british telecom, public service, old phone

Phone calls1980s style

‘Oh my God,’ said Ian opposite me, eyes and mouth forming camp Os of exaggerated shock ‘Oh. My. God. She’s not answering now. Doris is not coming back to the phone. I think she’s fallen. I think I’ve killed her! I told her to go and unplug her phone from the socket and plug another one in. It was behind the sideboard, she said she had to move the sideboard first. Oh no! Doris is lying behind the sideboard with the phone unplugged, she’s probably calling for help. What do I do?Doris? Doris!! Oh My God! Should I call the police? Should I call an ambulance?!’

The year was 1998 and I was working for British Telecom, at a call centre which dealt with customers who had a fault on their line. Mobile phones had been invented, but nobody had one in those days. Only drug dealers and millionaires. Use of the word ‘land-line’ was very unusual, and instantly marked you down as an arsehole.

Doris didn’t use the word land-line, she said that her phone was making a funny noise. Doris came from an era when the phone was a new luxury, like an inside toilet. This miracle of modern convenience was provided by the Government, for the benefit of you, the citizen. You paid for the calls you made, but like the Post Office and British Gas, British Telecom was there to help you. They did not make a profit and they did not charge for anything more than the services you used.

British Telecom was privatised in 1984, when I was 11. I was old enough to remember my socialist father disagreeing vocally with the selling of shares, the promise of profits to private individuals. This would benefit the individual who had money, he said, but what about the citizen, the poor citizen?

Now, in 1998, Doris was ringing about her phone which was making a funny noise. She wasn’t a shareholder but a poor citizen. No friendly engineer would be despatched to help her. That was what she had expected, but no. Doris had been told that if the fault turned out to be with her phone and not with BT, she would be charged £80 (more than 3 weeks pension). To establish whether the fault was with the phone or with BT, all the 80-year-old Doris had to do was unplug the phone from behind the sideboard, and plug in a spare phone.

‘Doris? Doris?’

Ian continued to gesticulate. I didn’t know what to suggest. I was half laughing at his drama, half horrified. What did we do about Doris?

Ian hung up. BT timed the length of time we spent on calls and he had already spent way too long on this one, the supervisor would be over soon to see what was going on. As soon as he hung up, another call came through.

‘Hello, sir, you say there’s a problem with your laaaand-line?’ he rolled his eyes at me across the table. The calls would continue to come thick and fast; as soon as one was ended another came through the headset. A computer recorded how many calls each worker had taken, measured results, time taken to deal with each customer, even how much time we had spent on the toilet over the month. We would have to account for all of our time, because our time was money. Profits made and profits wasted. 

We never found out what happened to Doris.


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