4/11/2008 9:57

Telephone Wall Centers

I know other people use the term telephone call centers because making a telephone call is the step you take to get in contact with the centers. (That's the first thing I dislike about them.)

I prefer the term telephone wall center because the primary function of the center is to serve as an impenetrable wall between the company and the customer. The only published phone number is the wall center number; the only people you can talk to are at the wall center; the only answers you get are the ones in the script.

To be fair, telephone wall centers are very effective when a number of common conditions are met: (1) You want an answer which is available in the script. (2) Enough script readers are employed to take the calls. (3) The wall center employees can read the script. When these conditions are met, you can get your answer right at the outside wall of the corporate fortress. There is no need to go inside and find your way around.

The down side is that the wall center wall has no door. When your question is not part of the wall center script, you are pretty much out of luck. No alternative access is provided. You'll either get an irrelevant answer or none at all. And that's that.

The faceless, unresponsive corporation is nothing new to American business history. What has changed is that today's technology is cheaper and more effective than Pinkerton men at the doors and hole-in-the-wall complaint departments. The angry customer is farther away and even the loudest screams of frustration can't be heard in the corporate offices.

A corporate executive might counter that we are all free to do business with the company or not. The fact that hundreds of people call the wall every day is proof, to the remote executive, that people are choosing to participate in the game according to the rules the company has set up.

Likely it is true that hundreds of people are compliant with the company's rules; I've heard many of them complaining about it. Most people are fairly compliant with any demand presented with the trappings of authority; that's part of what makes civil society work. The corporate wall centers are simply abusing a positive human trait for their own convenience.

True also is the assertion that we have freedom not to do business with the offensive corporation. For example, if the problem is with the power company, we have the option of moving to an apartment where the landlord deals with the utility. If the problem relates to our automotive warranty, we have the option to write off our contractual rights and either pay for the repair ourselves or simply junk the vehicle. So it is narrowly true but it is not reasonable for the wall center owners to assert our liberty. Besides, it covers over their corporate culpability for manipulating us into this position of dependence.

When the kids in my neighborhood play games, the rules are pretty fluid. Any kid can call out a new rule pretty much any time. Anyone else can say, "No." Sometimes the game has to stop while the players renegotiate the rules. Sometimes someone will feel cut out and go home, but that's not the preferred outcome and in any case they'll be back playing the next day.

The telephone wall center is entirely one-sided. The scope of the game and the rules of play can only be set by the side who controls the phones. They say, in effect, "You can go home if you want, but I'm going to keep the ball."