“Please listen carefully to the options as these have recently changed…”

Three times a year, including at this time, our sons return from uni and, with this comes the need to make temporary adjustments to the named drivers on our car insurance policy. This seemingly simple task can’t be done online but requires a phone call. This in turn requires setting aside half an hour at the very least, ideally followed by a trip to a physio to deal with the tension, particularly in the jaw and neck area, that built up during the call.

The first problem is getting through to a human, something which can take half an hour on its own. We live in an age of choices. There never seem to be so many as when you’re in the automated stage of a phone call to just about any organisation that employs more than 20 people. The top level of these options should, if there’s any honesty in the world, be as follows:

  • Press 1 to listen to a list of our products and services, none of which you require.
  • Press 2 to listen a list of list of options, none of which match the reason for your call.
  • Press 3 to listen to an endless loop of the first 16 bars of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik played on a Rolf Harris stylophone.
  • Press 4 to be cut off without warning.

These are all read in a perky voice, usually Scottish and usually female.

It’s when you get through to a real person at the insurance company that the horror-film experience really kicks in. There’s always one password or reference number that you don’t have to hand, the lack of which risks spiking the whole conversation. Wave after wave of questions are then asked, few of which seem relevant to the matter in hand. As often as not you provide different information from that the company already holds, so potentially invalidating the policy or leaving you open to criminal charges. You then forget basic details like one son’s year of birth or the model of the car. Through the maddening tyranny of the computer system each option you want to consider must be quoted on separately: so, each time, the Sisyphean conversation must then wind back almost the beginning.

At the end of all this, you’re generally happy to accept more or less any extra charges or conditions for whatever you’re trying to accomplish. As with physical pain, the only thing that you want from this call is that it should end. You then hang up and wipe the whole matter from your mind so completely that, two minutes later, you are unable to recall a single detail of what was discussed.

It’s not just insurance companies, of course. They’re all at it. Few call centres are as awful as those operated by our banks, perhaps because it’s particularly clear that in this sector humans now really are the second-class citizens.

Twice recently I’ve had to grapple with banks, in both cases because of alleged fraud. This had the unwelcome result that they didn’t trust that I was who I claimed to be. The computer had decided I was a wrong ‘un and it was not the mere humans’ place to disagree.

The first was because my personal bank had decided that the transactions I made one Wednesday at Hungerford market were “unnatural” and cancelled my card, this despite the fact that I’d made the same sort of purchases at the this time of this day of the week for several years. I was using the options, and getting cut off, for an hour before speaking to someone in the fraud department.

After answering innumerable questions, I asked him why he thought these regular, and fairly small, transactions were problematic. “That’s what the algorithm said,” he replied, as hopeless and as defeated a remark as I’ve ever heard. “Does the algorithm pay any attention to similar past transactions?” I asked. He said he didn’t know. It was pointless to continue this line of questioning so, having established my card was finally unlocked, I hung up. The shadow hung over me, however, and it was some days before I could enter my PIN number without worrying that it was going to happen again.

The other time was a few months ago and concerned payments I’d made from a business account. I told the bank that these were going to happen: so judge of my rage at 9.30am the next day when I saw that they had all been stopped and the account frozen. I reached for the phone, with the sinking suspicion that I would get nothing else done that morning.

My fears were amply justified. This time the experience took over two and a half hours, as before enlivened by being cut off several times when being transferred. It was, in a rather bleak way, refreshing to know that the staff were having as much trouble pressing the right buttons as was I. Once again, the people to whom I eventually spoke effectively admitted that matters were largely out of their hands and that the computer was now making all the day-to-day decisions. The fact that I’d told a human about these payments in advance had cut no ice with the computer at all.

If this isn’t technology achieving sentience then it looks alarmingly like it. Indeed, the people at both banks seemed in many ways to be the computers’ slaves. The human serfs could, after a lot of effort, fix particular problems but by default, what the computer said went. I wonder if even the people at the top are able to control them – if indeed there are any people at the top any longer. Perhaps the figureheads are VR and AI clones wheeled out for shareholder meetings, appearances before parliamentary select committees and whistle-stop tours of the organisation’s call-centre in the misguided belief that this will boost staff morale.

There are many reasons why we might need to call such places over the next month or so. These include:

  • To try to get help with ordering something we want for Christmas.
  • To try to find why it hasn’t arrived.
  • To try to complain that it has arrived but isn’t working, is broken or is missing the reverse-angle sprocket or the USBX to USBZ adaptor.
  • Some time early in the new year, to try to arrange for the whole thing to be returned and refunded.

Like dogs, call centres are not just for Christmas. All of us are one lost bank card or one minor car prang away from having to pick up the phone and dial that dreadful string of numbers. According to This is Money, four percent of the UK’s workforce, about 1.3m people, work in call centres. A good chunk of the other 96 percent are at any one time trying to get through to them. For a long time, these calls are held at bay by the perky automated options system. We may burst through and so find ourselves talking a human, but it’s worth remembering that humans are no longer calling the shots. As with the calls themselves, it looks like we as a species are in imminent danger of being terminated. Option zero beckons…

Brian Quinn

• See also What Goes Round for another story of insurance call-centre hell (with several delicious ironies).
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