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Don't Call Us

How not to speak to customers

I can’t watch MasterChef.

Nothing to do with the contestants’ tendency to present food combinations that would turn anyone against fusion cooking. And not because I think TV presenting isn’t a natural career for the family of Mr Potato Head.

No, hearing...

44-year-old single mother Kath is wrapping her raw monkfish in pastry, held together by her own spit

...makes me want to vomit for less obvious reasons, as it triggers traumatic memories of a time I would prefer not to revisit.

A time that felt like months – but was around 48 minutes – when I was subject to an experience not dissimilar to Chinese water torture.

In my case, the water was replaced by thankyous and apologies. And the torturer was India Fisher. The voice of MasterChef. And the voice of Nat West's IVR.

I’m sure Ms Fisher is lovely. And she has a very pleasant voice. But once you’ve heard it reciting the same presumptive, disingenuous, unhelpful stock phrases in your ear for 30 seconds, every 30 seconds, it sounds like nails down a blackboard. In the same way that one drop of water on the face can refresh, an endless drip, drip, drip…is torture.

Much has been written about call centres. Often as a cover for inherent racism. That’s not my beef. As long as their scripts are adaptable to my needs, I have no issue with call handlers from any country.

I’m also an advocate for companies who fill the dead time of holding with recorded messages to reassure, inform, educate, or even sell. I’m pretty sure I recommended it as a strategy to many businesses, back when we first realised inbound could be a media channel.

But having a human voice counts for nothing if the words spoken aren’t human too. To think that recording the voice of a person is enough to communicate the personal touch, is to use the tactics, but ignore the strategy.

Voices are left to repeat nothing but empty platitudes and arrogant presumptions. It is worse than saying nothing. The meaningless phrases leave customers feeling patronised, misunderstood, and dismissed. They do nothing to make the business stand out from the crowd, relying on stock phrases copied, pasted, and recorded by every other voice-over artist for every other brand.

The words to avoid

"Did you know, you can do many things online?”

Even if I didn't know, I would likely have guessed. You can be confident that I have heard of this mysterious interweb of which you speak.

In 2020, 96% of households in Great Britain had internet access. Even within the lowest proportion, the over 65s, it was 80% of households. Three-quarters of all adults used internet banking.

If I am hearing this message, it is safe to assume I already know what the internet does. Given the choice, it’s probable that I would be online right now if that were a way to resolve my issue.

That I am now on the telephone means it's not unreasonable to imply I have already been to your website. This suggests I have either been directed to call the number by your own online service, or I could not find the service or information I need.

Neither of these scenarios is resolved by telling me I "can do many things online". Repeating the message many times implies not only that I am a Luddite, but that I am also deaf. It does nothing to increase my brand warmth.

Of course, I could be one of the 20-25% who aren’t online, or at least not banking online. (It’s likely these figures overlap). That would make me not tech-savvy, or at least not “tech-comfortable”. A voice telling me what I can do online will not be the key that unlocks this barrier. So again the message is rendered pointless.

And no matter what the problem is, sometimes people just need the reassurance of a human voice. If you truly care about your customers as much as your Covid-themed advertising says you do, this is as important a demonstration of that care as the issuing of business loans.

"In these unprecedented times, please only call if it is essential."