The person you are calling is not available

May 16, 2011

Moore’s Law postulates that the number of transistors on a chip doubles every two years, exponentially increasing computing power, lowering costs and putting Star Trek devices within the reach of the Kalahari bushman. Though I personally think Intel founder Gordon Moore was reaching for a soundbite when he made his famous prediction 46 years ago, the general principle has held true. The average mobile phone, much less smartphone, holds more processing power than the average desktop computer of a decade ago. Much good it does us.

The ability to get a timely, logical, sensible answer to a phone call decreases according to the number of technology-enabled ways people can employ to avoid responding. In the mid 1990s, US researchers coined the phrase ‘Slamdown’ to describe the reaction of 65% of callers directed to voicemail instead of a human being. Since that time, ‘developments’ in speech recognition software, menu-driven automated roulette and customer-hating jiggery pokery have made a routine call to buy or enquire about everyday goods and services, especially from banks, financial services providers, government, utilities and, most ironic, communications providers, a time of dread, humiliation and frustration for the majority of citizens.

If we don’t hear: ‘all of our operators are busy responding to other customers,’ there is a good chance that we’ll be charged to listen to a list of options followed by a robot voice advising that the most convenient way to deal with the query is online. But finding a telephone contact number online has become increasingly and deliberately difficult, as ‘customer facing’ companies herd clients into the ether, deploying the hideous doctrine of ‘planned avoidance.’ For companies, the principal ‘advantages’ are headcount reduction and the ability to log calls to serve as evidence in the event of a legal dispute. In many cases, the customer not only bears the cost of the transaction but pays to do the company’s work – giving a meter reading, entering credit card data, buying insurance, making a travel booking etc. Customer service doyens such as the lovely RyanAir innovated by charging a premium for telephone bookings – and now actually charge a ‘service fee’ for online bookings. Companies profit from transaction cost savings: the customer loses.

Routine avoidance of personal conversation has become pernicious and commonplace in our private lives. ‘Leave a message’ is the likely response to a dialled number, itself accelerating the trend towards ‘responding’ by text or email.

In Victorian times, there were between ten and twelve mail deliveries a day, enabling multiple correspondences across the capital within 24 hours. Technology has enabled a near-instant response, but the Second Thus Law of Modern Communications states that getting a timely reply is in inverse proportion to the likelihood of finding anyone willing or able give one. We are well and truly wired into an Age of Rudeness, disabled by technology and heading inexorably towards digital oblivion.

John J Kelly