Where Are You Mr. Hastings?

Did you ever watch the film “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”?

I’ve lived at this address for nearly 6 years and since I had to change my telephone number when I moved house, that’s how long I’ve had the land-line number. It was a new house when I moved in, so I assumed that the number had never been used by anyone else. But I could be wrong. You see for all the time I’ve lived here I’ve been getting telephone calls for someone else. I’ve never counted them but if I had, by now I’d probably have lost count. Because there must have been over a hundred calls – maybe two hundred calls – which all began “Can I speak to Mr. Hastings?”

I’m a polite and civil type of guy, and I’ve been in sales or marketing all my working life, so if you put those facts together you’ll understand that I usually try to be helpful to those have misdirected their calls or just keyed in the wrong number.

“Sorry, there’s no Mr. Hastings here, you must have dialled the wrong number”.

Now there’s something else about the calls, or rather the callers. Almost invariably the caller has an Indian accent or possibly one from somewhere else on the sub-continent. I can tell the difference in accents from one side of my home town to the other, but have no idea how to differentiate foreign accents. I say “almost invariably” because there have been exceptions. I’ve been called a couple of times by callers with American accents – that is from the US of A (apologies to Canadians) – and yes I can hazard guesses where they’re from, at least regionally. Only three or four times has it been a British voice. One was clearly Scots; another had the distinctive burr of Birmingham. I got chatting to one chap and said, “Are you from Warrington?” he said “How did you know that?” Well I’m from Widnes, which is the neighbouring town. You get to notice these things. Things like accents, phrases and sayings, the cultural differences that set us apart or draw us together.

So is it the cultural closeness that leads to a conversation with the caller when they are British – or even American? I’ve never had a proper conversation with a caller from an Indian call centre. Why? We all know that there are massive call centres in India to which Big Business has outsourced thousands of jobs. But just how effective are they?

“You must have called the wrong number”. “Click”… the phone gets put down at their end of the line.

“You must have called the wrong number”. “Can I speak to the householder, please?” No, I’ve just told you, there’s no Mr. Hastings here, you must …”.” Are you the householder?” “It doesn’t matter whether I am or not because I’m not Mr. Hastings”… and so it goes on. There’s comes a point when I put the phone down, rude though it might be. And I still don’t know what they’re calling about, because they’ve never got past their qualification questions. We all know that they’re blindly following a script which is on the computer monitor in front of them.

“ Gee I’m sooo sorry” said the American. “Can I just confirm the number I’ve dialled?” It’s the obvious thing to do, so I do. “Well there must be a mix-up at this end”. Apology accepted. “Let me just confirm the address I’ve got”. Another sensible question, and what’s more she understands that I shouldn’t be asked to give out my address. “Well there’s definitely been a mix-up in our database, I’m sorry to have bothered you, but since we’re chatting … would you be interested in …?”

The chat goes along the same lines when the caller is British, but we invariably discuss the weather as well. If I’m not interested in what they’re selling they don’t call back, and because they know Mr. Hastings is not on my number they don’t call him either. They’ve updated their database.

The Indians keep calling. I do try telling them, but they don’t listen. Listening doesn’t appear to be in their script. We were told in my sales training that “you have two ears and one mouth – use them in proportion”. Nor does the script allow them to ask sensible questions and act on the responses. Or just to have a little conversation before beginning the sales pitch. In the trade it’s called “establishing rapport”. No chance of that, and since they don’t ask the right question and do something about it, they keep calling for Mr. Hastings.

Did you ever watch the film “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”? Judi Dench (as Evelyn) tried to explain these cultural issues to the call centre workers she encountered. But that was a film that Indian call centre workers will probably never watch.

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