JOHN HUMPHRYS demands a return to REAL people answering our calls

By the time you get to the end of this column it is possible that I will have been nicked by the boys in blue. I have been sent a ‘warning notice’.

My crime was to buy a car 27 years ago and keep it. I boasted that I was doing the right thing by the environment. 

Replacing a medium-sized car like mine with a new one generates a carbon footprint of 17 tonnes —the equivalent of three years’ worth of gas and electricity in a typical UK home.

Since the average motorist changes their car five or six times in 27 years, I’ve practically saved the planet from global warming single-handedly.

It’s not that I expected a knighthood. I just didn’t expect to be punished for it. 

But Transport for London has changed emission rules so we OACs (Owners of Ancient Cars) who live within the North and South Circular roads must now fork out £12.50 every time we drive anywhere. All day and every day (except Christmas).

That meant setting up an account to pay the charges. So I did as I was told and got an email confirming that my account was active. 

The lives of big companies and government officials are made so much easier if we customers or clients can be kept at arm’s length, writes JOHN HUMPHRYS

Off I drove. A few days later, the Warning Notice arrived.

I was puzzled, so I checked the website and got nowhere. The password I’d used for the account was suddenly not accepted. 

So I phoned the number on the website. And got nowhere. This time the problem seemed to be my PIN. 

Or maybe my account number. Or maybe my customer ID. Or my PCN number. Whatever that was. The recorded message didn’t really care. I gave up.

I had become the innocent victim of the new digital age in which the algorithm reigns supreme.

There was a time when a human being with a problem talked to another human being who helped to get it sorted. Those days are gone. 

The lives of big companies and government officials are made so much easier if we customers or clients can be kept at arm’s length. 

It began long before the pandemic struck. Covid has given it a rocket booster.

It’s so much easier to cite Covid if you’re dealing with a customer who wants to complain about the heating engineer not turning up.

Easier for them, that is. Not for you. 

You just have to keep listening to the recorded message telling you that your call is important to them, but unfortunately they are receiving a very large volume of calls and, due to Covid restrictions, there will regrettably be some delay in getting to you.

What a load of rubbish. Even if it were true that ‘Covid restrictions’ still existed and call handlers were forced to work from home, modern technology means calls could very easily be patched through to them. 

But it’s not true. Not any longer. Five minutes in the rush hour on any Tube or bus proves that if you want to go to work, you can.

But that’s assuming your company actually wants you to go to work. 

The statistics show that many firms are saving loads of money by encouraging office staff to sit at computers in their own homes rather than occupy expensive space in their city centre office block.

At least with private companies we customers retain the merest smidgeon of power. We can always take our custom elsewhere.

It worked for me, sort of, when my home alarm system kept going wrong and my long-suffering neighbour was being woken up in the middle of the night by it.

It's so much easier to cite Covid if you're dealing with a customer who wants to complain about the heating engineer not turning up

It’s so much easier to cite Covid if you’re dealing with a customer who wants to complain about the heating engineer not turning up

I spent endless hours on the phone listening to their recorded messages warning me, amongst many other things, that an engineer couldn’t visit unless there was somewhere for him to wash his hands and wondering how many homes don’t have washbasins.

Eventually, I cracked and told them I was switching companies. Result. The engineer came. Not on the day promised, but let’s be thankful for small mercies.

That option does not exist, however, if it’s a government department you are forced to deal with. Especially if it’s the dreaded HMRC.

You’d have needed a heart of stone not to share the pain Ben Wilkinson described in this paper a few days ago. 

It took him one hour and 44 minutes of being forced to listen to the hideous music and even more hideous recorded messages telling him the delays were ‘due to coronavirus’ before he was able to speak to an actual person.

And then the human told him she could not help him because she had ‘not been trained’ to deal with his particular problem. 

So he had to start all over again. The really scary part of this is that Ben is not alone. 

And it’s not as if HMRC can claim that they are getting an abnormally high number of calls.

Their own annual report, published this month, shows they received 33 million calls in the past financial year. 

That’s 8 million fewer than the year before. Four years ago, only 15 per cent of callers had to wait more than ten minutes. That figure has more than trebled.

This is more than just an inconvenience. The taxman has enormous powers. Quite right, too. 

Nobody enjoys paying tax and even the most diligent citizen might make the occasional mistake. 

Plus there are many fraudsters out there — sometimes aided and abetted by dubious accountants — who should be in jail rather than their Caribbean tax haven.

But there are also many entirely innocent people being threatened with fines and visits from debt-collection agencies over money they do not owe.

And on the other side of the balance sheet are those who are forced to wait months for refunds of money they should never have been made to pay in the first place.

Ironically, the HMRC website offers a service called ‘Where’s my reply?’ I say ‘ironically’ because I’ve just checked it out. 

I logged onto the website and claimed (a modest white lie) that I’d made a query about my self-assessment a few days ago.

It told me I could expect a reply by June 2. That’s six months. Oh … and if I still hadn’t had a reply I could try phoning. To which there is only one response: a hollow laugh.

It’s a bit like your doctor telling you not to worry about his rather bleak diagnosis because you’ll probably be dead soon anyway.

I suppose we should applaud HMRC for admitting that it’s not exactly covering itself in glory. 

Ironically, the HMRC website offers a service called 'Where's my reply?' I say 'ironically' because I've just checked it out

Ironically, the HMRC website offers a service called ‘Where’s my reply?’ I say ‘ironically’ because I’ve just checked it out

Or, to use its own language, ‘not fulfilling the ambition to be a trusted, modern tax and customs department’.

Perhaps it would help if their customer-service staff were not working from their offices only one day a week.

I suspect there’s something else going on here. Covid is a convenient excuse for forcing us to abandon any hope we might have had of talking to a living, breathing human being who might actually help us with our problem.

The Institute of Customer Service says that for the first time more than half of all our interactions with companies or public services are being made digitally.

Incidentally, you might like to know that I have just learned that ‘they’ won’t be coming to take me away after all.

I have managed to make contact with a real human being at Transport for London who was both courteous and competent. 

It helped, of course, that I have the advantage of a public platform in the shape of this newspaper. Most do not.

Increasingly, we are being deprived of even a semblance of what we once thought of as customer service.

We are left talking to a computer screen behind which sits not another human being, but an algorithm. Or a recorded telephone announcement that may or may not respond to our pleas for help.

It’s as though any human compassion in the relationship between customer and provider has simply disappeared. And that’s very sad.

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