I called India last week. Not to book some glamorous holiday on the beaches of Goa, or to arrange a trip to the Taj Mahal, but because my broadband was faulty. A few years ago, a committee buried deep in the British customer service industry had the bright idea of outsourcing all the call centers to our former colony.
There was some logic in this. Instead of talking to a disinterested underachiever from northern England, customers would be able to chat to a bright, upwardly mobile type from Mumbai. The fact that they could pay the Indian takeaway a tenth of the wage wasn't even a consideration... honest.
Like all great ideas dreamt up by a committee, it was fundamentally flawed. Just as I would have no idea how to manage the communication systems in Madras or Calcutta, so the poor soul in the Indian call center has little idea of what "broadband buggered" means in the context of contemporary London.
After I'd spent twenty minutes sitting in a telephone queue (very British), my conversation went something like this:"Good afternoon, to whom am I speaking?""Alistair Weaver.""Mr. Veeber.""Weaver.""Veeber.""Weaver.""Veever. Yes, Mr. Veever. What is the problem?"
This was my cue to launch into a tedious explanation of what was wrong. "Mr. Veever," said my new friend. "I will do my level best to help you." I was tempted to point out that I didn't want him to do his level best, I wanted him to fix the problem, but there was no point. He was reading from a script and nothing I could say or do would alter the storyline."I will do a line check. While we wait, may I ask how the weather is in the U.K.?"
"Eh?""How is the weather?""It's raining. How is it in India?""Hot. Oh, fascinating." This was from the part of the script marked How to engage in polite chit chat with a typical British person. Not surprisingly, the weather was top of his list."I have the results of your line test. There is a problem on your line.""Yes, I know. That's why I called.""One of my colleagues will telephone you after 6 p.m. to arrange for an engineer to come and visit you. Thank you for your call."
Unfortunately, no one ever did call and my broadband is still on the knackered side of faulty. Given my communication problems, it's amazing that you're reading these words at all. For British Telecom you might as well read Bloody Terrible.
BT has around 17 million unlucky customers in a country whose entire population amounts to less than 60 million. It's therefore not surprising that the problems of a humble hack are an irrelevance and that I should be treated with disdain. I only pay about $50 a month for my connection, so the loss of my custom will matter not a jot.
Too often the same attitudes are reflected in the car world, where the sums involved are anything but trivial. European manufacturers tend to underestimate the human element. It matters little that the car is capable of walking the dog and brewing a cappuccino on request if the customers aren't looked after.
The sad truth is that Europeans have fallen out of love with the service industry. Even though the bulk of our manufacturing sector was long since bundled off to the Far East, people still sneer at the thought of serving another. They might assist, if they can be bothered and the unions say they can, but there is little pride to be gained in helping a fellow human being.
Mercedes has been one of the biggest culprits. Having grown fat on success and its inflated reputation, the company tended to forget that its cars are bought by people. Last year I called seven dealers asking for a guide price for my Smart. All seven said they'd phone me back, but none did. Nor did the dealer who promised to fix my air conditioning.
I thought it was a peculiarly European disease until I visited a Mercedes dealer in Santa Barbara, California, with a potential customer. After introducing myself as a member of the press, the manager refused to speak to us. Seemed he'd rather lose custom than speak to the gutter. Mercedes' reputation has been seriously undermined in recent years and although there are now signs of a shift in attitudes, damage has been done.
The Japanese, by contrast, have long understood the concept of customer service. When I had broadband troubles in a Tokyo hotel last year, a technician was sent to my room to attempt a fix. Finding a solution was clearly a matter of honor, and after two hours of hard labor my homepage was writ large on my laptop. The man obviously took huge pride in his work and commanded respect. If I return to Tokyo, I'll stay in the same hotel.
It is impossible to imagine the Japanese outsourcing their service sector to a faraway land, where underpaid employees are instructed to read meaningless scripts. Toyota has rarely boasted an exciting range, but its cars are reliable and are supported by excellent customer service. Is it a coincidence that Toyota is poised to become the world's largest car manufacturer?