Are you who you say you are, sir? You are? That's all fine then

Stop asking difficult questions and stick to the script, pal

Something for the Weekend, Sir? Hmm, we seem to be having a problem with this page at the moment. You might like to try again later.

No, I doubt my enjoyment will be significantly enhanced in the future. I am confident that I would like to try again right now.

Hmm, we seem to be having a problem with this page at the moment. You might like to try again later.

It would help to know what "later" means. After few minutes? This afternoon? In a week? A decade?

I sympathise with customer-facing staff who are expected to cover up for kludgy backroom systems going down. Naturally I sympathise with those tasked with fixing said systems while customers are tapping their feet and drumming their fingers. But don't fob me off with a vague dismissal. If it's probably going to take a day to fix, just say so. If the thing's fucked, just tell me to go away and never come back.

A coffee shop I visited this week had a hand-scrawled note propped against the till to tell customers "CaRD machiNe NoT WoRkiNg". There you go, nice and simple: you can't pay for your hot drink by card at the moment because our card machine is in Fucked Configuration. If you don't have cash, sorry, there's really no point in wasting your time ordering anything or arguing with us at the till.

UX copywriters would be aghast at such effrontery. Instead of scribbling a helpful note in childish handwriting, what the baristas ought to have done was smile at every customer in turn and announce: "Hmm, we seem to be having a problem with our card machine at the moment. You might like to try later."

What, when? I'm on my way in to work. Should I wait for a while or go hunt for a cash machine?

"Your custom is important to us."

Oh good.

"Please try again later."

OK. How about… [pause]… now? Now is later than a few moments ago, isn't it?

"Please try again later."

You want me to come back here every half an hour throughout the day to see if I can buy a posh coffee? No worries, I'm sure my boss will be fine about that.

"You might like to clear your cash before trying again."

Oh yes, very good, boom-boom-tish and all that.

It's a great relief that the poor sods who are paid a pittance to apologise for unreliable backroom systems that have been incompetently commissioned, designed and implemented by people earning considerably more do not speak at you from a script when you're face-to-face.

Over the phone, however, scripting is the norm in customer relations, no doubt for plenty of good reasons but logic is not one of them. One of my colleagues – let's just call him "Dave" (because that's his name) – told me he called up a supplier to query a bill for the bowls club of which he is treasurer. They asked for the address, which he duly recited but got stuck at the postcode, which he'd forgotten.

I'm sorry sir, we cannot speak to you until you tell us the postcode.

So Dave asked the supplier to hold for a moment while he Googled the bowls club, found the postal address and read out the postcode.

Thank you, sir. And can you confirm that you have authority to speak on behalf of the bowls club?

"Er… yes?"

Thank you, sir, that's fine.

And that was it: a simple affirmation was all that was required to access the customer information in full. But woe betide those who don't know the postcode: such mischievous criminals have no chance of getting in.

Ah, it brings back memories of phoning around to cancel various subscriptions and junk mail when my mum died. The staff reading from their scripts insisted that I could do this only with Mum's express permission. One of them even asked me to put her on the phone.

Still, it could be even worse: I might have ended up talking to a robot with a script. After failing to get anywhere with the non-loading page on the website mentioned at the beginning of my story, I thought I'd try my luck with their contact number. Naturally it was answered by a nest of recorded questions that are designed to trap you down one irrelevant dead end or another. I don't mind this too much but I draw a line at holding a conversation with the robot.

Please tell us what you are calling about.

Well, it's like this. I received an email to say that my account statement was now available online and that I could download it. But when I got to the website…

Sorry, we did not understand what you said. Please tell us what you are calling about.

You sent me an email to say I could download my account statement. But your website doesn't seem to be…

Sorry, we did not understand what you said. In a few words, tell us what you are calling about.

Oh right. Er. I went to your website and tried to download a statement but…

In a few words, tell us what you are calling about.

Aha, I see, I am being too verbose. You know, a colleague experienced this once when being interviewed on TV news for a legal story. Before recording, the interviewer ran him through the questions and sat patiently while he answered as clearly as possible. The interviewer then asked my mate to have another go but make the answers shorter and simpler "for the general viewing public, that's all". This process was repeated several more times until the interviewer had got him to hone down the worldwide history of the legal system into a couple of four-second soundbites, which were duly recorded and broadcast.

The general public watched it and didn't understand a thing. My colleague's colleagues watched it and wondered if he was a moron.

Sorry, we did not understand what you said. In a few words, tell us what you are calling about.

I can't download my statement from your website because your website is not working.

You asked for a statement. Is this correct? You can download it from our website! Answer Yes or No.

No.

In a few words, tell us what you are calling about. You may find it easier to use our website!

Website. Fucked.

We are putting you through to a customer services representative. Please stay on the line. Or you could use our website!

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Alistair Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. Like everyone else in the First World, he wonders whether the creative types who write customer service scripts have ever had to speak to customer services themselves. Or maybe they have effectively trained themselves to ask only the right questions in the right way. Some training on how to do this might be helpful for the rest of us. @alidabbs

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