Thoughts on call centres

You’re planning a trip to Italy and need to make sure your phone works abroad. You check the app, but… nope. You eventually find their phone number and call them.

After a few rings, it answers. “Hello, and thank you for calling [company name]. For questions about your bill, press 1. For questions about your device, press 2. For all other enquiries, press 3.” You press 3. It starts ringing again, and a voice says “Your call is very important to us, please hold.” Then a low-bitrate song starts playing that you vaguely recognise.

Finally, after a few minutes you hear the buzz of a call centre as someone answers. “Hello, you’re speaking with …”. You might then need to pass “security,” and can finally ask them about your roaming settings. 😴

If only this was rare. The problem with call centres is that they’re very, very hard to do well.

And why is that?

They’re synchronous

2 people have to be on the phone for anything useful to happen. It’s like waiting in line for a burrito — you’re not doing anything, but you have to wait if you want a burrito. This is “active waiting,” and impossible to avoid with a call centre.

Compare that with food delivery. You order, get on with your day and eat when it arrives.

And hard to understand

This means good call quality and an accent/dialect you know. How often does it feel like you’re talking over radio?

With bad security

All they know is what number you’re calling from, and even if it matches your account they can’t be sure it’s you, hence those “security” questions. A lot of the problems with phone calls disappear with an authenticated app and a locked phone.

And no history

“Wait, what did we talk about again?” Unless you’re recording the call, or they send you their recording, you have no history; no proof.

This is useful if you just need to remember what you spoke about, but what if the conversation goes badly? It’s not unknown for companies to deny what they said in a call, and if you don’t have the recording… eh. 😬

The alternative 🎉

Let’s get this straight: the reason you’re calling in the first place is because something is wrong. We, or any mobile operator, failed you. The pricing wasn’t clear, the policy was stupid, the design was flawed, the engineering was buggy, etc.

Following from the start, your roaming settings should be obvious and visible. In our case, this will be on the “Account” screen of our app where you can easily see and toggle your settings, including roaming.

But we’re not deluded: things do go wrong. And when they do, it shouldn’t be such a colossal faff. So:

Chat, as you’d expect

Chat is nothing new. But done well? We all know those web “portals” and their doorbell sounds… The gold-standard for messaging is WhatsApp (or Messenger, WeChat, etc.); anything less is old news.

Why should a company be any different? Fast, secure messaging on several platforms. For us, to start with, that means in-app, via email1 and on Twitter. We’ll also look into WhatsApp and Telegram.

Never…? 😥

Phone support isn’t going away — we still need it for some things. Messaging is useless if you can’t see, and calling from a separate number is great if you lose your phone.

If everyone wants to make calls again, we’ll be there. And whatever comes after messaging2, we’ll be there.

Support, as it should be. ✌️

  1. Talking about security, email doesn’t win awards. We’ll never use it for sensitive information, but it’s convenient for many things. 

  2. Telepathy. It’s definitely telepathy. 

Nick Goodall