Although call centres and automated telephone voice response systems are in widespread use, Gavin Ford explains why he will not be opting to use either - for now.
11 June 2004
I am writing this from my hotel room in Sheffield. As well as playing host to the World Snooker championship each year, Sheffield has two universities. I am visiting Sheffield Hallam University this week for the first time. . . . as a student.
Sheffield Hallam University is home to the facilities management graduate centre. By semi-distance learning you can earn a certificate, diploma and degree in facilities management. I use the phrase semi-distance learning because most of the work is undertaken away from the university. But you are required to attend the university a few times each year to work with other students on the course, learning and participating in the different modules.
Maybe I will share my student experience with you through this column at a later date. In the meantime, if you have been thinking about pursuing a similar course of study but would like to speak to someone who is already going through it, do get in touch. I'd be happy to talk to you about my experiences on the course so far.
After quite a long day of lectures, I returned to my hotel room to unwind. I switched on the television and a programme caught my eye on BBC1. It was called Brassed Off Britain and the topic of discussion was call centres and automated telephone voice response. I decided to watch it.
The programme described some of the public's frustrations at being answered by an automated voice instead of a human one, when trying to contact a company in the UK, and on the growing trend of companies who are outsourcing their telephone operator services to India where labour is cheaper.
Apparently, some 10 billion calls are made each year to call centres. Chances are, the consumer thinks they have made direct contact with the company which they are wanting to talk to. It was amusing to learn how training is provided to call centre workers in India, in order for them to be on the same wavelength as a person calling from the UK. They receive lessons in customer service; speech lessons, so they can understand jargon and our different accents; and watch episodes of soap operas such as EastEnders and Coronation Street, to learn about our culture. And few can forget the Kit Kat adverts which mimicked an automated voice system which urged the caller to press one to be put on hold forever and press two to be cast into total oblivion and ended by inviting the frustrated caller to 'have a break, have a Kit Kat'.
At the University of Brighton the facilities management team has considered the idea of installing a voice processing system. On the plus side, many calls to the university could be handled without requiring someone's time to deal with the call - for example ordering a university prospectus, asking for a job application form and seeking the addresses and directions to the university's campuses.
On the other hand, we appreciate how annoying it is to be greeted by an automated voice and believe that a more professional approach is provided by a friendly human voice. So, we decided not to invest around £80,000 on something that would frustrate existing and potential customers and other callers to the university. We will continue to monitor the development of these systems and the public's acceptance (or not) of them, ensuring that if or when we do become 'automated', it is to the benefit of everyone.
One final observation; when I phone a company and am greeted by an answerphone message like, ' . . . sorry, but all our operators are busy at the moment. Please hold and your call will be answered shortly. . . ', I can't help feeling that this really means there is no one in the office to take the call, or that they only employ about five staff to deal with 20,000 calls per day.
Gavin Ford is facilities manager at the University of Brighton