We are a not-for-profit organisation funded purely by donations and Google advertising revenue.
We do not get to choose which ads Google shows on our pages.

Call Centres
Service with a Smile?


The Call Centre Trend

Many organisations are centralising their service functions into call centres. It cuts costs, and often brings work to deprived areas.

These call centres could become finely-tuned organisations with the tools and the staff to deliver service excellence very efficiently. But they tend not to work that way.

In this article I'm going to look at what goes wrong, think about why, and about what we can do to improve things.

call centre

Call Centre Queues

It's quite common to get off on the wrong foot with a call center during a long wait in a phone queue. Occasional peaks in demand may cause justified, modest waits, but my experience suggests that long waits are the norm. Call centre managers are setting resource levels to keep all agents permanently busy. All customers must therefore wait for attention.

I know we're British, but I feel we need to get a better deal from the companies who took our money. We have to persuade managers to staff these centres well.

For me, the wait is made worse by the automated hogwash pumped out while I'm waiting. Presumably, they hope it will offset the negative impact the wait, but it has the opposite effect on me. When I hear their well-rounded platitudes, I translate them into fact, where they are far less attractive.

Call Centre Queuing Phrasebook

Here's my phrase-book for hold-queues.

English Translation
"Due to excessive demand ..."

We'd like you to think that your wait is unusual.

And unless you're a regular caller, you may well be duped.

But really, it's this bad all day, every day.

"We apologise for this delay..."

We are deliberately causing this delay.

We would like you to think we're sorry, but obviously - we're not, or we'd fix it.

We'll continue to cause similar delays, because we can do so without harming our business.

"Your call is important to us..."

Calls from potential customers are important to us, but that's not you.

We want their money, but we already have yours.

That's why we staff our sales lines for instant response, and our service lines for eventual response.

"Your call will be answered shortly..."

Your call may be answered eventually.

Then again, our system may cut you off if you hang on long enough.

Or you may get so fed up that you hang up.

Either way, we don't care.

You were probably going to complain or make unreasonable demands, anyway.

Call Centre Staff Problems

Well, let's assume you get through finally. Although there are wonderful exceptions, I generally find that call centre staff are a particularly difficult group to deal with. There are some good reasons:

  • They may be working very hard in noisy surroundings, with few breaks
  • They may be poorly paid
  • They may be a poor fit for their job with few choices for a better one
  • They will generally be dealing with unhappy customers (they called customer services after all)
  • Many customers will enter the call upset, having just got off a long hold queue
  • They may work with systems which are unreliable or un-supportive
  • Some customers are unreasonable, trying unkind tactics to get the resolution they want
  • Staff may be encouraged to meet destructive targets for number of calls processed
  • They may have to support unreasonable company policy or work within unreasonable limits
  • They may be under-trained, and have little management support.

All of these factors make life difficult for service agents. As customers, we can be courteous and reasonable, and try to make things go well. But we are the users and co-victims of the system - not its architects. These are primarily matters for call centre managers.

We can be legitimately dissatisfied when these centres perform badly for us. When I end the majority of my customer service calls I feel like a victim of an organisation whose motives are self-interest or complacent incompetence, not service excellence or customer care.

Call Centre Operative Phrase Book

Here's another excerpt from my Call Centre phrase-book:

Call-Centre Speak
English Translation
"As I'm sure you'll appreciate..."
This is a law of the universe. I'm telling you how it's going to be
Only an idiot would question our stance on this. You aren't going to do that, are you?
"I'm afraid that's not possible"
I'm afraid that would not suit us
"It's against our policy ..."
We have decided we don't like to do this
"We cannot ..."
We prefer not to
"X is not available"
X does not want to deal with you
"One moment please ...
<very long pause>."
This isn't going how it's scripted.
I need to think.
Perhaps he'll go away if I keep him waiting long enough.

Getting the Best from a Call Centre

As soon as the first one comes up, I get a sinking feeling; I know it's going to be a difficult call. So how can we get the best chance at a successful call? Any advice for solving problems through call centre has to be very general. There will be bizarre, unique cases (we'd love to hear about them!) which I can't even dream up.

But here my Top Six Suggestions for making things go better.

1. Prepare

Before you make your call, write some notes to refer to during the call:

  • What is the problem?
    - write down exactly what it is that you want addressing. Include product numbers, contract numbers, customer numbers, etc. Use this in the call.

  • What is the history?
    - include dates, note of previous contacts, collect receipts/documents together

  • What are your rights?
    - are you protected by a guarantee?
    - If you've paid for special support or an extended warrantee, find it and read it.
    - Understand the legal situation.

  • What do you want?
    - e.g. a refund, £20, a written apology, a replacement, etc.

  • What will I accept?
    - your bottom line. If you don't get this, you'll escalate

  • What's my next step if I don't get it?
    - be prepared for what comes next. See below.

