It may be unorthodox, but I suspect the interview technique for anyone applying to be a telephone operator on the BT technical helpline, is that they sit the prospective applicant in a chair and ask them to read a script out loud while people throw things at them – paperclips, pens, mouldy slices of half-eaten pizza – anything that might distract them. And if they can get through this process without deviating from the script or answering the one serious question asked of them in the midst of all this mayhem, then the job’s theirs. And why do I suspect this? Bitter experience.
We had recently moved house and had arranged for our BT telephone, broadband and TV package to accompany us, only it didn’t. Well, part of it did, we did have a telephone line that crackled like Coco Pops immersed in cold milk and broadband service that was slower than some of my students and trust me, you can’t get much slower than that, but somewhere along the way, our television package had got lost. So I called their Technical Helpline.
My call was answered by Metal Minnie, a female recorded voice who asked me to state my reason for calling. I told her I had a technical problem, answered her security questions, input my account number, got it wrong, input it again, pressed buttons, pressed more buttons and eventually got cut off. That’s right, I was calling BT, one of the world’s premier telecommunications companies and I got cut off. Unbelievable, isn’t it? So I called back and after going through the same infuriating finger jabbing was told to “wait on the line and one of our advisors will be with you shortly”. So I did, I waited… and waited, every now and then Minnie popping back to tell me “we’re very busy at this time, perhaps you would like to call back later?” Call back later? Was she having a laugh? My blood pressure was soaring simply thinking about going through that rigmarole again. So I waited and my call was eventually answered by the Kumars’ distant cousin in Mumbai. I explained my problem. Young Kumar seemed confused. He referred to his script, tapped away at his computer keyboard and finally announced with an air of righteous indignation “You cancelled it“. At least, I think that’s what he said, his Asian accent was so thick I could barely understand a word he was saying. It was bollocks anyway, I hadn’t cancelled anything. “No, I didn’t” I assured him.
“Yes, you did”
“No, I didn’t”
“Well somebody did”
“Well, it wasn’t me”.
For some reason, Master Kumar couldn’t grasp the concept that I would know if I cancelled my own order and that talking at me without listening was the best way of dealing with my problem (it must be fun at BT boot camp, seeing how long one of them can talk before another of their colleagues excitedly waves their hand to say they understood something they said and the poor bastard is sacked on the spot). On and on he went about… to be honest, I haven’t the slightest idea what he was talking about, the only time he paused to take breath was when I asked him to slow down and speak a version of English I could understand, and even then all he did was get stroppy and rave on about the BT racial policy (surely it’s not racist to expect a British company to employ someone English people can actually understand). The one thing I did manage to gain from all this, however, was that there was nothing he could do from his end, that it wasn’t in his remit and if I wanted my order reinstating I should ring the service department. Which I did and, after explaining my predicament was told: “No, you didn’t”.
“Didn’t what?” I queried more than a little confused.
“Cancel your order. It’s here on the system, I can see it”.
“So why did he tell me I had, then?”
“I don’t know. You’ll have to ask him?”
I waited for more, but there wasn’t any and all the time I was thinking “why doesn’t she just ring Master Kumar and sort things out”. Then it dawned on me, the reason she didn’t call him was that she didn’t understand his Mumbai mumblings any more than I did. So I slammed the phone down and rang him myself… only it wasn’t him that answered, it was somebody with an even thicker accent who, after I’d been through everything with him yet again, confirmed I’d cancelled the order and there was nothing he could do about it.
Eventually, after much toing and froing, customer service decided the best thing I could do was to cancel my original order and put through a new one. Everything should be fine then, they assured me, you should be up and running sweet as a nut… in two weeks.
Two weeks came and two weeks passed and I was still watching repeats of Midsummer Murders on ITV. So I rang Master Kumar who promptly told me my order had been cancelled… by me. I corrected him. “Customer service cancelled the order and then put through a new one”.
Master Kumar sighed condescendingly. “I know that,” he said, “and then you cancelled it”. And the whole cycle started over again. Back and forth I went, first the helpline and then customer service and by now people were getting to work early in the morning just to hear me rant at BT. I totalled it up and by then I’d been on to them for 36 hours, 36 soul destroying hours during which time Hindi was fast becoming my second language; I could easily get a job as an interpreter for other dissatisfied BT customers, but I couldn’t get my bloody television package?
Then, one night, it all came to a head. During one of my twice daily calls, I was cut off yet again. Enough was enough. I angrily cleared the line, rang back, Minnie greeted me and… and before I knew it, I found myself randomly hammering keys on the telephone keypad and slamming the handset repeatedly on the arm of my chair. I just wanted her to stop, desperately wanted her to stop, to shut the f**k up. But she wouldn’t, she just kept going on and on and… I flung the telephone on the floor, jumped in the air with both feet like a schoolboy about to joyously crush a snail in the school playground and…
“Good evening, can I help you?”
