A few grey hairs…

Dealings with a call centre recently reminded me of the perils of putting young people at the receiving end of society’s problems and issues.

Call centres like to use young people. They’re cheap. They’re (mostly) quick. They’re technologically savvy. And, by and large, they don’t tend to take the problems of the world and load them onto their own shoulders.

And therein lies the rub. From a public relations perspective, is callow youth empathetic enough?   

Can we really expect a 21-year old technology enthusiast to be sympathetic to the IT issues facing a 67-year old technophobe? On what level will the young call centre operative really be able to relate to the older caller?

The risk, of course, is that even while resolving the technical issue the young operative may alienate his customer just through his tone of voice, his hasty approach or his apparent indifference to the genuine difficulties the caller is experiencing.

When I call a help desk it’s because I’m experiencing difficulty of some kind. I’m frequently frustrated and sometimes I’m even genuinely angry. I want someone to help me address my query or issue, sure. But, just as importantly, I want the person on the other end to demonstrate some genuine empathy. I don’t want to be made to feel like a doddery old fool or a time-waster.

For every heart-warming contact with a call-centre I experience dozens where I’m left feeling like just a number…

Call centre managers put a lot of time and effort into helping their operatives deal with rude, angry and unpleasant callers. And there are a great many of those, unfortunately.

They also invest heavily in ‘cultural assimilation’, where operatives in Third World call centre hubs are given names common to the market from which they’re fielding calls, together with updates on the weather and sports results in those countries.

All this designed to reduce the divide between caller and helper, and make us feel like we’re receiving some form of personalised service.

But very rarely does it work. For every heart-warming contact with a call-centre I experience dozens where I’m left feeling like just a number or, worse, even more dissatisfied than when I called.

So – are call centre operators missing a trick? Would they be better served by employing older people? People with a few grey hairs, some life experience and the acquired empathy that someone in her early twenties, with the best will in the world, just doesn’t have?

Someone who doesn’t have to be taught to let me have my say before responding. Someone with the acquired knowledge and life-skills to know instinctively how to respond to my frustration. My anger. My disappointment. My inadequacies.

A person who’s been around the sun enough times to have a genuine understanding of what it means to be in my position.

Someone who is, perhaps, willing to heap just a few of the world’s problems onto his or her own shoulders.

If public relations is about building relationships, why are so many organisations just not getting their call centre vibe quite right? For many organisations, after all, the call centre is the point of greatest customer contact.

Could they shake things up a little by sprinkling in a few wrinklies? And if call centre systems are clever enough to pre-populate the operator’s screen with my account details, why can’t they route my call to someone of my own generation?

At a time when organisations are increasingly considering the repatriation of their call centres, what about re-populating them to better reflect the demographic of their customer base?

Surely there’s a better way of doing this?

Maybe, just maybe, there is a silver lining to the fact that retirement ages are being raised the world over.

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