Between '96 and '99, I worked on the phones for British Gas Services. Towards the end of '96, Anne Robinson devoted an entire episode of Watchdog not just to British Gas Services, but to the very call centre in which I worked. I believe that this is a record that has yet to be broken. That's how bad we were. (And, to be fair, that program shocked the company into massive reform and, by the time I left, it was actually running very smoothly.) British Gas's customers are a lot less barmy than the Royal Mail's, but a hell of a lot angrier. My training at British Gas involved being given a stack of very old unanswered complaint letters and a phone and being asked to call the customers and solve their problems. At this point, I still wasn't entirely sure what the company did. I maintain that it was the most efficient training I've ever had.
Anyway (yes, there's a point to all this rambling), one of the jobs that I went for and (I like to tell myself) very nearly got earlier this year would have involved answering phones and reading emails for the BBC. Which brings us to this brilliant piece in The Guardian (pointed to by Michael at Mischievous Constructions).
Received wisdom has it that the British don't complain.
Received by whom? Hermits?
We chow down on any old crap put in front of us in a "restaurant" without so much as a squeak of protest.
Has Neil Armstrong actually been to a restaurant? Oh, of course: he's a London journalist. When he says "any old crap," he means that there was a smidgeon too much white wine in the blackberry-and-lobster sauce he had with his thirty-quid emu steak at that lovely little eatery in Soho that's so exclusive they only have three chairs. Us plebs do complain in restaurants, Mr Armstrong, I can assure you.
We stand around for hours on crowded platforms waiting for trains that never turn up and pay handsomely for the privilege.
OK, fair point.
But sit us in front of a TV with a phone by our side and a red mist descends, a red mist suffused with the dull glow of barking lunacy.
This is very true, but the TV is not required. Other things that have the same effect include central heating boilers, any kind of mail, local councils, printers, roadworks, computers, the Interweb, insurance, telephones themselves, and George Bush.
I've mentioned a couple of times that I have the occasional exasperating conversation in my work, but, really, customer-thickness-wise, this is cushy, and I know it. Look at what I could have been dealing with:
Ed Harris in his history of the BBC complaints department, Not In Front Of The Telly, relates the story of the caller who wanted to make an offer on one of the vehicles in the used car lot in EastEnders.
When told they were only props and not actually for sale he demanded to talk to a supervisor, fuming that the BBC was guilty of "stifling free enterprise".
I'm pretty sure this man has a contract with British Gas Services. I think I may have spoken to him about a hundred times.
How about the bloke who calls ITV every time it pours down just to let them know that he "does not like the rain"?
Yep, spoken to him too.
There is a very thin line between the eccentricity of some callers and the genuine mental health issues of others. John Reith himself, the founding father of the BBC, noted: "Periodically, letters come in, one per thousand or two, which make one doubt the sanity of the correspondent - in fact, there is little room for anything other than doubt."
One BBC duty officer was very disturbed when the woman on the end of the line who had been complaining about the shrieking emitted by her TV revealed that the wailing continued through the night. When the TV was turned off.
When I started at British Gas, I thought that the stories told about mad people were just to wind up newcomers like myself. I soon discovered the truth: call centres provide a valuable hobby for nutters. One seemingly perfectly ordinary woman, having had a perfectly ordinary conversation with me, then remembered another thing she wanted us to deal with. She'd mentioned it before, but the problem was still persisting and no-one had done a thing about it. Someone was stealing her gas. They were stealing it directly out of the pipes. She knew this, because she could hear the thieves at it. Under the floor. At night. And she wasn't even the maddest person I spoke to.
There is a woman somewhere in the UK who calls gas engineers out to her house to fix her central heating, then refuses to let them in when they arrive, believing that they are intruders come to attack her. Sometimes she pretends she isn't in. As soon as they're gone, she calls to complain that they still haven't arrived. By the time I spoke to her (and, oh, what a bundle of fun that was), there was not a single gas engineer within fifty miles of her house that did not have a strict ban on having anything to do with her. Her son is very apologetic about all this, and advises gas companies to tell her to call him. Apparently, this usually works, but not when I tried it: she immediately responded that she had no son. Great.
