Adventures at the call centre


For the last few days, I’ve been bombarded with sales calls from a Mumbai call centre. In the UK, some people get quite exercised about this, as though an unwanted phone call is much worse if it originates in the sub-continent, rather than from an office which doesn’t have to pay international calling rates. Perhaps apocryphally, the denizens of the call centres put on British accents and studied the plot of Eastenders so they could pass for British. My callers have adopted no such pretence, announcing that they’re calling from Mumbai, as though that in itself should make me excited enough to buy what they have to offer.

Unfortunately, because the line is always so crackly and distorted, they assume an aura of cheapness that doesn’t instil confidence. If you’re going to run a business based on cold-calling people, the least you should do is have your agents sound professional, rather than murmuring down a line full of static that sounds like it’s routed via the dark side of the moon.

I try to tell them I don’t want what they’re selling. They tell me the first installment is free. I try to explain about opportunity costs and how no thing is ever truly free, given the time it will take to consume that I could be spending elsewhere, or how I don’t want to be responsible for more unwanted things being mailed to me, or how it just seems a bit odd to be getting financial advice from a random person you’ve never spoken to before, who can’t afford a proper telephone, but that’s not a battle I’ll ever win.

Halfway through one of these calls, I’ll get a call on my second line. I’ll put the first one on hold and then discover the second call is from the same call centre. It is as though there’s some Darwinian experiment in that office in Mumbai, everyone in there fighting everyone else to win the good leads, the Glengarry leads.

But there aren’t any Glengarry leads. There’s just me, concocting more and more outlandish reasons why I don’t want to buy what they’re selling.

I tried rational argument. I tried sarcasm, barefaced effrontery, and when all those failed, I tried to see what the biggest lie was that I could tell. It turns out that if somebody calls you with an unsolicited offer for a loan, they’ll carry on even if you tell them you already have millions in unsecured debt. Perhaps that’s a sign, they think, that you deserve even more credit, that you’re a good risk. And they won’t stop calling.

Tell them you’re not interested. They won’t believe you. Put them on hold for ten minutes, they’ll just think you’re so excited that you’ve temporarily lost the power of speech. And they won’t stop calling.

Tell them you already have what they’re selling. They’ll think you want more. And they won’t stop calling.

What does work is telling them that you’re leaving the country forever, to move to Argentina. Well, that has dammed the flow for a few days. But I live in fear of another cold caller breaking through and discovering my deceit, and then triggering another avalanche of pestering once again.

So that’s inbound calls. Today, I thought I’d call a few call centre’s. I have an insurance policy that I need to renew. A few weeks ago, I got a renewal notice, telling me how much it would cost. I looked at the website of the insurer, and saw the same price for a brand new policy. "Surely," I thought, "they can do better than that."

I rang up, and went through a maze of phone queues, until I spoke to a woman doing a good job of impersonating a robot, who told me there was no discount for loyal customers, and that was that. So I told her I would buy a policy from somewhere else, and she didn’t care, so I pit the phone down, marveling at how apathetic or disempowered she was.

But then I thought I couldn’t let this stand. In most industries, you have to put a lot of work into acquiring customers, so you do your best to stop them from lapsing. Since you don’t have to pay advertising costs, you can recycle a bit of that spend into making renewals cheaper.

But not so in Singapore, apparently. I phoned another call centre agent, explained that I wouldn’t be purchasing insurance unless they improved the rate, and she told me to go and use an HSBC credit card to get myself a 15% discount. Which wasn’t very helpful, as I’m not one of the five or six people in Singapore who have an HSBC credit card. And that still didn’t do anything to reward their loyal customers.

I asked to speak to her manager. She wouldn’t let me. I told her again why this was. She told me what the premium was. It appeared we were reaching some sort of impasse. She pit me back on hold, this time for ten minutes of terrible music.

Eventually she returned, with a solution.

My insurance policy expires on the 28th of this month. I don’t travel until October. So I could let the cover lapse, then buy a new policy in October.

Which would still cost the same.

And I’d not be covered if I had to cancel my travel because of anything that happened between the 28th and October.

By then, I’d been shopping around on the internet and found a couple of other insurers with cheaper premiums, loyalty discount or no loyalty discount. I did think of pointing out to her the perversity of somebody selling insurance encouraging me to go without insurance, but honestly, I didn’t think she had much interest in selling or in insurance. So we went our separate ways.

Tomorrow, though, if I have a spare half hour I might call back, and see what happens if I demand to speak to a manager and then inquire why they’re doing that, and if their staff have been properly trained in line with insurance selling standards in Singapore. Because who doesn’t like the specter of regulators? I’m almost tempted to buy one share in the company, so I can lecture somebody on their duties to the owners of their employer.

But I wouldn’t do that, surely. Only a madman with time to spare would do such a thing. Right?


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