Shouting at robots

The phone rang. I answered and immediately had that slightly embarrassed feeling you get when you realise you’ve wasted your “Hello?” on a robot. The robot said it was ringing from Southern Electric and wanted to speak to Mrs Macdona.

I should make it clear, before I go on, that I am not Mrs Macdona, I’ve never known a Mrs Macdona and I’m pretty sure that nobody of that name has ever occupied the house I live in.

I should also explain that I have a problem, in principle, with taking orders from robots. That’s chiefly why I’m uncomfortable with things like self-service checkouts and automated phone-answering systems. My normal reaction to robocalls is to hang up as soon as I’ve established it’s not a real person texting the landline by mistake. But the fact that the robot wanted somebody else made me stay on the line. Perhaps my instinct to be helpful to mistaken callers overrode my instinct to ignore robots.

Anyway, I stayed on the line. The robot said that if I wasn’t Mrs Macdona, I should press a button on my keypad. Great, I thought. I’ll press the button, it’ll show up on their systems as a wrong number and then I won’t get any more calls for her.

I pressed the button. There were more options. A button to press if Mrs Macdona was just coming to the phone, a button to press if Mrs Macdona was out, and so on... but no button for “This is the wrong number.”

I hung up. Over the next couple of years, we continued to get robocalls for Mrs Macdona. I considered ringing Southern Electric to try to get them to update their records, but I anticipated a whole world of frustration, first with the robots on the automated phone system (there’s no option for “tell us we’re wrong”), and then with Southern Electric’s flesh and blood employees. I guessed there would probably be confusion and misguided citing of the Data Protection Act, followed by confirmation that they were either unwilling or unable to update Mrs Macdona’s details at my behest. It wasn’t worth the effort. So I put up with the regular robocalls.

A couple of times during this period, human employees phoned from Southern Electric wanting to speak to Mrs Macdona. Both times, I asked the employee to update their records so that the robocalls would stop. I established through these conversations that their records have Mrs Macdona down as living in Oxford, which means her real phone number wouldn’t even have the same dialling code as mine.

Anyway, the robocalls continued and I did the only thing I could think of which would have even a tiny effect on the big blank rockface of Southern Electric’s stupidity: I switched supplier from them to Ecotricity. I’d been meaning to switch to a greener supplier for years anyway; stopping my money going to the robocaller was just a sweetener.

Southern Electric then wrote to me, asking me to ring so that they could sort out the transfer to the new supplier. It turned out that this was an excuse for one of their employees to have a chat with me and find out why I was leaving. Was this my golden opportunity to finally get Southern Electric to listen? Probably not. I guessed that anything I said would trigger a scripted or semi-scripted response designed to talk me out of leaving. For example, if I mentioned Ecotricity’s green energy, he would no doubt give me a spiel about Southern Electric’s own environmental credentials; if I mentioned the business about Mrs Macdona, he would promise to update the records just like the previous two employees I’d spoken to.

So I refused, point-blank, to give a reason for switching. I just kept repeating: “That’s none of your business.” He tried the “But just out of interest...” line, which made me feel very sad because I knew how deeply uninterested we both were in the whole conversation.

At the end of the call he asked me to confirm some details. When I gave my phone number, he said it was wrong. I suggested that I might be expected to know my own phone number and pointed out that it was the number I was ringing him from. But he couldn't get past the fact that it didn’t match the number they had for me in their records. I asked what number that was, but he said he couldn’t tell me, presumably because if it really wasn’t my number it must be someone else’s number, and they can’t go handing out other customers’ details like that. I ended the stalemate by pointing out that I wasn’t a customer any more, so it really didn’t matter what number they had for me, and that brought the call to an end.

My point here is that sometimes an organisation makes it impossible to communicate in a way that achieves anything. They use robots to ring you, they give you predetermined options which don’t fit what you want to say, and if they do seem to be listening, it’s probably not in good faith. Sometimes the entire set-up is designed to distort or muffle the flow of signals from consumers, so it's very unlikely that anything you say could change anything. You’re just shouting at robots.

If you’re dealing with an organisation like this, you can’t solve the problem by working harder to communicate on your side. The only result will be that you give them more information to not-help you with, possibly even to manipulate you with, while further wasting your time and energy.

It’s better to detach yourself from the exchange as much as possible, to withhold your custom and your information. The goal isn’t to make your experience with the organisation any better, because that’s probably impossible; it’s to keep it to a minimum. I couldn’t get Southern Electric to stop robocalling the wrong number, but I could break my own relationship with them by switching supplier. Their internal systems were too broken to correct a simple error, but instead of arguing fruitlessly about it, I could just say “Well, I’m not a customer any more so I don’t care what you think my number is,” then hang up for the last time.

Of course, detaching yourself doesn’t mean keeping silent. Go ahead and share the story of your experience with other humans so they can learn from it. If you do, the organisation might pop up for a spot of Twitterwashing. But don’t expect to shame them into changing anything. Your primary goal in sharing the story is to warn other humans.

Did I ever get the robocalls to stop? Yes. A little while later, a Southern Electric meter reader turned up at my home and I refused to let him in, shouting “I’m not Mrs bloody Macdona! Leave me alone!” What I didn’t realise was that Ecotricity were outsourcing their meter readings to Southern Electric at the time, so the guy on the doorstep had the right house after all. But he saw how angry I was and offered to help with sorting out the confusion. We haven’t had a robocall from Southern Electric since.