Somehow, I don’t know how I had managed to get through to an operator, and she was English, and… well, I say she was English, she was a Geordie actually and with the Geordie accent being notoriously hard to comprehend, for most people I can see it is almost as difficult to hold a conversation with her as it is with Master Kumar in Mumbai, the one who mumbles so inaudible not even his mother can understand him. Lucky for me, then, that my long term colleague is from the northeast and after spending hours listening to her droning on relentlessly all day every day, I had managed to pick up a few words of the dialect.
“Is there a God?” I asked her when I got over the shock.
“What was that again, pet” she questioned thinking she had misheard.
“Is there a God?”
“I… I’m not really sure I understand the question, sir”. She said sounding confused.
“No, no I don’t suppose you do”, I assured her before exploding sarcastically. “But it’s a damn sight easier for you to answer that than, when am I going to get my bloody television package?”
It went quiet, there was a pause and then… “That was a joke – right?”
“Well, of course, it was a bloody joke” I snapped in frustration. “Of course I don’t want you to tell me if there’s a God, there’s loads of them. Gods of darkness, gods of light. Sun gods, bull gods, gods of love and war… one bloke I know even thinks Jose Mourinho’s a god, but he also thinks BT customer service is sound, so I wouldn’t take much notice of him”.
When the young woman realised I was becoming distressed, she told me to calm down, tell her what was wrong and she would see if she could help me. And I did and she listened with increasing disbelief to my list of complaints. Then, when I was finally finished, she checked on the system to see if she could make sense of it all. After a few minutes, she sighed “Ah… Right. Right, I can see now” and anticipating good news, I turned off my blood pressure monitor. “We cancelled it”, she said. I took a deep breath, turned the machine back on again and sighed. “Why?”
“Because you can’t get Freeview in your area”
This was news to me, I had been watching repeats on Freeview for weeks while I was without my television package. “So, let me get this straight” I mused. “For weeks your technical department has been telling me I cancelled my order and… and all along it was you. You cancelled it. Not once, but twice. And all because I can’t get Freeview”.
“So, what am I watching now while I talk to you?”
“I don’t know, sir” she came back quick as a flash. “We haven’t yet developed a system whereby we can see down the telephone line and into your living room. Perhaps, one day”. Sarcastic bitch, I loved her, my kind of girl, although, to be fair, it was probably a good thing she couldn’t see into my living room right then as I was sitting in my boxers scratching my… apparently, it’s something I do when I get wound up. I carried the telephone receiver over and placed it next to the television set, and as the young woman listened on the other end of the line, I flicked through the channels; and every single one of them came up picture perfect. Not a glitch.
“I don’t understand it”, she said. “It definitely says you can’t get it. The computer refuses to take the order”.
“So, why don’t you just override it, then?” I suggested, naively thinking it’s humans who control computers and not the other way round.
“I can’t”, she insisted. “I’ve tried”.
I was devastated, my life in tatters, all I had to look forward to was life without quality television programming or a choice of films to watch. How was I going to cope? Was I going to have to start going out for walks or joining a gym? Maybe I should start collecting stamps or beer mats… bloody hell, I might even have to start talking to Mrs T more often (I have since learned this was not an option, she was and still is, quite happy without my argumentative, bigoted, irrational, overly dramatic opinions ringing in her ears. Her words, not mine). The mere thought of it made me break out in hives.
So, I retreated to my cuddle chair and sat staring blankly at the television. It wasn’t turned on, I didn’t have the heart, I had fought a long, hard battle and lost and anybody that knows me knows, the thing I hate most is losing. Three days passed during which I was becoming more and more depressed, but then the telephone rang. I picked up the receiver “hello” and a man on the other end of the line said “I’m from BT and I’m surprised you haven’t told us to stick our vision box up our…. This conversation is being recorded so, as an employee, I really can’t say where. But as a customer, you’re quite at liberty to insert…”
“Arses?” I suggested.
“Exactly”, he confirmed.
Even though she couldn’t help me herself, my sweet, sarcastic Geordie lass had escalated my complaint to a Senior Manager. Hence the call. Firstly, he apologised for taking so long to get back to me (perhaps the company interpreter was away on a training course and without him, he had been unable to speak with Master Kumar), but he did have good news. After kicking the computer a couple of times and beating it with a stick, so long as I could confirm I could get Freeview, the television package was mine, free of charge for the next six months. Which it was. And I was happy… well, no, no I wasn’t happy, I wasn’t happy at all, in truth I was becoming increasingly irritable and frustrated. And who could blame me, having to sit there ploughing through endless dross trying to find something worthwhile to watch? In the good old days all you had was a handful of channels showing quality programmes, but not today, today it’s different, today you have channel after channel churning out the same crap. Dozens of them. And by the time you’ve ploughed through them all trying to find something decent to watch, you’re so knackered you can’t be bothered anymore and go to bed… even in the middle of the afternoon.
Who the hell in their right mind would want all that?