“Hello?” The Rubbing Together of Two Sticks

I have great respect for customer service agents (and by this I’m talking about those agents who refer to a call centre as their place of work). Call centres are such hectic and noisy open-plan environments to work in (unless you are managing a knitting pattern hot-line or a ‘compliment me on my driving’ service for truck drivers). You are assigned to a tiny cubical, where you barely have space to squeeze in your morning coffee mug, let alone a portable framed picture of your loved one, girlfriend, children, pet etc. and no privacy.

You are then required to don your customary headset and mic, which inevitably messes up your weave, ghd straightened hair, or if you are a guy your slick side parting or mini-mo-hawk. On top of all this you have to be courteous to your customers, even if the ones you speak to are the most obnoxious and horrible people in the world, who consciously choose to treat you like a toilet brush. You get through the day by concentrating on happy thoughts, push through the bad calls to assist callers in any way possible and meet your performance targets (which are unsurprisingly dictated by feedback received from the obnoxious callers). It’s a tough job and I wouldn’t choose to do it.

I use call centres quite often, whether it be for purchasing a non-descript item, amending/renewing/reviewing my house/life/car insurance, or should I have any problems with my banking service (and yes, I chose to bank with ABSA). I try my hardest to be polite and courteous to the agents who usually answer the phone with a cheerful “hello, you are speaking to blah blah; how can I be of assistance today?” The one thing I take for granted on such calls is being able to speak with someone who can as a minimum rub two sticks together, has a vague level of interest and knowledge of the job which they are being paid to do.

Whilst living in the UK, I made yearly calls to Dell’s customer service centres, based somewhere in India and on occasions struggled with the sometimes thick accents. I was however always assisted to the nth-degree and came away happy having purchased a new machine. I realise others have had different Dell experiences – this is just me. African call centres operate on an entirely different playing field – keep in mind the ‘two sticks’ scenario.

Before we continue, you should also know that whilst on a call to a local call centre, it is perfectly normal to, a) have an agent who couldn’t care less about why you were calling; b) not have the faintest idea about the product that they are trying to assist you with; or c) be interrupted whilst in the flow of a well thought through explanation or query, with a questioning  ‘hello?’, as if the agent is checking to see whether you are still there. A ‘Hello?’ can also come if you are quietly waiting for them to respond to your query. The first time ‘C’ happens, it throws you entire off your game plan and you have a fleeting tendency to lose the will to live, let alone repeat the question.

My house insurance was up for review this week and I hadn’t yet received a renewal notice through the post to detail the change in my annual premium. ABSA also hadn’t called to ask if I was interested in renewing my premium with them, so I phoned the number on my policy documents to see what deal they could cut me. The agent I spoke to must have been related to Stuart Little (the mouse) as she was a tiny voice at the end of a long line and it was pretty difficult to hear her introductory greeting. Bad start! I politely asked her to either move the mic a little closer to her mouth, or to speak up.

To open discussions I had to provide my policy number which, based on my previous African call-centre experiences, I did in a slow and deliberate fashion, providing the agent with a maximum of three digits at any one time and waiting for her to repeat these before moving on. On the fourth attempt, we progressed to my actual query and I was more than a little surprised to find that ABSA had already deducted my annual premium which was significantly higher than that of the previous year. I queried the premium amount and the agent explained that the premium usually goes up every year (top marks for pointing out the obvious) and that this year it was a 6% increase in line with the rate of inflation. I explained that a 6% increase on top of my previous premium did not match the amount which she verbally relayed to me over the phone and a quick calculation confirmed that the increase was a substantial 42%).

The line went deathly quiet and it was obvious that the cuckoo had flown the nest and ‘syntax error’ had flashed up in her mind’s eye. I had to use the customary African call centre C-tactic – ‘Hello?’ to initiate a reboot and get her back online. She then explained that my record showed an endorsement claim and that this has affected my premium…now we were getting somewhere! I explained to her that I had registered a claim for a leaking roof, but that it had been rejected. I won’t get into how obscure the reason was for the rejection of the claim, but let’s put it into the realm of ‘pigs with wings’. I had fixed the roof myself and not claimed anything from ABSA, however they had decided to increase my premium anyway based on the claim registration. Surely they can’t do this if they didn’t pay out? I put my query to the agent and in a similar fashion the line went quiet and I had to wait until the cockroach had crawled back on to its cork following my tactical ‘Hello’? My patience was wearing slightly thin at this stage, owing mainly to incompetence (a two sticks scenario FAIL).

She then responded that the increase was an admin fee (conflicting stories and a R1500 admin fee? Oh Paalease!), at which point I requested that her manager call me back, providing me with enough time to fit in the necessary meditative breathing exercises to lower my heart rate…

….’Hello?’

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