Sunday, July 24, 2011

Indian call centres teach racism

Indian call centre workers are being trained to speak slowly and appreciate the fact that Australians are ill-educated racist drunks who are touchy about their pets.
They are being trained to have a superior, racist attitude towards their customers.

This revelation comes from an astonishing report doing the rounds of the Australian papers via Andrew Marantz, a Mother Jones reporter who infiltrated the ranks on an Indian call centre training course.

Well, it just happens that I have been having a lot to do with Indian call centre workers lately - and I am not too impressed with their training. Perhaps the sort of crass cultural misinformation they are receiving is why communications with these workers has been so frustrating.

I started out feeling sympathetic towards the call centre workers, even those who cold call with a sales pitch when I am really busy.
I know that most of the interactions they experience are negative. People don't want telemarketing calls and, if the call centres are for help lines, the calls they get are from people who have problems and are not happy with something.

It is not exactly a dream job. Then again, it is a paying job which has been expediently outsourced and someone in Australia is without that job. So my feelings are mixed.

Even now, after many utterly exhausting calls to and from Indian cell centres.

I've been having a Vodafone crisis, you see.
I joined Vodafone more than a decade ago because it was the Telco which offered me good roaming services in the US at a time when it was hard to come by. Voda was wonderful. The moment I reached the US or changed states in my travels, a new provider would pop up and welcome me to the region and I was able to stay in touch with my invalid mother in Australia. For this, I loved Vodafone and was a loudly loyal customer.

This year, Vodafone plummeted from grace.

This has been the year of dead air. I was for months unpredictably in and out of connectivity - unable to make or receive calls, to SMS or Tweetl. I was not in the US. I was at my desk in a metropolitan newspaper office.
Or else, I was out in the city (right) moving around. I was down on the coast. Dead phone. Deadphone.
No mobile reception. Zip. Dead.
Important calls did not get to me. I could not report in. My working life was hobbled. When I most needed it, I did not have it. I could not liaise with a photographer on a job. I could not return call a contact. My aged mother could not reach me with her needs. You name it. For months. On and off, off and on.

I looked up the website to see where the phone tower issues were.
I Twittered about it from my computer.

I called Voda.
And into call centre hell I fell.

Ringing call centres is the most insulting waste of time.

Of course this is part of the Telco strategy. It is as efficient a deterrent as spraying a cat with a water pistol.

Firstly, one has to go through an extended horror of pressing keys on the phone to get to the help line. One has to do it from a land line, of course, because the mobile is not working.
When one finally gets through, one has to give a distant stranger information which allows them into one's private data.
And then the waiting begins, the wait and wait and wait.

The day stops.

The classic line is "just bear with me a minute".
And the line goes dead. And one waits.

The call centre workers have to do a lot of checking. Or is it that they just have to make you wait?

Every simply inquiry is met with some sort of unctuous incredulity.
A smarmy facade of politeness.
And a request to "wait a moment please".
And wait some more.

What are they doing?
Why are these calls endlessly stop-start?
With whom are they checking?

They have the information in front of them once they have keyed in all your personal details.
Where are they going in those silences?

They have access to a disturbing amount of information. All our phone and bill paying activity. Our home addresses and credit card details. They are all there. And they can tell us when we have called them or they us. They have everything logged and they can quote it all. Which is really not at all helpful. I already know that this is my fifth call.

I can get apologies for lack of service but no recompense. That is what I finally learned. It did me no good to vent frustration.

I have tried and tried to speak to someone who works for Voda in Australia.
I sent a number of emails through the website.
A day or two later, I would get an email acknowledgement.

Then, when I expected it least, usually at the hectic tail end of the working day, I'd get a call from some hapless call centre person.
And it would be the same thing all over again. Getting my details and then asking me to wait. The line going dead. "Please wait a minute", "bear with me"...
And I'd be stuck on the phone.
Oftentimes, I could not understand the caller. Their accents were sometimes quite strong. But, mainly, it was the lousy link.

How come a professional phone services specialises in really bad connections?

So the calls stop and start. The Voda call centre person is on line and off line. They are checking something with someone in that mysterious obfuscatory otherworld.

I have tried befriending them. Kevin, Najib, Mary... I am sympathetic towards them. But how they exasperate me.

I am paying for this service.
It is insulting.

And throughout my Vodafone blackouts, the months of incessant lack of connectivity, the mystery of it, the rebooting of my iPhone to see if it was somehow something to do with me or my appliance.
It wasn't.
It was Vodafone. It was service failure.