- You will find that preparing this list clarifies your thinking, and calms you down. You can see your case laid out in black and white in front of you.

2. Schedule Make sure you allocate enough time to make the call. Choose a time when the centre is less likely to be busy. This will minimise your waiting time, and you're less likely to have a stressed agent to deal with.
3. Name Calling Often a service agents will start a call with "Carol speaking, how may I help you?" Write down her name and use it straight away:"Hi Carol, I wonder if you can help me with this...". If they don't volunteer their name, ask "who am I speaking to, please" - then say "OK, thanks, Angela..." and move on.
4. Be Positive Don't conduct the call as though you're expecting a difficult time. Your mindset should be "These folks are pleasant and reasonable, and they're trying to do well in their job, just like I'm trying in mine. We'll have this sorted out quickly". Hey - it might actually be true! But even if it isn't - you'll come across as pleasant, and this will make it more difficult for an agent to treat you unreasonably.
5. Stay on Track

Keep your prep list in front of you, and be guided by it.

Ask closed questions to keep things on track: "Are you saying that my item does NOT have a one year guarantee?" invites a yes/no response.

If you're not able to work your agenda, tell your agent: "I'm sorry, but I can't seem to make progress with you" - then tell them why.

If that doesn't fly, you may want to follow that with "May I speak with your supervisor, please?".

6. Avoid Time Wasters

An agent may want to place you on hold - sometimes repeatedly - to consult with colleagues or to find information.

Rather than accepting the hold, consider asking the agent to call you when they are ready.

This may be unthinkable of course, or even "Impossible", but may be worth a go.

It's worth reminding them that you have their name just before you ask them to call you back, too: "OK Carol, so I'll expect your call later this morning".


If you're Not Satisfied ... Give Up

Even using these techniques, I am depressed to admit that generally, I don't see anything approaching good service.

I routinely see:

  • Persistently unreasonable delays in answering my call centre calls
  • Drone-like behaviour in which real human interaction outside the script is impossible
  • Poor telephone skills
  • Low genuine courtesy levels ( though scripted lip service is always present)
  • Poor knowledge applied to the problem in hand
  • Very low reliability on relaying messages, updating incident logs, meeting commitments and following up
  • Indifference or denial in response to expressions of dissatisfaction
  • Poor co-operation on escalating complaints

The issues I'm working are usually small, so it's inappropriate to take legal action. I can take my custom elsewhere, but they won't notice, and I'll be inconvenienced. And I can complain.

Frankly, none of these appeal to me. They're time consuming, they'll probably be un-productive, I'll get stressed and be hated by another human being, and emerge without a satisfactory resolution. Unless you're a "Shocked and Disappointed of Surbiton" with no other life to lead, these choices probably don't appeal to you either. So you eat it, swallow hard, and move on.

And right there lies the problem. My maxim for middle age is this:

In Life,
You get
what you're prepared
to Put Up With

- and because we put up with poor service from call centres, that's what we get.

It would be nice to think that people did things well because they were inspired by excellence, took a pride in their work, were enthused by delighting customers, and committing to doing things "Because they're Right, dammit!" - but there isn't a whole lot of that in my neck of the woods.

Let's Fix Britain!

Delivery of good service is at the heart of all commerce, industry and government. In other words, it's at the heart of our society. That's why it's a core theme for Let's Fix Britain.

To be a part of Fixing Britain, we must work on fixing service, and call centres are a part of that.

Here are my suggestions for how we the people can fix broken Call Centres.

1. Complain


60 seconds


Leave it until the end of your call.

Don't be rude, or make a meal of it.

Tell your agent:

"Carol, I am unhappy with X, and I would like your supervisor to write to me at Y with her response". Be specific about X.

Don't expect human understanding, sobbing acceptance of wrongs wronged and promises to do better, but do it anyway.

Maybe you'll get your response. Even if not, she will almost certainly tell her supervisor. Perhaps you'll get a tick in some box somewhere.

There are an awful lot of us! If we all spend 60 seconds each time, we'll make a big splash.

Over time, things will change.

2. Complain in Writing


30 minutes

Boring, boring, boring. But for now, a written complaint holds far more weight, so if you have the time, put your complaint in writing, and send it to the right person by name.

In time, Let's Fix Britain will help you:

  • to find who to write to
  • to write the letter
  • to deliver it

- but for now you're on your own.

Why not share your experiences with us by posting your complaint in the discussion forum? You'll be helping to motivate and entertain others, who may then start pushing on this huge complacent object too. The more the merrier!

3. Move your custom



Stop giving them money!

I know this isn't always easy. I've got only Dixons and Jessops to buy photographic kit from. I've reason to despise them both, but I've eaten Humble Pie and bought again from both for lack of an alternative.

