Is it just me, or have the businesses of Britain decided that lockdown is the perfect excuse not to talk to anyone? I can’t remember the last time I managed to have a chat with my bank, my energy provider, the company that keeps failing to repair and return my coffee percolator.
No one who lost a holiday last year and tried to get a refund will need this spelling out. How many people shared my experience of finding a number on the company’s website where I could make my claim, only to be told it wasn’t being answered due to high demand? The cruellest cut for me, however, was my joust with HMRC, who, having asked me for a mountain of information to settle a lockdown-related tax query (tax code, universal tax reference, sort code, account number etc), then informed me the number I had to call wasn’t operational “because of lockdown”.
Phone an organisation’s helpline today and you are likely to hear a recorded voice telling you that staff are working from home and operating hours have been reduced (apparently from about 9am to 9.15am). “But there’s good news!” the one-sided conversation will continue. “There’s not a thing you can’t do more quickly and efficiently by just going to our website.”
This, as everyone knows, is not true. You can’t ask a website any questions unless the answers are already programmed into its neat little box of a brain. It doesn’t know anything about your coffee machine and why it hasn’t been delivered for the third day in a row; and there’s nobody you can have a damn good argument with about it.
But wait, there’s even more good news! “If you still want to talk to a real person, you’ll be glad to know that your call is important to us and if you will hold on, one of our agents, who is at this very moment dealing with someone else’s important inquiry, will be happy to talk to you.”
You know this is also a lie, but sometimes, out of sheer desperation, you give it a whirl. You play your own music (better than the distorted pap they try to get rid of you with); you make a cup of tea (your coffee machine’s still in transit somewhere); you feed the dog (more chance of conversation here). No one picks up. Or if by chance they do, they will almost certainly end up referring you to their website.
So far, I’ve not invoked the excuse of my blindness to justify my resistance to the all-embracing website. This is partly because it isn’t a justification; plenty of other blind people grapple successfully with them, despite companies’ continued failure to make their sites accessible. But it’s far more because I resent this refusal to engage and its institutionalising of the motto: “Never apologise, never explain.” The time when you could pick up a phone, and sometimes find yourself talking to someone who actually understood your problem, and might even be the person with the responsibility for solving it, now seems like a golden age.
I know this has been happening for years, but now that it is one of those things that can be safely attributed to “lockdown”, we pesky consumers, with our awkward questions, are just expected to put up with it. And yet, at a time when so many companies are worrying about their futures, employing enough people to answer your phones might conceivably make for more satisfied customers.
You may put this down as the ravings of a luddite. Haven’t I realised that phones aren’t for talking to people any more? They are for buying stuff, playing games, texting, watching the telly. There is a whole generation who would be quite surprised to be told that people used to have long, sometimes even productive conversations on the phone, which could spare them an endless chain of emails, or an interminable battle with an online form. Yes, I know; surprised and dismissive. But it can’t stop me hoping that when lockdown finally ends, the old-fashioned phone call might make a comeback.
• Peter White is the BBC’s disability affairs correspondent