Vodafone's did not suggest any compensation for its lack of service. Just insincere apologies from Indians service representatives who, now I learn, had been told that I belong to some lower incarnation of boorish, boozy, unschooled, techno retard peasants...

Funnily enough, my opinion of them is no higher than theirs of mine.
I am not with them any more.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Closures! An opening to madness!

The food industry has lost the plot.
If it was not bad enough to have taste-free tomatoes genetically modified so they will not wet the bread in a sandwich, bananas deceptively skin-ripened by gas but hard and green inside, peaches picked rock hard for travelling but which shrivel before they ripen, beans which are sprayed for a glossy appearance and then go slimy after a day in a plastic bag....
That is all simply vile. It is all a profiteering scam which exploits hapless shoppers - but can be sidestepped if one has access to a farmer's market.

But now it is openings.
The market has gone to work on openings, making things so secure, sterile and tamper-proof that - forget tampering, one simply can't get into them.
My rage at closures has been rising for some time.
For years as a supporting mum, I surmounted difficulties of opening the odd seemingly impenetrable container with determined techniques. And I won.
Now with all that self-sufficiency under my belt, I am older, wiser, more adept and experienced - and utterly unable to get into containers.
My favourite curd cheese requires one to bruise fingers and break nails to dislodge the security flap on the rim of the container.
Delicious dips require one to resort to teeth to get purchase on the wicked pull-tab which needs to be peeled off before the lid can be removed. Oftentimes, the tabs simply tear off, leaving one prising with sharp knives and generally endangering oneself trying to get to the contents.
Then there are the jams and sauces in today's uber-secure jars.
All the tapping on the rims, banging on a flat surface, knocking at the centre...reliable techniques of yore, are fruitless. Calling in the forces of the men is simply to have angry and frustrated men struggling with teatowels and muscle, looking for that pop of release. It is belittling. The other week my super-strong male hero simply gave up and threw the whole jar in the bin. He was too  furious even to go and get his money back.

In itself, that is a hassle which should not be so often required of consumers - keeping the receipt, lugging the product back, going to the inquiry desk, waiting around for attention, then the calling of the superior, the issue of replacement or credit. Do we want another impenetrable jar of the thing we want to eat or do we just want money back and deny ourselves the product we needed or wanted? Do we have to unseal the product at the checkout to ensure that we can open it when we get home?
It gets worse and worse.

One needs a PhD to get into many products.
Most recently, it was just a plastic bottle of canola oil. First I took off the tight clear plastic casing on the lid. Then I looked for the usual tear strip to wrench off before removing the top. Oh, don't say the tag bit is broken? No? It is molded into the strip? No? Maybe it screws? No. After much intense scrutiny I perceived a slight indentation into which I could force a fingernail and, hey-presto, I  flipped off the top. And there inside was a whole new puzzle of plastic pull tags which uncoiled to reveal a finger-pull. I slipped my finger in and carefully tugged. The plastic stretched and stretched and became cloudy. I was very careful, steady. I've experienced these plastic ring-pulls before. And, of course, the plastic was not strong enough to open the plastic. And there I was with a piece of plastic in my hand and the bottle of oil still firmly sealed. I had to get a sharp knife and stab it open. Bad for the knife and dangerous for me. Insane. Impractical. Where do these manufacturers get off? Who is being paid to invent closures that will only close but never open?

It is an accumulative thing. It has been steadily growing worse as our consumer market is more oppressed by regulations doubtless incurred by people who have sued because they have bought things badly sealed. Well, I'm going to sue, too. I'm going to sue the lot of them.
I'm gaining closure psychosis - a fear of opening anything.
I recoil in apprehension as I load the supermarket trolley. How will I get all this stuff open?
The final straw was the bottle of Vitamin B tablets. I've been buying them for years.
But now, suddenly, they are so well enclosed in their little brown bottles that - well, hell...
I removed the plastic cover, and, oh, bliss, the lid opened with ease. But wait. There's a liner sealing the pills inside. No worries, I'll prod it open. And so began another closures trauma. That internal seal simply would not budge or break.
I poked and pierced and stabbed and prodded, I probed gently, looking for for some new open-sesame trick.
I was suddenly overcome by realisation of the amount of time one spends these days struggling to open things. Those damned stupid milk cartons which I think are downright unhygienic. Ziplock grain bags with the cut-here lines. Candy bars and cheeses with a "tear here" which will not tear. Cartons, jars, bottles....
An increasing chunk of our lives is being consumed by closures.

