A friend recently described her experience with a telephone company's call centre, which, for various reasons, she suspects not to have been located within the confines of our own fair country. There was some considerable difficulty in communication, she reports. By the time she had been passed here, there and everywhere and tried to explain her complaint about an unexpectedly increased bill at least twice in lengthy detail, she had been on the phone for 78 minutes. "It wouldn't have taken so much time if I'd been able to understand what they were saying," she said. "Why can't they employ people who speak more clearly?"

I fear my friend is deceived. Clear speech is not necessarily a desideratum in call centres, and the less clear it is the better some customers like it. For instance, inner-city municipality Burchett Hill ("proudly twinned with Pyongyang") recently selected a call centre to handle ratepayers' queries. The "key criterion" in the selection process was that nobody should be able to understand a word the "customer service consultant" said. The successful tenderer,  Babel World Communications, based in Peshawar, won the Burchett Hill account because of its "unique comprehension strategy" of never matching the language of the consultant to the language of the caller.

There is a logic to this in saving expensively remunerated council employees' time. "The most efficient way of handling a ratepayer's call is to have them hang up out of frustration," explains Gary Smarmer, Burchett Hill Council's manager for "customer relations". "Babel World impressed us by their skill in filtering out 98.6 per cent of calls in such a way that there was no need for them to be 'further actioned', that is, passed from the call centre to a council department. We thought it was just great, the tenacity with which Babel World consultants could keep customers on the line until they were screaming with rage. That way, those few that do slip through the net have used up all their energy for pursuing whatever trivial little time-wasting concern they rang up about.

"That is very valuable to us in strategising the workload of council staff and thus giving them more time to concentrate on providing a better service for the majority of sensible ratepayers who," said Mr Smarmer, "can look beyond their own selfish obsessions and would rather see council time spent on worthwhile community enhancement initiatives such as our current new reconciliation dance project."

Naturally, some people never being happy, there have been a few expressions of dissatisfaction with the difficulty of getting through to the municipal offices. Several more pertinacious ratepayers turned up at a council meeting to voice their protest that, in the words of one, "you can never get any bloody sense out of the Town Hall." "Just jabber, jabber, jabber," said another. Their objections were majestically dismissed by the Mayor, Councillor Les Rhiannon. "Council finds such racist attitudes highly reprehensible," he stated. "These rednecks want to put the clock back to the 1950s when Menzies was on the throne and everyone spoke English with a lah-de-dah accent. Burchett Hill is an inclusive go-ahead pluralistic community of today and our council  policy of encouraging intercommunity linguistic dialogue reflects this," he said.

Putting his feet on his desk in the handsomely panelled mayoral office with its life-size framed portrait of Senator Sarah Hanson Young behind him where the Queen used to be, Councillor Rhiannon explained that "Council is now contemplating the logical next step in the dialogue process of banning English from the Town Hall altogether". All municipal business, he said, could be conducted in any one of at least a hundred officially recognised community languages without the "perceived injustice of privileging a language associated in the minds of many of our Burchett Hill family, especially new arrivals, with 'otherist' exploitation." He added that an exception might be made for the council's expensive new range of rubbish recycling booklets with their intricate instructions on mandatory waste separation and even more intricate lists of fines and other penalties for "non-compliance". "We might leave these in English," he said. "Our surveys show that the biggest offenders against what we call here 'refuse justice' are well-off white householders," (demographically Burchett Hill is about 75 per cent Anglo-Saxon). "Because they all consume too much one bin is never enough for their bottles and other evidence of a luxury lifestyle so they chuck it into the dedicated garden waste bin instead. Such people," he said, "need to be told loud and clear that we don't tolerate garbage abuse in Burchett Hill but they would be too dumb to understand it if it's written in a second language."

23 June 2012

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