When I was little we didn?t have a phone. The people downstairs did, but not us. Me, my mum and dad, we rented a couple of rooms at the top of this terraced house in Battersea. For me the phone was a fascinating black Bakelite object that I only ever saw used once. We didn?t get a phone of our own until we moved in to a block of flats when I was 10.
The council pulled our street down and built a massive council estate in its place. For a long time after that, I assumed the only way you could have a phone installed was by knocking down your old house and building a new one with a phone inside it. Well, how was I to know ? I was a kid.
I also remember the excitement of calling the US for the first time. It wasn?t actually the occasion that was exciting, just that I got a wrong number and ended up waking up a New York cab driver at four in the morning, and he seemed not to understand how exciting it is being able to call the US from London.
I have these reminiscences, not because I particularly needed 200 words to get into this piece, but to try to underline why I have occasional romantic notions about the telephone; why I think phones are to be answered and not ignored.
Doing this job you get to do lots of work on the phone ? it?s ironic, but we probably have a view of our business that comes closest to that of the common or garden punter. Basically, journalists aren?t proud, we?ll call anyone. If I?m decidedly unlucky I might call IBM, Novell, Microsoft, Ideal Hardware, Frontline, A-Plus and Text 100 all in a morning. We are the ones who discover that lots of UK companies close at two o?clock on Friday afternoon, and that all the American ones don?t.
Other than giving you an insight into why journalists are such grumpy gits, this also highlights how we know a thing or two about how the industry communicates. And as a member of one industry (the press) I?d like to take this opportunity to say what I think about how another industry (the channel) communicates with the outside world ? crap. Or complete crap. Words-fail-me crap. But, crap for short. Yup, that?s right, it?s another voicemail system piece.
We all know about how crap Microsoft and Novell are at answering their voicemail ? there is nothing new in that ? but even the small firms are beginning to be crap as well. Yet it isn?t just voicemail, there is another thing happening out there that is just as bad ? the automated exchange. You now get a machine and then hang on while as it goes through its options. Hey, Ma, look ? no humans.
A couple of weeks ago I called a company. First up I get a computerised voice that sounds like it has cut all its words out of talking newspapers, giving the effect of an audio ransom note. ?Hello. And. Welcome. To. #$%?*$% (name deleted because I don?t want to get beaten up). Press one. If you want to listen to our hints and tips recording. Press two. If you want to get a recording of our sales catalogue. Please hold the line if you want to speak to someone...?
I held on. And on. Then the machine kicked into gear again. ?Hello. And. Welcome. To. #$%?*$%.? And I realised that rather than take a message, it was going to let me waste my money playing its recording at me. So I hit ?0? ? a trick I?ve learned that will often connect you to the operator. This, though, connected me to voicemail. I left a message to the effect that I was the fire brigade and when they received this message they should evacuate the building immediately because it was on fire.
Another company I talked to recently had a live receptionist, but everyone else was dead on voicemail. It was important, and I called something like 10 times asking for PR people, marketing people, people with voices any people, and dutifully she put me through to a phone that rang, followed by somebody else?s voicemail clicking in. I even tried calling the US. After getting through to a strangely familiar New York taxi driver, I finally got through to the company?s head office and ended up leaving a message on the voicemail of the US head of PR. At this point I had to go and have a lie down.
These machines are the first thing a telephonic visitor hears, which really means the first thing we hear is that the company doesn?t think a human interface is important for its business. It means we can?t simply phone up and ask ?what is your address?? without having to press lots of buttons, while paying for the call all the time. And I?d like to give a quick mention to the Acer phone staff who, rather than tell me the company?s address themselves, connected me to an automatic voice recording of someone reading the address.
C?mon guys, get a grip, I know we are in the computer business, but we still sell to people. Let?s try treating them as such.
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