British Gas Services keep a database of boiler spare parts and their availability. If spare parts cease to be available for your model of boiler, the company send you a polite letter informing you that they can't renew your service contract. This is fair enough, you might think: it would, after all, be fraudulent to offer full parts-and-labour cover when you know you can't get the parts. Most customers accepted this explanation, even if they didn't like it, but I had a long argument with one Muslim man who insisted that the whole spare parts thing was just a front: British Gas "obviously" had a policy of getting rid of all their Muslim customers; their engineers were calling headquarters whenever they visited a house to report if they spotted any tell-tale Korans or prayer mats or whatever. He refused to believe my denial, telling me that I was clearly part of the Jewish conspiracy. I forget whether this was the international conspiracy or just the British Gas one.
I once spoke to a man named International Master Simmonds (the name has been changed to protect the strange, but the title is exactly as it was). Unfortunately, he was unhappy and annoyed, so I never got to ask him what he was international master of. To this day, I'm dying to know. He insisted on being referred to by his full title throughout the phone call, which was really awkward.
Now, what would you do if you smelt gas? Call the police or the fire brigade, perhaps? Or call the gas company? Or your local council? Well, any of these would be preferable to what most people do, which is to make a mental note to mention it next time they're on the phone to the gas company about some other matter. ("Is there anything else I can help you with?" "Oh, yeah, now you mention it....") There is a list of standard questions you ask anyone who reports a gas escape, one of which is "How long have you been able to smell the gas?" You're looking for answers along the lines of ten minutes, half an hour, since this morning. What you really don't want to hear is:
"Oh, now, when was it? Hang on, I'll just ask my wife. Sheila, when did we notice that gas smell?"
"It was just around the time your sister visited, wasn't it?"
"Oh, yes, that's right. So, what, about January, would that be?"
And that is not even slightly unusual. Having spoken to so many of these idiots, I simply cannot understand why there isn't a major gas explosion in the UK at least every week.
It was always great fun to talk to yuppies reporting gas leaks, though. They report the leak promptly enough, but are incapable of recognising that anything in the world is more important than their business schedule. It would go like this:
"Hello. There's a strong smell of gas in my house and I'd like to make an appointment for someone to come and look at it next Thursday afternoon."
"Certainly, sir." At this point, your experienced operative (that's me) makes sure he gets their address before breaking the news to them that appointments aren't exactly the way one deals with gas leaks. I once spoke to a man who refused to give his address once he knew what we were going to do. His appointment book was more important than the lives of his neighbours. How many of your neighbours think like that, do you think? It's worrying. Anyway, I get his address and phone number and various details, and then start to give him the advice that I am legally obliged to give him. "Can I ask you, please, to open the windows of the property to make sure it's well ventilated?"
"I'm not at home."
"Well, is there anyone there you could contact?"
"Well, may I ask you to go home, please?"
"If at all possible, we need the house ventilated and the gas switched off at the meter. If you could please head home now, that would be very helpful."
"Well, I'm not heading home. Don't be ridiculous. I've got a meeting at two."
I give him the rest of the safety advice, peppered with interruptions from him about how pointless the advice is when he's not at home. Then the good bit. "An engineer will be out within an hour."
"Aren't you listening to me? I'm not at home. I said I want to make an appointment for next Thursday."
"Making gas leaks safe is an emergency service, sir. An engineer will be out within an hour. I advise you to head home immediately to let him in."
"Well, I'm not going home and that's that."
"OK, sir. The engineer will be out anyway."
"What? This is just silly. What's the engineer going to do, then? Just stand around in the street?"
"Well, sir, he'll put a probe through your letterbox to check for gas in your house, and, if he has cause to suspect any danger, he'll make sure a police officer is present and then break down the door."
At this point, mere italics cease to be any use to convey the amount of outrage expressed. I used to live for those calls. I just wish these arrogant bastards could all live in secluded houses with no neighbours or passers-by. I'd happily leave them to blow themselves up.
Oo! Mr The Unread has rendered my experiences into poetic pastiche.