At an airport recently I saw a sign for the public telephones; it was a symbol showing a round telephone dial with a receiver across the top. Nothing odd about this, you may think — that is if, like me, you are over 40. If you are under 20, on the other hand, it may be incomprehensible, for at no time in your life has your telephone looked even remotely like this. At the very least, the symbol must seem absurdly anachronistic, like those twee signs you get on loo doors where the man and woman are wearing Edwardian costume.
The change is not confined to the phone’s shape, either. The whole meaning of the word ‘phone’ is different among the under 20s, as shown by a friend’s teenage daughter when petitioning her parents to buy her some gadget for Christmas.
‘Look, Dad,’ she explained, ‘it’s only about £100 and it’s like a phone. You can update your Facebook, you can message your friends, listen to music, play games and watch films.’
‘Can you make phone calls on it?’
‘No, but it’s basically like a phone.’
I am fairly sympathetic to this new culture. Generally I prefer people to email me or send a text than to ring me up. By demanding immediate attention, a phone call is intrusive in a way nothing else is. Marcel Proust felt the same way. A friend of his tried to persuade him to install a telephone in his cork-lined room, explaining ‘It’s wonderful — look, the bell just rings, and you answer it.’ ‘I see,’ replied Proust, ‘so I am the machine’s domestic servant.’
If Proust found it demeaning to answer a phone, at least he never had to deal with call centres. With few exceptions, these are dismal. Even though you are ‘the customer’, the experience seems designed to make you feel like a supplicant, a feeble petitioner to some remote higher authority. You wait for minutes or hours while being passed from one person to another, repeatedly being asked to cite account details you have provided three times already. You dare not hang up and ring back, for fear the ritual will start over again.
Interestingly, BT is experimenting with an alternative to the Kafkaesque call centre, using — no, honestly — Twitter. If you have a specific request, just tweet it and include @BTCare or @BTBusiness in the tweet. Of course it may take 30 minutes for them to reply — the difference is you aren’t made to stand around like an idiot while they are making enquiries; and, when the answer comes, there’s a high chance it’s actually right. Given how people hate call centres, it’s interesting how delighted they are by this approach, as shown by http://twitter.com/btcare/favorites.
Another sensible customer service idea is to make YouTube films such as the one which shows you how to add an accelerator plate to your telephone socket to speed up your broadband: a far better idea than giving directions over the phone with all that ‘hang on a minute while I get a screwdriver’. If you want an accelerator plate yourself, try mentioning it to @BTCare on Twitter and see what happens.
There is a sensible degree of self-interest to this experiment, of course. After all, a dissatisfied customer on Twitter may be 1,000 times more voluble than anyone else.
Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.