Written by David Tebbutt, MacUser 02/92 item 02 - scanned

I wonder how many businesses pause to consider the effects of computerisation on their customers? The question might sound stupid because, if computerisation doesn't help the customer, one might ask: "Why bother?" The customer should benefit from dealing with a more efficient organisation, whether that benefit comes in speed of service, prices or product quality.

The reason I ask the question is that I've just made a telephone call to a company which promises a "seven day a week service". Simply call between 8.30am and 6.00pm and they'll apparently be there to take the call. Of course, they weren't. What was there was a flaming computer. It answered the telephone with a charming message to say my call was being put through. Then, 30 seconds later, a spoken message told me that they were sorry for the delay, thanked me for holding, and "hoped" I would be put through soon. After a dozen or so of these messages, I gave up.

I then went to my computer to see where I had been telephoning at 10.30pm on a Saturday morning. It was Walsall. Since I live in the London area, that call was not cheap. And I received no service. Had I waited for a while - who knows how long? I might have transacted my business. Instead, I hung up and considered who might appreciate my custom more.

That particular call had nothing to do with the computer industry, but it did bring to mind all the similar calls I have made to computer companies software publishers in particular. They are so proud of their computerised call monitoring and logging systems. Quite rightly, they do not want to lose a call, but their answer to this is to put the caller on hold until a human being is available. And while this is going on, the call charges are racking up.

Have you ever tried reaching Microsoft on a bad day? It would try the patience of a saint (except that they can talk to Bill Gates directly).

Clearing out all the accumulated rubbish at Christmas, I came across a press release from WordPerfect which really made me cringe. "WordPerfect pioneers UK corporate radio - first UK hold jockey now on air," screamed the headline. Of course, I had no idea what a "hold jockey" was - but I soon found out. According to the release, it is "a professional DJ who broadcasts down telephone lines keeping callers informed and entertained while waiting for a customer support operator." I felt like crying. Is that really a user oriented solution to the problem? When the caller gets through, they can listen to "music, technical tips, traffic reports on waiting times, advertising on new WordPerfect products and information on special offers". I can't help suspecting that the last two items figured strongly in the decision to implement this system. Isn't it rather crazy that the user pays to be sold to, while waiting for service?

Aren't the values of the software publishers just a little muddled? I wouldn't be surprised if the next step isn't to make technical support an O898 number. Then the publishers can make real money while all these loyal users are hanging on.

My first instinct was to suggest that the publishers install Freephone numbers for technical support. This way, it is the publisher who is picking up the tab, and even "hold jockeys" wouldn't seem such a bad idea, if the publishers were paying. Taking their point of view for a moment, I then decided this might tip the scales too far the other way. After all, a high proportion of calls must be from wallies who haven't read the manual. On the other hand, these wallies are usually legitimate users who have paid a decent price for their software and ought to expect some free support.

Then it occurred to me that all the time the users are hanging on the telephone, they are prevented from getting on with their lives. Suddenly, the cost of the telephone calls pales into insignificance compared with the cost of their time. Up and down the country, hundreds of thousands of man hours are being lost to these insane systems. Perhaps the software publishers should implement a system which guarantees a two-minute maximum wait or your call returned within 30 minutes at the publisher's expense.

This wouldn't be difficult to implement. It would be an extension of the call monitoring system, except that, when a client has been holding for two minutes, the voice could ask for a name and telephone number. With a touch-tone telephone pad, the caller could easily prime the monitoring system with a call-back number.

The big flaw is that the support workload will rise. But, surely, if customer care is what support lines are all about, this is bound to bring greater satisfaction all round?