"We want your inside leg measurement..."

As an existing Vodafone customer with a long-term contract, periodically I swap my ageing handset for a newer version. Little did I know that this time I would be subjected the "Nanny State" mentality in all its dubious glory. 

A few days after the swap, I received a call from Vodafone thanking me for continuing to be their customer. Fair enough, I thought, it's  congruent with the "service excellence" ethos that pervades our culture; it might even be a genuine attempt to "go the extra mile" in warm fuzziness with the important, but oh so fickle end user.

 However, the conversation did not end there. No, I had no further questions...in fact, I was not aware of asking any. Vodafone called me, I seem to recall. What followed was a request for a series of personal details, all of which Vodafone already held on the system. This, I was told initially, was  “for confirmation"; then it was "for your own security". Apparently, this was in case my new phone had, in fact, been stolen and this contact centre agent was having a conversation with the thief...

Then I was told I had to answer because "it is the law". I almost detected Judge Dredd in the background with a Stallone drawl threatening "Twenty years in da Isocubes". So what "law" might require me, having been called by Vodafone, to "confirm" personal information over a mobile phone? Data which Vodafone already has in order to have called me in the first place - to congratulate me on doing business with you, remember?

The Data Protection Act, came the reply. Oh really?  In that case, it works both ways. How do I know that you are, in fact, calling on behalf of Vodafone? Could you furnish me with your personal details. How exactly would my inside leg measurment enhance your ability as a company to serve me and, more bizarrely, keep me "safe" as you suggest? 

Rest assured, these were thoughts I mostly kept to myself at the time - a contact centre agent has enough problems just  being a slave to process and being forced to make inane outgoing interruptions to other people's days without me venturing into the cul-de-sac that is "let's be rational for a moment" with one of these poor saps.

Far too many organisations - Vodafone just happens to be in my little spotlight here - use contact centres as a combination of safety bunker and blunt instrument. Dell is another culprit, but you can most likely add your own to a growing list.

The way it works is this: customers are a pain. They pay our wages, says the company, and bolster the share price, but in reality they are a drain on our resources and are a liability. However, in keeping with today's Alice in Wonderland world, let's advertise that we live and breathe "customer service excellence". In particular, let's "offer" them a contact centre, which they can call at their expense - often a premium rate number - and ostensibly have all their troubles resolved and be sent on their way, glowing with enthusiasm for our caring, sharing company.

The real agenda is somewhat different. The contact centre - actually a call centre (we can ignore the other "touch points": the emails, texts and, ha! actual letters) - can be understaffed by people with all the responsibiity but no power to deal with the great unwashed who insist on calling in. 

First, pay through the nose to listen to the organisation's choice of music on hold music, often punctuated with messages reiterating just how important your call is to them - but not important enough to have sufficent staff to take the call in the first place. The hapless customer has so far subsidised the phone company and the cosy contract it has with the organisation you are trying to reach to the tune of quite a few pence per call. Thank you kindly - rest assured, we care about you.

Perhaps you would like to play with the Interactive Voice Response system? You, the caller, has no real choice and many IVR systems are labyrinthine in their complexity, often contradictory and, in true Looking-Glass fashion, may return you to where you began at the touch of a button. Isn't this fun?

Eventually, you get through to a person. At least, they begin as a human being. Soon, though, when it is clear your enquiry is beyond the scope of their script, they revert to automaton mode. No, we're sorry I have no capacity for independent thought; we're sorry, but the nature of your enquiry might mean I have to step beyond the constraints of the rule-book to understand and then to assist you; we're sorry..always so sorry.

Oh, and before you get to ask your question, let's ask everything we already know about you - for your comfort and security, of course - from your mother's maiden name to your inside leg measurement. If you survive that, you can talk to us, but don't expect us to give you a satisfactory result.

 In contrast to the "here to help" advertising that suggests customers as individuals are important to the organisation, the contact centre is a black hole to suck in queries and complaints. It keeps the customers off the back of the organsation, enabling the comany to focus on sales - ah yes, the happy, smiling side of the business where everything is customer-focused and we have the Key Performance Indicators to prove it. 

Dell has contact centres in India, for example, to handle customer queries. A more willing, polite group of individuals one could not expect to find. However, they have zero power: however much they would like to help, they cannot. They are not part of Dell. They can only listen to tirades of frustration winging their way from Europe. Dell UK, however, is all about sales, sales and more sales. 

If you are a Dell customer and decide to take the company up on its advertising claims that the customer really is important to them, try calling the marketing department in the UK. No, noone can speak to you, says reception. And no, you cannot leave a message. No they do not have an email for you to write to them; no, not even if you are a member of the press. And this is the marketing department...We're  sorry. Well, not really.

Next time you are asked for personal details by a company representative, take a moment to decide whether to give them. Is it a genuine request to establish you are you or is it simply to feed the corporate database? 

My Vodafone call was just one of innumerable encounters with the cynical corporate approach to "customer service" prevalent today. Let us choose which way we want to go and decide what being a provider and a customer should really be about. 

Now where did I put that loyalty card? 

 Wordsmithing - at your service