Press # to avoid a human

Press # to avoid a human

Had a chat with a computer lately? Most likely you have.

According to a report released recently by ACA Research and Price Waterhouse LLP, half of all Australians use the telephone for personal transactions once a week. And, almost invariably, if that involves paying a utility bill, making an enquiry from a financial institution or organising a journey, you will partly or even entirely communicate with a computer using the buttons on your touch-tone phone - in a so-named call centre.

To pay your Telstra bill by phone, you first have to dial a 10-digit number. This used to be a free service, but for the past year Telstra has charged a local call rate for the privilege. Then you must press the "8" button to confirm you have touch-tone capability.

Then key in your 10-digit account number, followed by a "#". And another digit to confirm what kind of account you are paying. Then your bill number.

Bill number? Yes. Since Telstra launched its new, improved and massively expensive billing system, Flexcab, it has been necessary to identify the individual bill as well as the customer account. It's also 10 digits. Oh, and the ubiquitous "#" again.

Your card number followed by "#" adds another 17 digits, plus four for the expiry date. Then there's the total of your bill in cents - four or five digits generally. Now you wait for your receipt number: 10 digits again. (10-digit receipt numbers offer Telstra a billion permutations - about a hundred times as many as it has retail accounts.)The nightmare continues . . .

Give or take, this makes a total of about 65 digits for a retail transaction. That's assuming you have impeccable telephone keypad skills - a tiny finger slip and you're obliged to repeat at least one stage of the transaction.

If Telstra wins the prize for most finicky transactions, then rival telecom carrier Optus Communications wins in the patronisation stakes. "I will lead you step by step. Let's begin," instructs the disembodied voice in maddeningly slow, synthetic nursery-school tones.

It's obvious that call centres are designed to shield an organisation's personnel from its customers: "Press X to speak to an operator" is invariably last on the list of menu options. A grudging afterthought. But you can rarely short-circuit the process because you don't know in advance how many menu options there will be.

According to the ACA Research survey, up to 5 per cent of people give up in disgust before they finish their transaction, and almost a third think it's a problem that they don't get personal, human service. It's a complex complaint, as it includes not only callers feeling that their transactions could be handled more efficiently by a person, but also a growing dissatisfaction at the general dehumanisation of personal business dealings.

Are the purveyors of call centres - in which Australian organisations invest up to $2 billion a year - concerned about this? Not really.

Call centres cost, on average, $4 per customer contact. Compare that to upwards of $25 for an over-the-counter transaction, or $300 or so for a visit from a sales rep. You quickly see where their priorities lie.

In call centre lore, this means a cost saving - to the call centre provider. But if you decide to factor in the cost to callers of slogging their way through the layers of menu software, you must conclude it's really a cost displacement. Where competition for retail dollars has shaved the apparent cost of providing some products and services, computerisation is passing the actual cost back to the customer.

It's something to reflect on as you hold the line, waiting to be funnelled deeper into the system's intricacies. At least these days you probably won't have to listen while waiting to a tinny rendition of the Cuckoo Waltz played on an 8-bit chip from a collapsing Asian economy. But even Mozart is unlikely to relax you when a dumb machine at the other end of a telephone line is blithely assuming, as machines will, that your time means nothing.

In some industries this assumption is becoming more explicit. NationsBank in the US is employing its computers to figure out as soon as it receives an incoming call whether the customer is a big spender or a person whose low account balance is never going to generate an income for the bank. In the latter case, they will be directed towards a call centre and have scant opportunity to talk to a human operator. In the former, they may be greeted personally by a highly-trained service representative.

Making it easy

Telstra too is proposing a "differentiated" service, including automation for "core" customers, who are lower down the food chain from "premium" spenders. Another survey, by TARP International, puts Australian call centres at the bottom of the quality league, below the US and Europe. It claims one of the things they are lacking is the ability to extract information about customers and use it efficiently, such as retaining credit card details for the duration of a call so that customers with multiple accounts can pay them without having to rekey essential details.

But the obvious corollary of such "improvements" is that a person's distance from a human operator is going to increase. Whatever changes may be made to call centre interfaces and however soothing the tones of the electronic operator, they cannot alter a simple perception of many people: to be dealt with by a computer is to be treated with disrespect.

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