And I gave up on Vitamin B and grabbed a beautiful bottle of screw-topped wine. At last something I could open. Aaah.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

News of the World - a quiet antipodean bleat

For any career journalist, this crisis in the Murdoch empire is nothing less than heartbreaking. It is not what we are about. Should not be. It hurts us all. Our union has a strong code of ethics and we, as a collective, hold this close to our hearts and work practices. 

We are tarred by association - especially those of us who work on tabloids. "Tabloid" does not just mean gossip rag. So many people do not realise that it also means size and shape. Where once I worked on a traditional broadsheet paper, I now work for the same paper which converted to a small-format, that which is known as "tabloid". This has no reference to content which remains mainstream and informative rather than salacious. 

The News of the World was technically a broadsheet newspaper -  but it featured "tabloid" content which always tawdry and spoke to the lower common denominator of readership. There are a lot of them out there. Throughout history, people have just loved a bit of scandal.  Show me a parish pump and I'll show you a gossipy, bitching session.
NOTW had a massive readership, albeit not massive profits, a phenomenon we may perhaps attribute to the money we now hear that it was spending on seeking information.

The US has a tabloid which is different yet again. Its Weekly World News is very small format, sold at supermarket checkouts and is wonderful. Its content takes scandal to new heights and lows. It is right out there.  I long have had fantasies of working for the paper, making up fanciful tales of half-crocodile/half-boy swamp creatures, of intergalactic aliens running your local coffee shop, women giving birth to litters of goats, Elvis being found living in a trailer park, dogs who secretly write crime fiction...
These stories all based on information from "science sources" and "informants". No one expects them to be true. They are a genre of their own.

Britain's News of the World is believed to be true. Indeed, it sought to and succeeded in breaking stories.  It was the newspaper of the human underbelly - the worst of the worst. Infidelity, squalid morals, cheats, crooks, vanity, weakness...scandal. It fed the great  beast called schadenfreude - the human pleasure of the failings of others. 

What changed and pushed it to unethical extremes in finding scandal? Phone hacking and bribery?
My theory is that it found itself competing with a ubiquity of scandal and gossip.  An epidemic. All the newspapers have been adding gossip and celebrity pap to their content in an effort to get a cut of the lucrative lowbrow market.  Many papers are dumbing down. There is so much vapid celebrity trivia and scandal out there and a big machine pushing it into the media.  Heaven forbid, there are whole TV channels devoted to nothing else. "Tabloid" TV? 
Really, it is just content for fairly immature and ignorant people with a stunted world view. However, if their interest are shallow, they also are rapacious . They have generated a big dollar market which, in turn, has spawned a plethora of journalists paid to pursue the minutiae of celebrity gossip. This in the everyday papers. Papers like mine. Straight, conservative, mainstream newspapers.  I was gossip writer for eight years. It was wonderful glittering fun and a lot of champagne was involved. But gossip predominantly was locally-oriented in my era. It was a different animal.

Now there is an international celebrity industry as well as local interest to be covered. These days we have two journalists on the gossip round - and the rest of us pitch in when we get the chance. We have two pages of mostly light and amusing goss a day. 

But as the gossip industry expands,  those reporting for specialist publications such as NOTW clearly have felt that they have had to go further and further afield to keep the paper outstanding in the sensationalist market. It's a business. A market. A job. A career.

There are journalists who actually thrive on reporting that form of information and former NOTW features editor Paul McMullan has bravely spoken out on their behalf - and the lengths to which they went.

Then there is the rest of us - jobbing journalists who believe our role is one of keeping the record.  And keeping the record straight. 

We are confronted with a lot of obfuscation and secrecy from governments and corporations and we try to find the truth. There are constant power games played with us and there is an ever-growing world of publicists, marketers, PR people and spin doctors trying to manipulate information. In itself, this is a massive industry. Its operators are more highly paid than most journalists. 

The same people who are harassing us for publicity often also are  lying to us and putting barriers in our way if the stories are not in their favour. And we have to tiptoe through very strict laws of defamation as well as our own code of ethical information-gathering. 
There is such a thing is "the public interest". There are such a things as truth and accuracy. 
Most of us are committed to that pursuit. 
There are wonderful, talented young journalists coming up through the ranks and I am pretty sure that they see this imbroglio as a precedent never to be followed.
I put my faith in them.