True Gripes: Wrong number: Why can't we be civil on the phone?

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The Independent Online
'Could I speak to someone about. . .All right, I'll hold. . .Ah. .am I speaking to someone who knows about. . .? I've just spoken to her. She put me through to you. . .There's no one who can help until next week?

Why is it that so many of us simply don't know how to deal with people on the telephone?

More often than not, when you ring a company, a flint-edged voice answers, doesn't identify itself, and hears your inquiry with badly concealed impatience. The begrudging reception which meets your carefully chosen words usually throws up the phrase: 'Wot's that agin?

Smiling tersely into the mouthpiece, you repeat yourself with air traffic controller precision. It's as if you're waving your arms through dense fog.

The next stage in the ritual involves waiting while 'on hold as you are passed from one person to another. It sounds paranoid, but I'm sure they do this on purpose sometimes. At each break in the telephonic silence, you repeat your text like a mantra. Your voice betrays its annoyance through little verbal tics which only convinces the person on the other end that you're either unreasonable or unhinged.

It is as if people don't want your business, that despite the recession, they've managed to survive by refining perverse skills in reducing callers to knots of frustration.

Inevitably, the individual who does have the information you want is on holiday for three weeks in some palm-fringed corner of the world, while you seethe in London.

It can be quite different if you call an American company. If there's one aspect of transatlantic culture we should welcome with open arms, it's their unerring ability to manage people efficiently on the telephone.

You know the sort of thing -the evenly-measured and soothing voice which greets you with: 'Good morning, the Big Schlock Corporation,

Sandra-Lee speaking, how may I help you? Each word is delivered with expert labial precision, the range of honeyed tones full and confident, with enough conviction to make you feel that you, yes you, are really important.

You are actually conversing with someone who cares (so what if they're only faking it), whose sole reason for their existence is to make you happy. The novelty is such that it's like being immersed by tender hands into a warm flotation tank.

The down side of this school of vocal therapy is that few British people sound sincere when attempting it. Some larger

UK companies have cottoned on, except that when they answer their introduction is so long and laboured that

you are practically asleep by the time they have finished.

Even if you cut into the spiel with your question, they ignore you and continue, knowing that you could just be a member of personnel trying to catch them out.

There is one way to ensure you get passed on to the right person very quickly. Combat the tiresome platitudes with engaging, oozingly insincere tones. Linger unnaturally at the portals of verbal introduction: ask the voice how it is feeling and so on. . .

That should do the trick.

Mark Irving

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