But - if it's practical, try to stop giving them money.

4. Tell the World


30 minutes

Tell your friends & associates about your bad experience. Get your facts right.

Conventionally, you can use word-of-mouth, but Internet technology is offering more powerful tools these days:

  • Post your complaint at Let's Fix Britain where others can read what you went through

  • Use a reputation manager to score the company. We recommend DooYoo, where you can get points (and prizes) for writing opinions.

5. Get Serious



You may want to mobilise a concerted effort addressing a specific example of poor service.

If you want all of Let's Fix Britain to watch and contribute, open a discussion thread in the Campaigns forum.

Other can learn about how to fight, and about the organisation you're fighting. You'll also be adding to the value of the web site, which may attract more visitors and more new members.

Working on the Inside

You probably work for an organisation that provides customer service somewhere along the line. Do they always do things right?

Looking in-house objectively and articulating what you see isn't always easy, nor safe.

I once sat in a meeting in which a barrister addressed us all on how to "defend against a legitimate claim". I asked "Why would we want to defend against a legitimate claim?". I had to ask it twice before it sunk in: "If the claim is legitimate, why aren't we doing the right thing and compensating the claimant?". This is seldom the way to get ahead in industry (though it should be), so I don't necessarily recommend it!

From the inside, you have powerful opportunities to see what's happening, and to exert a positive influence. You should consider any impact on your job or prospects before acting, but here are my suggestions:

  • Put a note in your suggestion box
  • Discuss things with your colleagues at lunch
  • Raise issues in team meeting
  • Evangelise - talk about examples of great service from inside or outside your organisation
  • If there is an ethical statement (for example, a "Mission Statement") in your organisation, always try to connect what happens daily to that document. Where there are contradictions, point them out, and hang on until they're removed.
  • Go to your manager and express your concerns, or - more positively - propose improvements
  • Write an anonymous letter to someone you think can make things better
  • Encourage your organisation to measure customer satisfaction
  • If you see metrics being used dishonestly, confront or "seek clarification"
  • Ask to form a task force to address issues that concern you
  • Resign. Make sure everyone knows why.
  • If you cannot make a difference from inside, it may be time to look at exposing your company to external scrutiny - perhaps law enforcement agencies, standards organisations trade associations or even the press. This is a legal minefield, so be very sure of your position before proceeding.

Call Centre Conclusions

Rome wasn't built in a day, but we can change call centres over time if we continue to apply little-and-often pressures in the right direction.

While we're slogging away at that, Let's Fix Britain can help us all to befriend and encourage each other. We can share strength, enthusiasm, practical advice and useful facts from each other, and build an organisation which will be a large force for positive change. Why not come to the discussion area, and tell us what you're thinking, planning, or doing about call centres?

We'll get there.

Send Feedback | Discuss online

Donate | Newsletter

We are a not-for-profit organisation funded purely by donations and Google advertising revenue
We do not get to choose which ads Google shows on our pages.


Founder's BLOG | An ex-magistrate's BLOG |About Us | Frequently Asked Questions | Let's Fix Britain in the Media | Contact Us | Join Us | Donate | Philosophies | If I Ruled the World | Does Investigative Journalism Work? | For and Against | Do Consumer Affairs Programs Work? | Strategies | Citizens | UK Volunteering | How You Can Make A Difference | - Is Volunteering Valuable for Furthering Your Career? | Living, Working and Volunteering Abroad: Danielle Lafond Remortgages Her Condo | Being a Local Councillor How to become an independent councillor | Bedfordshire Police Authority | Consumers | Call Centres | Customer Service Fundamentals | Customer Service - A Consultant's Perspcective | Dishonest Advertising | Life Inside a Call Centre | LGOWatch - Watching the Local Government Ombudsman | Problems with the Local Government Ombudsman | Chat with a Spammer | Dabs Direct | Dating Direct | Breast Stroke & Boogie | MatchMakers | Electors | Find Your MP | Campaigns | Crime | Complaints Service | Discussion Forums | Links | Recruit For Us | Fraud on Ebay | LFB in the Media | Conversations | Sponsors | Scrutinizing | The BSE Enquiry | Dixons Anti-Fans | Fundamentals of Cursomer Service | Chat with a SPAMmer | Dating Direct | Post Office Queues & Post Watch | Customer Service from Orange | Why Is It we accept this crud? | Electors | Find out about Your MP | Submitting a bogus MP report | The Duracell Bunny ad campaign | Criticism of OFCOM | Ocean Finance ad campaign | Aston Fox campaign | Cahoot Bank Advertising Practice | Crime | LFB TV | Complaint Letter Writing Service | Online Discussion Forums | Virgin Media-Video-On-Demand | Adversiting Standards Agency Fight | Self help book