Daily Mail urges readers, “Vote Lib Dem”

Well, almost. But those were the two words which leaped out from the screen when I saw this headline on the Mail’s website:

To speak to a human being when you phone customer services… vote LibDem

Here’s the story:

Calls to all customer service numbers should be free with the option of speaking to a real person rather than a computer under a new universal service code.
The plan has been devised by the Lib-Dems who are calling for a change to the balance of power between the public and the government, councils and big corporations.

The Universal Service code would put obligations on companies and organisations, including banks, power and water companies, that provide a service to the public.
The key measures include making one of the first options in their telephone response system the chance to speak to a human being.

These bodies would also be required to provide a free customer service phone number from both landlines and mobile phones.

There would also be a guarantee to make all household visits to, for example, fix a power supply or make a delivery within a one hour time window.

Staff should also be trained to deal quickly and effectively with customer enquiries, whether the call centre is based in the UK or somewhere like India.

There’s even a chunky quote from John Thurso, the Lib Dems’ shadow business secretary:

Too often, customers find their relationships with companies and public bodies skewed against them. So many commonplace practices are infuriating for customers who just want to be treated fairly and honestly.

When they have a problem or an enquiry about a service they have paid for, it is reasonable that they should be able to talk to a person and not a machine about it. Customers must have the power to make fair and informed choices without the fear of being taken for a ride and bewildered by mindless bureaucracy.”

The party has said the code would apply to all public sector organisations – government departments, local councils, hospitals and others – while all organisations biddng for major contracts with or franchises from government would also be obliged to sign-up. Private businesses would be encouraged to comply, but not compelled.

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  • Hmm, good policy – but there’s something missing. The introduction specifically mentions people who have difficulty communicating on the phone, but makes no proposals for dealing with it.

    Virgin Media, among others, provide an online chat facility on their website for people to speak to sales staff – but not support. Every phone support operative has a computer in front of them, so getting them to deal with people through a website or e-mail in addition wouldn’t incur extra cost.

    This would help the not inconsiderable number of people who have phone anxiety, especially when dealing with stressful situations like financial trouble.

  • Matthew Huntbach 9th Sep '09 - 9:49am

    It sounds to me a bit nanny-state, though I note at the end of the article it isn’t actually proposed to force private business to provide such contact. In this line I think we might also make it a recommendation but not compulsory for councils – why should national government micromanage them by forcing them to make contact available in a certain way? That ought surely to be up to them and their electorate.

    We might usefully create a directory of organisations, public and private, which lists how their customer services work. Then let the market and the electorate dictate. I think many people, myself included, would find such a thing very useful in choosing who to bank with, pay for my gas/electricity to, etc.

    Well, here’s a little entrepreneurial task someone could take up, and probably make a bit of money with. Who needs government to do it? Doing this privately would also allow a little more candour in rating customer services. If all they do is go mechanically through a script, it isn’t an improvement on automation. If you’re left on hold for half an hour before you get through, it isn’t much use either even if you aren’t actually paying for it.

    In the old days, of course, banks and utilities had people in branches you could go to and speak with. It can be enormously frustrating when one has a simple problem which is best explained face-to-face, but the organisation provides no way of doing so. Cutting it is cost-saving, of course, but this reminds us to look beyond cash cost alone when making choices.

  • I don’t think it’s “nanny state”-ish to require organisations to be contactable easily by their customers. It’s just making sure that they’re fulfilling their side of the contract to provide customer service.

    League tables are all very well in theory if we actually have a free market and that information’s available to everybody to influence their decision, but in the case of monopolies like BT (who tend to be the worst offenders) they’re meaningless, and either way they’re of little comfort if you’re the one being stung.

    Dealing with poor customer service, particularly from organisations who have the power to exact fines for late payment etc. on you, can be crippling. I know people who’ve become ill from stress from dealing with a company’s mistakes. I don’t think that it’s a bad idea to establish a base level of customer service.

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