Oh for a warm body to answer BT's phone

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The Independent Online
British Telecom has spared no expense telling us it is "good to talk" and now it is spending tens of millions of pounds teaching us how to talk good (so to speak) with its new TalkWorks programme. This is all about the art of conversation and its secrets can be found in a 94- page book that is being sent free to 20 million households.

Mine was not one of them so I rang British Telecom. "Good afternoon, welcome," said a voice and I realised this was not going to be a quick call. This is what the experts call an "interactive voice response" unit or IVR. So far, 38 per cent of all calls in western Europe are answered by these machines. The others get what they call a "warm body response", and that was what I wanted: a warm body to order my booklet from.

The Voice had other ideas and was already on a tangent, asking personal questions about touch-tones and telling me to hit my "star" key. This had to be a bad idea and yet for some reason - curiosity? honesty? frustration? - I did. Five options followed but none even got close to my request. "I'm sorry, I didn't detect a valid key press," said the Voice, and started repeating herself.

I rang back but - very daring this - did not hit the star key and waited for the warm body that surely must follow. To my horror, the Voice was back: "To use this service, you will be asked to speak your response." She ran through the same options. I refused to speak. She refused to react. I hung up because that is what you do when you realise you are having a fight with a machine.

More calls, more voices, musical interludes and wrong numbers. Finally a warm body put me on hold and came back with a Freephone number. This time I expected the Voice but it just kept ringing. I hung on, charting emotion as follows: irritated at ring 10, frustrated by 20, angry at 30, seething at 35 and amused and amazed at 40. By the time a warm body answered on the 47th ring, I just said "hello" and asked for the booklet.

TalkWorks has lots of tips for being loving, giving, caring, sharing. It advises us on being a good storyteller, a good understander (sic) and how to "give feedback". It says that we should "avoid the blame game" and "make conversations like dancing - a two-way partnership with neither side dominating".

For most people this would involve five years of therapy, minimum. The Inuit may have at least 12 words for snow but the British are minimalists who have managed to make the word "sorry" mean anything from "I think you are an idiot" to "I think you are fabulous". Stiff upper lips do not make the best dance partners and there is some way to go before we are tangoing and not just tangled (or even know the difference).

Of course BT has even further to go. We humans can always keep on trying but machines couldn't dance if they tried.