It was hardly the most auspicious of omens. The eve of making the trek from the South Coast of England - now an effective police state for the duration of the Labour Party jollies at the seaside! - to the delights of the NEC in Birmingham for Call Centre Expo and I run into call centre hell.
It was almost as if some mischievous power had decided that all the worst elements of call centre interaction would be thrown at me in order to focus my thinking en route (and distract me from the misery of Virgin Trains in the process!).
My troubles began with a simple enough request to Barclays, an institution with which I have banked for over 15 years and with whom I have always been in credit. I wanted a reprint of a bank statement. I jumped through the necessary security hoops until we got to the question where the very politely-spoken call centre operative asked me to tell her a regular direct debit from my account.
I offered up my mortgage, but because I wasn't able to tell her off the top of my head the exact day on which it went out of my account last month, this apparently didn't count. So I offered my council tax payments. Again, no exact dating in my head, so that didn't count. OK, I tried, how about my mobile phone which is on direct debit. Quick as a flash she jumped in to tell me that mobile phone bills can't be used, even if on a monthly direct debit.
At this point she said that because I had "failed" the security test three times, she would not be able to process my request. I'd given her name, date of birth, address, mother's maiden name, password and three forms of monthly direct debit payment from my account, but I had "failed". I asked to speak to her supervisor, so she hung up, announcing that it wasn't policy to discuss security matters on the telephone.
As if that wasn't bad enough, I then had the temerity to ring 3, the mobile phone firm with all that lovely user-friendly advertising on the telly and in the newspapers. I switched to 3 a few months ago and on the whole I've been very pleased with the move, but I needed to have international roaming activated on my phone so I rang the customer service line.
I got through to downtown Bangalore or Mombai or wherever the call centre is based and went through my security hoops. I told the operative what I wanted. She didn't understand. I told her again. She still didn't understand. I told her a third time. She decided I needed to talk to someone else. This seemed like an awfully good idea to me, so I waited a few seconds while she passed me to her colleague.
Her colleague came on the line. I started to explain what I needed only to be told that I'd need to go through the security questions again. I pointed out that I'd been passed to him by someone else in the 3 call centre, so why did I need to do this again. I just had to, was the reply. So I jumped through the security hoops again, then explained what I wanted. Oh, you've come through to the wrong place, he said, I'll put you through to the right person.
So off I went again, connected to a third person who's accent was impenetrably thick to my ears. I had a bad feeling about this from the start. Inevitably I went through the security questions one last time for luck - the third time since interacting with the one call centre! - then told him what I wanted.
In reply I had a very long and largely incomprehensible 'explanation' of why he couldn't help me. I decided to cut to the chase and asked for his supervisor or someone senior. No, he said, I won't do that. I asked again. No, he said, I don't have to do that. I asked again - considerably louder this time. No I won't, he said, you're going to complain about me.
Eventually I got through to his supervisor, who was sensible and helpful and sorted the problem out in 2 minutes flat (albeit via a 4th trip through the security routine). I asked the superviser if she thought her staff's response was appropriate when asked to talk to some in charge. She said no, but added that she only had my word for it that he'd refused to help. To say I was singularly unimpressed is an understatement - and by the way, if anyone from 3 is reading this, I'm still waiting for the apology in writing that I was promised.
Call centres are an inevitable fact of life these days. MORI research shows that 4 out of 5 of us have had dealings with them in the past 12 months. The research also shows how unhappy we are with this and that there are common examples of bad practice that undermine the value of such centres.
Call Centre Expo is packed to the brim with companies boasting of best practice and offering advice on the effective and successful implementation of call centres. If the visitors to the conference and exhibition can take some of this away and put the theory into practice, then so much the better for all of us.
There are good, well-run, customer-friendly call centres out there. It's just that run-ins with the likes of Barclays and 3's front line call centre staff blot out all the good experiences that you have.
Companies need to bear in mind that the foremost purpose of a call centre should be to improve their ability to interact with their customers, not to drive them barking mad and waste their time talking to telephone operators with no interest in helping their clients in any way other than what's scripted for them on their prompt sheet.