TalkTalk is Cheap

‘I have nothing against the hard-working citizens of Bangalore, but I doubt I am alone in my dismay that British companies have outsourced their helplines wholesale’

When I despair that I’ve just survived a month without broadband, people react as if I’d hiked Mongolia barefoot while stabbing small animals with a stick for food. Certainly, being hurtled to the technological past of 15 years ago highlighted how reliant Western life has become on the internet; were I a terrorist, my ruling ambition would be to bring down not the Empire State Building but the Web.

As a result of this protracted experiment in barbarism, I can testify that the goofily christened “dongle” — a satellite PC hook-up — does not work; it takes ten minutes to load a web page, and will not even load or send emails. I reserve a special gratitude for the John Harvard Library in Southwark; its helpful staff and banks of swift computers provided a thin lifeline to civilisation for one hour a day, and fortified my resolve to leave all my assets to libraries when I die. But this imposed techno-fast has also left me holding far fiercer convictions about the evils of outsourcing.

For what occasioned my digital exile? Moving house. Which given the incompetence and impotence with which my telecom provider handled the transition you would think no one had ever accomplished before in the history of the universe. Vengefully, I cite the company by name: TalkTalk. I hate TalkTalk. TalkTalk ruined my life. I even hate the name “TalkTalk”, which sounds stupid, and which in the course of my dismal February I was obliged to shout with humiliating frequency down the line, in that rare instance that I actually had a live telephone. Oh, and cancel my last column, in which I foreswore mobiles, a spare one of which a hired builder gave me because he felt sorry for me, and without which I’d have simply plunged from Tower Bridge into the Thames.

Now, so vile, so worthless is this company that the same snafus might have occurred with sullen British workers manning its helpline. But my alternatively desperate and enraged appeals being answered by staff in South Africa unquestionably did not improve matters.

First informed that my broadband would be cut off for a full six weeks, I had an altercation with one of my new little friends in South Africa, and later that day my landline and broadband signal quit cold; apparently a “bar” had been put on my account by the home-moving department, a punitive fiscal instrument reserved for deadbeats. My account was paid up. My suspicion that the young lady with whom I was less than polite purposefully cut off my services out of spite may seem paranoid, but I fancy the story better than mere computer glitch. It took days to lift the “bar”.

Services had been barely reconnected when my landline and broadband were brutally severed two weeks before I moved, never to be restored, and then broadband would not go live at my new house for yet another week. A mistake, and for a functional professional life a deadly one. Negotiating with Durban or Cape Town or wherever, I was obliged to speak sedulously and distinctly, reciting my birth date, telephone number and address repeatedly, at one point bursting out, “I cannot believe I’m talking to the representative of a telephone company who cannot understand NUMBERS.”

I’ve nothing against the hard-working citizens of Johannesburg or Bangalore, who may be dab hands at solving problems arising in their own countries. But I doubt I’m alone in my dismay that British companies have outsourced their helplines wholesale. These foreign hirelings often speak dubious English. They cannot depart from set scripts, and are powerless to solve difficulties outside a strictly defined list. They lack empathy, understandably — for customers ringing from faraway Britain are just as alien and abstract as the helpline staff are to us. 

By contrast, Apple’s American helplines are completely staffed by my fellow Yanks. Having required Applecare’s frequent assistance getting a new laptop up and running last autumn, I once submitted to an incredibly patient, smart, articulate technician speaking to me from Indiana that “I wasn’t a racist or anything, really” but “it was awfully refreshing to ring up and talk to another American”, who understood English idioms, could explain complex protocols in language I could follow and who even got my jokes. The technician said carefully, “Yes, I can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard that before.”

A “helpline” helps, ostensibly. Companies may be saving money by outsourcing customer service to halfway around the globe. But they are also feeding customers to foreigners who can neither understand problems nor redress them. Helplessline, more like it. This isn’t just an economic issue; it’s a quality of life one, and the quality of my life in February was knee-high. 

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