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Left hanging on the line as call centres prioritise the wealthy
This is an extended version of an article by Andrew Bibby which first appeared in the Mail on Sunday, March 2006
Furious about being kept waiting in a call centre queue? You might be even angrier to discover that while you wait other customers are being answered first – because they are wealthier than you.
This is already a common practice in the United States, and it's now beginning to be introduced in Britain too. “An inbound call can be sorted into a priority queue that gives priority to those callers who are most likely to spend higher amounts of money,” says Professor Michael Blakemore of Durham University, who had investigated the impact of new technology on the way that we live and work today. “It is used widely in the call centre and marketing industry. To put it at its most brutal, it's actually good business sense – you want to hit your most profitable customers first.”
Call prioritisation can be achieved in several ways. The simplest way is to use several telephone numbers, giving your best, or your richest, customers a special number which only they know to use. But call prioritisation is also possible because of the way call centres work. Incoming calls are dealt with initially by sophisticated technology called automated call distribution, which decides how calls will be routed through to available staff. If you've phoned in on your normal phone line, the software can work out who you are by identifying this phone number from the customer database, a process known as calling line identification, CLI.
CLI can be helpful: it can mean that all your details are already on the screen when a call centre worker answers your call. But CLI can also be used to decide which calls to answer first. The international IT company Toshiba is one of many suppliers of call centre equipment to offer the facility to ‘tag' calls in this way. As the company explains, ‘the priority number assigned to the call determines where the call is placed in queue'.
There are other possibilities, too. Another call centre equipment company offers to arrange things so that calls from customers who are slow in paying their bills can be automatically diverted to the specialist team dealing with bad debts.
One UK company which uses call prioritisation is Orange. Customers who sign up for its Panther premier service get red-carpet treatment, with the calls directed straight through to a human being. Everyone else has to take their turn in the standard queue. The Virgin owned Thetrainline service is also using CLI to decide what happens to calls. First-time callers are identified and routed to a lengthy interactive voice response menu, before they have the chance of talking to a human operator.
The problem with relying on CLI to identify callers, however, is that not everyone is ringing in from their home numbers. Not only that, but some canny people know how to remove CLI when they make calls, by simply dialling the digits 141 first. Increasingly, therefore, companies are finding other ways to ask us to identify ourselves. For example, banks often ask for customer account numbers to be entered at the start of a call. Speech recognition technology is also being used more and more, so that callers are asked to give personal identifying information before their call even enters the routing system.
The really valuable piece of information is the postcode. “Once you've got somebody's postcode, you can find out quite a lot more about them,” explains Alan Weaser, managing director of VIRTUATel , a specialist call centre customer monitoring company. All of Britain 's postcodes (the full two-part code, used to identify small numbers of houses) have been minutely studied and categorised according to who lives there. One such product is Mosaic from Experian, which divides the country's postcode areas into 61 types, ranging from ‘corporate chieftains' and ‘golden empty nesters' to ‘white van culture' and ‘low horizons'. Another similar product, from the company CACI, is called Acorn (it stands for A Classification of Residential Neighbourhoods). CACI also has a special Financial ACORN classification, which claims to identify people's likely financial status from their postcodes.
Although Mosaic and Acorn are widely used by companies (one example is Sainsbury's Bank, which has used Acorn to work out which people it expects to buy its products), most people have no idea that their full postcode has been profiled in this way. It's possible to check your own Acorn profile at CACI's website or at www.upyourstreet.com. (Mosaic is not readily available to the general public).
Even more dramatically, individual households are also being profiled in a similar sort of way. CACI has a Consumer Register with names and addresses of almost forty million people, along with data on their probable income, financial behaviour and consumer habits. This has been used by, among others, Lloyds TSB to plan their marketing campaigns.
In the United States, call centre companies are already promoting the fact that postcode profiling can be used to prioritise callers and to identify the most promising selling opportunities. Britain is behind the US in terms of implementation, but the potential is clear. In the near future, companies could analyse your postcode when you ring a call centre, to work out how keen they are to talk to you. This may be good news if you're ringing from Chelsea, let's say. It won't be so good if you're living in a less prestigious postcode, somewhere out in middle England.
Developments like these worry Prof Michael Blakemore, who warns of creeping new forms of social discrimination. “Software is producing new places of social exclusion,” he says. To be fair, not everyone in the call centre industry is convinced of the benefits, either. Charles Breslin, the former head of Churchill insurance's call centres and now managing director of beCogent, an independent Scottish call centre company which handles calls from customers of Yorkshire Bank, Clydesdale Bank, AOL and John Lewis Direct, talks of the technological potential of prioritising calls from ‘leafy suburbs', but says that none of his own clients currently choose to use forms of call prioritisation. The problem with it, he says, is that you can end up satisfying 5% of your clients whilst making 95% very unhappy.
Don't bank on things getting better, however. Companies are trying hard to turn call centres into ‘profit centres' – in other words, trying to make them generate more sales – and to do this means using ever more sophisticated techniques to work out which of us are most likely to be persuaded to buy. Remember this next time you are on hold to a call centre, listening to tinny music.
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