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Getting through

May 2014 

One of the paradoxes of the digital world (internet, mobile phones, texting, and the rest) which, in theory, connects us all better than ever, is that it now often seems even harder than ever to contact a specific person, and if you do get through to them, the quality of the connection is often so poor that a serious conversation is impossible.  We are witnessing the slow death of the telephone land line, as we quaintly used to call them, unless we fight back.

The truth is that the quality of mobile and internet telephone calls is just not as good as telephone calls were twenty years ago and in my experience it is getting worse.  Yet we are told that this is progress. 

This has mainly been caused by big companies who have placed too much faith in the new technology.  Many of them don’t have proper telephones anymore and instead they operate through a central computerised hub, which leads you inevitably into the international digital phone maze of poor sound quality, unreliable connections and endless recorded messages.  Incidentally, I recently heard of an expensive firm of consultants who worked for a full two years on refining a clearing bank’s digital recorded telephone messages.  Any Oldie reader could have told them that all they needed was to make sure that the ordinary telephones were answered by properly trained humans in the first place.

If a bank employee gives you a business card, the odds are that the telephone number on it will either be a call centre (who will never have heard of the person you want) or a mobile telephone, which is seldom answered and forces you to leave a message.  The other day an area director of a bank gave me a card with no telephone number on it at all; pressed, he reluctantly wrote his assistant’s mobile number on it for me.

Younger people tend to compound the problem; often they don’t bother to have a land line at home, and even if they do, they never answer it as all the calls they receive on it are cold calls from salesmen.  You can see their point. 

As far as companies are concerned, I suspect other factors are also at work, especially amongst those organisations who secretly believe that customers are rather a nuisance; some banks, insurance companies, and government departments are culprits; they would much rather you did their job for them through a website than have to help you in person, so they don’t make calling them easy, and hide behind their call centres.

How did all this happen?  I’m afraid that it’s all the fault of computers, digital transmission and the internet; yet another example of the rule that improvement brings deterioration. 

The central problem is that they are trying to run before they can walk.  I believe that the digital communication network is not yet beefy enough for the sort of traffic that is being encouraged to use it, with the result that it easily becomes clogged, broken and overloaded.  It is also very fragile; during the January storms, many people were surprised at how often their mobile phones failed to connect and of course the internet died with the electricity.  Meanwhile, old-fashioned land lines soldiered on, even during power cuts, gales and floods.  

It doesn’t have to be this way; I take my hat off to Barclays, for example, who seem to be giving out the real landline telephone numbers of their branches again, if you ask. 

It’s also interesting that some delivery services are beginning to insist on a land line number; not only does it provide a small defence against fraud, they are more likely to be able to get through.

Perhaps it’s the start of the fight back.