Twenty years ago if you had a problem with an account – be it bank, telephone, gas or electricity – you could call or visit your local branch and find a person who could help. It wasn’t perfect. Sometimes you had to involve a supervisor but, with perseverance, you could find someone there who could help.
Now, with local offices closing, layoffs and the rise of automation, everything is changing. And if you’re not computer literate or you’re elderly and maybe your eyes aren’t as good as they were, and your hearing’s a bit off and some automated switchboard is asking you to tap in account numbers and listen to long lists of press this button, press that button … you’re on the road to being disenfranchised.
This week we’ve just had another battle trying to sort out a problem for my 96 year-old mother-in-law. It’s a regular occurrence, and it’s getting worse – not because of anything she’s done (though she tries:) – but because the system is getting more and more elderly unfriendly.
For the past couple of years we’ve been buying her groceries online for her. She lives in England. We live in France. But with the magic of the internet we can shop for her. She gives us a list by phone, we shop online at her local supermarket and use her debit card to pay. They then deliver her groceries a day or so later. It works brilliantly.
Until last Sunday when the debit card verification failed. We re-typed the details and it failed again. We then phoned her to ask if anything had happened with the card and found out she’d accidentally cut it into tiny pieces when her bank had sent her what she thought was a new debit card. It wasn’t. So she had to get a new card, but she hadn’t told us.
We then spent ten minutes trying to get the new card details from her. But the numbers on the card are so small she has to use a magnifying glass to read them and her eyes tend to blur if she concentrates hard for several seconds. And she tires easily.
Eventually we get the details, type them in and … not only does it fail but, after three failed attempts, the card is blocked. Please contact your branch.
Getting a debit card unblocked should be easy. The last time we did it, we called a number, spoke to a real human being, answered a few simple questions to prove we were who we said we were, and they unblocked the card. A few minutes tops.
Not any more. The telephone number took us to an automated switchboard. We had to press this, press that, speak our request clearly so the automated system could work out where to direct our call. And when we found a human we were told that as my mother-in-law was the account holder, she’d have to call them, not us.
We told them she wouldn’t be able to. She’d argue with the automated switchboard, assuming it was a real person on the other end of the line and refuse to press any button until they answered her question.
Couldn’t they ring her?
They couldn’t. She’d have to go to her branch.
So off she went to her branch the next day and no one there could help. Unblocking debit cards was something done at head office these days. But it was only a simple phone call, they said. For someone young and capable.
She went home and phoned us. We rang the branch and explained the situation. Could they make the call for her? They could certainly dial the number for her but then they’d have to step back. If they did any more they’d risk violating a customer’s privacy and Head Office were hot on customer privacy.
Next we tried the bank’s website. There had to be a phone number or contact email there surely. But websites these days are designed to protect the company from enquiring customers. They take up too much staff time. So if someone presses ‘contact us’ they are steered away from any contact information and sent to the FAQ page. ‘Is your enquiry now answered?’ ‘No? Well, try asking Alice our helpful wizard. Type in your question and she’ll search the FAQs for you.’
And when Alice draws a blank, you either hit a page which freezes or are sent to a ‘Do you really, really, really want to contact us? We’re ever so busy.’ page.
These pages should be renamed the ‘Don’t Contact Us’ pages.
And if you do eventually find a contact form, as we did, you’re then told it will take up to 48 hours to answer your request.
I don’t know about you, but my suspicion is that the priority at these call centres is not to answer the question but to change the status of the query from open to closed. If that can be done by answering the question, all well and good. But if the question is complex and involves follow up work, then the preferred option appears to be ‘fob off the enquirer with a please contact your branch or similar buck passing reply.’
That’s what we got. Please contact your branch – even though we’d said we’d already contacted the branch and had no luck.
More phone calls later, we were given a url where we could unblock the card ourselves. Brilliant! Until we tried it. The first thing the screen asks is for the card details to be entered so it can be validated. You guessed it. The validation failed. Whether it was the card information my mother-in-law gave us or the fact that the card was blocked, it didn’t say. And we’d lost the will to live by that point.
Never ones to give up we came up with Plan B. We’d use our debit card to pay for the food. After all, that’s what we used to do two years ago when we first started buying her groceries online for her.
But two years is a long time in online retailing. Tesco had a new super improved system. No longer did you have to type in your card address, a program would do it for you. All you needed was a postcode. A UK postcode. We couldn’t pay with any of our cards – even the UK one – because our address was in France.
Isn’t progress wonderful?
We tried her other local supermarkets. All had the same restriction.
As for the ‘contact us’ pages, one even had mobile phone down as a mandatory field. If you didn’t have a UK mobile phone, you couldn’t fill in the contact form. It’s important, said the explanatory note, as we might need to contact you urgently. The fact that there are people, many amongst the older generation, who do not have mobile phones, appears to be lost on some people.
We’re now into the second week, having fallen somehow into Plan Z – request a new debit card – as it seems to be the one task that local branches are good at.
On a related note, while surfing this week I came upon a large company which had a ‘contact us’ page with – wait for it – a list of departments with short descriptions of what each did, followed by an address, a telephone number and an email address. There were no wizards, FAQs or anything extra to help you. It can still be done.
So, summing up, how about this for a campaign – many countries have passed legislation to ensure buildings are accessible to wheelchairs. Why not have a campaign to make company services accessible to all? We have a growing ageing population. Let’s make companies realise that not everyone is computer literate or owns a mobile phone, or has nimble fingers, or good eyesight, or the perseverance to press buttons and listen to Vivaldi for twenty minutes at a time while on hold.
Chris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. His novel – Resonance (Baen) – can be downloaded for free here. More information about his other work can be found on his BVC bookshelf .
International Kittens of Mystery. If you like a laugh and looking at cute kitten pictures this is the book for you. It’s a glance inside the International Kittens of Mystery – the only organisation on the planet with a plan to deal with a giant ball of wool on a collision course with Earth. Forget Bruce Willis and his team of miners. Send for the kitties!