So, here’s a strangely titled piece in a recent issue of The Spectator: “In praise of rude nerds. The best helpline operatives have the social skills of a breeze-block, but they know their stuff”. Oh dear, here we go. In true Spectator style, the article argues that too many call centres, in this case a technical helpline for a broadband router, follow crowd-pleasing scripts full of empty “politeness’ but never actually solve the problem for the poor, exasperated caller.
However, in the writer’s case his problem was only solved when he finally got hold of an operative who had the social skills of said “breeze block” but solved his problem because he also had the technical skills of a UNIX programmer. In other words, our author didn’t care about politeness – he just wanted his problem solved.
But is that true? Did he really just want that? I don’t think so. If you read the article through you will soon encounter the usual prejudice and received opinion about call centres – the writer got what he wanted despite the call centre, not because of it. In other words he got lucky. He found a “nerd” to help him – more prejudice there, the nerd obviously never left his bedroom and is no doubt spotty and frightened of girls. He would rather not deal with call centres at all.
Magazines like The Spectator happily endorse this image with clichéd tales of the “Indian” call centre, never speaking to a “real human” or someone who can speak English...modern life is rubbish, etc.
Why does the industry still struggle with a stereotype image of being battery farms for the underachieving, under educated elements of society ruled over by revenue chasing, autonomous managers – when actually a call centre, that functions as it should, performs the most vital form of customer relationship management and brand enhancement for its clients?
And for that it needs bright people – not “nerds” or social misfits to sit on that vital nexus between customer and provider. You know that, of course.
The image persists for three reasons: people believe what they read in the papers, the industry doesn’t do enough to counter the image – and call centres have somehow allowed themselves to become a totem of all that is wrong with modern society. They have become fair game because some call centres display bad practice. But then so do some airlines, some retailers – some car dealers.
Despite the best efforts of Apple, Google and others to simplify technology - modern life remains irredeemably complicated and getting more so. But unlike the writers in The Spectator, we love our gadgets, broadband and digital TV services – they make life better.
Things do go wrong and when they do we want to talk to a friendly, polite expert to fix it. To reach out to another person is natural and expected. Picking up a technical manual or searching the Internet for answers is not most people’s idea of fun – unless you are one of those men who when lost refuse, ever, ever – ever to ask for directions! Most of us just want things to work.
But do we want call centre advisers to be blunt, unsociable as long as they fix the problem? No. Do they want politeness and sincerity backed up with technical competence? Yes. Do they want to feel good about their provider when they get off the phone? Yes. You can have it all. And doing so would go some way to countering the negative image your industry gets in the press.
By the way, you can read the full Spectator article on the website, but unless you are a subscriber you can only read it once. Probably best.