monday in the month, rather than the actual May Day.

You can understand the idea – to give Monday-to-Friday workers a three-day weekend, while escaping any associations with organised labour’s big day. But add the redesignation of the Whitsun holiday as the Spring bank holiday, and we have shorn May Day of its significance as a celebration of the season. This year, of all years, that’s a crying shame. We waited so long for spring to come, and, when it did, it burst out all at once. Parks and woodland became green almost overnight. The cherry and daffodils are in bloom together, thicker and more intense than I can remember.

In Oxford, where they observe their own calendar, they sing madrigals from Magdalen tower in early morning, and hardy souls defy health and safety to plunge into the Cherwell. Why can’t the rest of us hail May on May Day, too?

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