Friday, 20 June 2008

Call centres

So last night I made the mistake of ringing a call centre. I think I did it to prove to myself that they really are the most irritating invention ever. Maybe I did it on the offchance that I would be pleasantly surprised by an efficient and competent response. I wasn't. It's a UK bank call centre. This said bank has a call centre in Ireland during normal banking hours, and for the rest of its supposed 24 hour service it is farmed out to somewhere on the other side of the world. We used to have a savings account with them which we have recently closed. We could actually close that one over the 'phone. I say actually, it took three separate 'phone calls before it was logged and registered by them as closed, and it took at least three weeks, probably nearer to four before the notification arrived. The out-of-hours staff were terrible, and even the daytime staff were of dubious quality until we finally hit lucky and got one that knew what she was doing. We now want to close the current account. Pretty simple eh? So I rang to ask the helpful call centre staff what I had to do to close it. "Just go into your local branch," he said. "Can't do that," I pointed out. "I don't live there." "Just go into your local branch," he repeated, obviously thinking I had not heard him the first time. "I live in a different country," I helpfully added, thinking this might be a key bit of information that would make him realise I couldn't just nip down the street and call into my local High Street branch. "Just go into your local branch," he said yet again, perhaps thinking that if he repeated it enough times I might finally understand. At this point I was starting to lose what small amount of patience I still possessed. It wasn't a lot anyway because as soon as I pick up the 'phone and know I am going to be dealing with Call Centre Syndrome, it starts ebbing away from me in bucketloads. I explained that I thought it was a bit inconvenient to have to get on an aeroplane to visit another country just to close an account. "I can just write a letter can't I?" I said giving him A Very Big Clue. This was not easy. Long pause. He obviously searched up and down his crib sheet, or up and down his computer crib screen, but there was clearly no mention of Writing A Letter. "I don't know," he admitted. Then a bright idea came to him. "I'll go and ask my supervisor." "Oh no you won't. I've just explained I'm ringing from another country and the 'phone call is expensive so I'm not hanging on any longer while you disappear off to chat with your supervisor. I'll just write the letter." So I put the 'phone down and then sat there uttering every obscenity I could think of about whoever first came up with the concept of call centres. To be fair, my gripe is not with the poor staff who get paid peanuts for dealing with cantankerous customers like me. But I am annoyed, that in the search for cost-cutting and boosting profits for shareholders, resaonable customer service has disappeared into the ether. And even worse that it is portrayed as being an advantage and a benefit for us customers. Ringing somewhere miles away where finding the answer to even a simple question takes on the complexity of completing a doctoral thesis in nuclear physics is not what I want. It is also beyond me why someone can't put together a decent Q & A brief for the poor creatures on the end of the telephone. It seems they can manage to check balances and answer basic questions about an account, but over and above that they are stumped. I shouldn't be surprised though. Some years ago I was in charge of complaints. Complaints came into my office, my admin staff wrote an acknowledgement letter, and then asked an appropriate professional within the organisation to look into it and draft a response. Then we also tried to see if there was anything we could do to improve the procedures so that it wouldn't happen again. If we made changes as a result of the complaint we told the person who had complained so at least they didn't feel they had wasted their time. My administrator was efficient. She was so efficient that she basically liked to get things off her desk. Or to get people off the 'phone and then she could get back on with her typing and chatting to the other secretary. So on a few occasions I would hear her speaking to people who had rung up to ask how to complain. Very nicely she would tell them how to go about it. If they weren't happy, she would repeat it. If they asked if there was any other option she would say no and repeat the whole palaver again. This was not strictly true, as although there was the basic complaint route taken by most people, there were alternatives. But this made life complicated, and Efficient Admin would have had to think and work out which was appropriate. It was not on her neat sheet of "What Happens Next." She didn't want to get it wrong and she wasn't confident enought to treat each call individually, so she stuck to her crib sheet. So ironically, I can understand why call centres are so utterly useless. Staff answering the 'phone are not paid to think. They are paid to give out easy answers according to their script. If the caller deviates from the script, they can't respond. Or only with the one answer that they know. In my new world order of things, I would make call centres illegal.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Funding for health services

One of the comments on my last post about smuggling cigarettes ("Risk free or duty free?") suggested increasing the taxes on cigarettes in Gibraltar and added that the additional revenue generated could go directly towards treating smokers. (With which I do not disagree I should add). Smoking is a contributory factor to a lot of chronic illnesses and serious disease. Cancer, heart disease, bronchitis, emphysema, COPD, DVT, asthma, off the top of my head. But it is not the only factor, or the only determinant. To take the obvious one - lung cancer. People who smoke get lung cancer. People who don't smoke also get lung cancer. People who smoked 40 or more Woodbines a day lived to the age of 80 something or 90 something. Maybe they ate well, or had an active lifestyle. Maybe they were just lucky. Life and health are not so simple that any of us should be pointing fingers and saying "You can't have treatment because what you have done is self-inflicted." Let's take this further. I like to go cycling. A healthy pursuit, yes? Or no? It's dangerous. I shouldn't be on the road. I might get knocked off and killed by a driver. A driver, who, in Spain, is legally required to remain a minimum of two metres away from a cyclist. So why is cycling dangerous? Because some drivers break the law, drive badly, and knock cyclists off. Someone else's illegal and dangerous driving should stop me from a healthy and enjoyable exercise? I don't think so. They shouldn't be driving, not I shouldn't be cycling, or not treated for an accident incurred while cycling. Now what else? Oh, fat people. They shouldn't have weight-reducing operations because it is all self-inflicted. In fact they shouldn't have any operations because the risk is too great and no-one wants to be sued if the operation goes wrong (because they are so fat etc etc). I should declare a slight interest here. My BMI has increased from 18 something to 20 something so I am very sad. I don't think I am approaching obesity yet. So that won't be an immediate burden for the health services to consider. Fertility treatment. I have met a number of women who have undergone fertility treatment, and it doesn't work for everyone. When I worked in the health service we went down the controversial road of rationing fertility treatment. Is the inability to conceive an illness? Should it take precedence over life-threatening diseases or serious accidents? The trouble is when you try and prioritise funding for health services (the pot is limited in case anyone is unaware of that) people do not want to play. Self-interest always takes precedence. Plastic surgery. Another health service tale from my previous life. The young woman whose GP put her forward for breast augmentation to boost her self esteem, her breasts and her modelling career. For which, incidentally, I totally blame our appalling sexist society that she felt she needed to have bigger breasts in order to feel good or succeed in life. I have a very simplistic view of health - or sickness - services these days. I think priority for funding should be for emergency treatment and serious illnesses. By serious illness I mean life-threatening or chronic (long-term) illness that ruins people's quality of life and mental illness that similarly can make a devastating impact on people's lives and that of their carers and their families. Or to put it another way, wanting something you haven't got - whether it be large breasts or children - wouldn't be my choice for priority funding. So to come round full circle to my opening point, I would never advocate the refusal of treatment for someone who has smoked, or taken drugs, or made the "wrong" choices in life. I think a health service should be there for everyone, but funding choices do have to be made. And if someone thinks large breasts or a desire for a child is more important than treating someone with COPD, or heart disease or easing the last few days for someone with lung cancer, who am I to argue? We live in a must-have society.