We have a maintenance and insurance contract with an insurance company for our central heating and hot water system. When we moved house, I had to change it to the different system. I did it over the phone with the company, including re-confirming the direct debit arrangement. They promised to send me the new documentation, including the insurance certificate with my new policy number and details. Three months later: no documentation has arrived, but the monthly premium starts to be deducted from my bank account. I tried telephoning them: waited for more than 45 minutes on a premium line (8p a minute, not crippling but not cheap) and still got no reply. No web site, no fax number — only an office address in Wimbledon . It so happened that we were going to Wimbledon that afternoon to the cinema. So we called in at the office of the insurance company. It was the office of a much bigger insurance company of which ours was evidently a minor subsidiary. The receptionist said someone would come down and see us in reception on the ground floor. We sat and read the FT until at last an attractive young woman, about 25, with a seductive smile, appeared. How could she help us? I complained about the unanswered but protracted telephone call. She was so-o-o-o-o sorry about the long wait on the telephone and the failure to answer. If I sent my telephone bill to Customer Service colleagues she was sure they would refund the cost. It was just a temporary problem with the telephone system and should be fixed any moment now. Was I sure I hadn’t received my policy documents? Oh, she saw. That must be a slip-up by their records section. She was really most sorry. Ye-e-e-es, she might be able to make a copy for us then and now. Would we bear with her while she just slipped back upstairs and had a look for the papers?
15 minutes later she was back with a photocopy of an internal office document that did at least give some details of our policy, including the policy number, but no, she couldn’t unfortunately give us the actual document right now, it was held in a different office. Ye-e-e-es, she supposed I could keep the photocopy of the internal document and take it away. She would make absolutely sure that we received our proper documentation from her records section at once. And I must remember to send that telephone bill to her colleagues in Customer Service: would I like her to give us their address, which was near Bedford? I showed her my old policy document from our old house which showed Customer Service as being at the Wimbledon office in which we were sitting. For the first time, she became flustered. Oh — how odd… no, they aren’t here… Bedford … Then inspiration struck. Of course! All their mail came here first and then was forwarded to Bedford. Was this to ensure that prompt attention to their correspondence was impossible? (Light laugh. Playfully pats my knee.) Was there anything else at all that she could do for us?
– Just have that documentation sent to us without further delay.
– Of course! No problem! Good-bye!
Three weeks later, no sign of documentation, but the direct debits continue to work like clockwork.
The feeling of utter powerlessness in the face of the incompetence, avarice, negligence, lack of answerability and sheer arrogance of big and little business – of capitalism, you might say – is deeply depressing. We are all victims of it and there’s nothing at all we can do about it. Endless waits on telephones that are never answered (but the proceeds of which calls are shared between the non-answering company and the telephone company) are now almost universal. The hell with the customer! Letters sent by snailmail simply lie unanswered and even if you can get through to a human being on the telephone, you never get anyone who will admit to being able to find your letter, and you never get through to the same person twice. None of them has a surname. None of them admits to having a direct line with his or her own number. Their supervisors and managers are always out, will certainly call you back when they come back, never do. Few of these companies nowadays have e-mail addresses: the nearest thing is a page on the web site, if any, in which you can write in a message and "submit" [!] it: and three days later, you get an automated standard reply which is totally irrelevant to your question or complaint. If the matter is sufficiently serious, you can sometimes track down the name of the Chief Executive or Chairman, and even get a home address or e-mail address for him (it’s always a him), and send him a furious message. You then get either an angry reply saying that writing to him at home was a gross intrusion, or an apologetic interim reply saying that he had been disturbed to read of your dissatisfaction with their service, had passed your message to his Director of Complaints, and had asked him to reply to you direct. And that’s the last you hear of it. But the time and effort required even to get that far are simply too great to resort to every time you experience lousy service. So you put up with it, grind your teeth, and remind yourself to nationalise the lot of them when you’re elected Master of the Universe. (Nationalisation won’t make the service any better, but it will serve them right.)
O brave new world, that has such bastards in it!