A quiet Tuesday afternoon in Bizzle Towers. The bear idly surfs the net, the distant hum of mendacity from the sales department barely disturbing his reverie.
Suddenly, the phone rings…
“Yo, Bizzle here. S’up?”
“Is that Mr Bizzle?”
[suddenly sitting up straight] “Er yes. Sorry. Um. Yes. How can I help?”
“It’s about this letter that you’ve sent me.”
“Oh, right. Um, what letter is that?”
“This letter here, the one that you sent me. Don’t you know what letters you send?”
“Yes, right, sorry. What I mean is, um, who are you?”
“Mr Jones, of course. Good grief.”
“Oh yes, of course. Mr Jones. Good. Well, what can I do for you?”
“Well, I’m not happy with your response to my complaint at all. This bit where you call me a liar, for example.” “
Er… well… I don’t think that I called you a liar…”
“Yes, you did.” [reads out lengthy extract from letter] “
Well, you see, what I actually say there is…”
“I’m not interested in your excuses. I phoned the Financial Services Authority and my MP, and they both say that you should apologise.”
“Oh. Right. Well…”
“And another thing…” [continues for several hours, taking in amongst other things the pernicious influence of American business practices, socio-economic conditions in former mining communities, the acting and directing career of Ben Affleck, and the inevitable failure of the European project]
Well, there’s nothing like being ranted at by a stranger to brighten up your day. But the random encounter with an angry civilian is one of the true pleasures of working in house (in consumer-facing businesses, at least).
Over the years I’ve been accused of being cold-hearted, excessively corporate, a liar (I am all of those things, obviously) and even of not existing (I am legendary, but not mythical). I’ve also, bizarrely, been called “clearly a nice man.”
I’ve made sympathetic noises while my caller fights back the tears, and struggled to keep a straight face through tales of Eastenders-style melodrama. I’ve even solved some customers’ problems, although obviously I make up for these lapses by torturing kittens in my lunch break.
Most of these calls come completely out of the blue. One minute you’re marking up a software licence, the next you’re trying to get a word in edgeways while somebody rambles on about how the war in Iraq demonstrates the need for cooperation between financial institutions and the Government.
Lest you think that I’m dissing our customers, without whom I’d be unable to keep Mrs Bizzle supplied with champagne and trinkets, I should make it clear that only the really difficult or weird calls make it as far as my phone. The vast majority of the general public are lovely, lovely people, and I am not allowed to speak to them.
It’s the special cases that are reserved for the legal team. Not just the legal issues, but the policies and decisions that nobody else wants to stand up for, and the callers who are, shall we say, rather too emotionally involved in their complaint (although, to be fair, the least rational person I’ve ever had the pleasure of spending two hours on the phone with was a Citizens’ Advice debt advisor).
Of course, many lawyers are used to dealing with real people (or, as a friend of a friend once put it, while explaining why he didn’t want to work in claimant PI, “the smelly people who cry”) on a daily basis. But in-house lawyers often come from commercial firms, where they deal mostly with other lawyers and senior business people.
As a result, the intrusion of the outside world can be a bit discombulating for the new in-houser. One day you’re negotiating multi-million pound PFI deals and feasting on the finest biscuits known to man, the next you’re nursing an instant coffee while being shouted at about a leaking washing machine.
The old hands exchange discreet smirks when they hear new colleagues taking a customer call: “But Mrs Smith… no… what I really mean is… now, there’s no need for that kind of language…” Even after a few years, my boss still gets that classic rabbit in the headlights face on the rare occasions that a customer gets hold of his direct line.
The first instinct of the tyro in-houser when confronted with an angry caller is to try rational persuasion and logical argument. This is a mistake. By the time a customer speaks to the legal team, their complaint has been running for at least six months and they have long since lost any kind of perspective on its merits.
Either that, or they’re mad enough to call the legal team straight away. And that’s where you make the second rookie error: thinking that a complaint must be meaningful because they’ve called YOU.
People who don’t speak to customers that often (and this gets worse the more senior that person is) are prone to taking every complaint that they do hear at face value. After all, if it wasn’t serious they wouldn’t have called the boss, would they?
So where more a experienced complaint wrangler has a range of techniques for getting angry people off the line so that they can do a proper investigation of the issues, the senior manager can think of nothing else but an immediate promise that Something Will Be Done. Thus expectations are raised and the lives of minions made harder.
In fact (here’s the wisdom bit), what a lot of angry people want, almost more than an actual solution, is to be listened to. They can get justification and argument from the call centre, but they usually can’t get the time to tell their story (and I’m not criticising call centre staff – you try being empathetic in a two minute call).
So, because I listened to him for an hour or so, my (slightly fictionalised) caller from the skit went away, if not happy, feeling like he’d had a chance to express himself. I couldn’t help him with his problem, but at least he feels like he’s not confronted by a vast corporate machine.
Of course, some people just want a fight. Many years ago, a colleague went down to reception to meet a customer who’d turned up to make their complaint in person, and was hit over the head with an umbrella for her pains.
And the moral of that story is: when reception asks you to go and meet a customer, send the trainee.
The picture at the top of this blog was kindly sourced by @PrincessofVP. Go read her blog, it’s aces.