Nov 052009
 

Yesterday morning I received a telephone call from a company acting on behalf of my bank, asking if I would take part in a customer survey – i.e., would I be willing to answer a few questions over the ‘phone? Normally, I’d say “no” to such things, but for various reasons which I won’t go into here, I chose to say “yes” on this occasion.

So the girl at the company undertaking the survey, who was a very polite, friendly young lady, started asking questions – but there was a problem. The line kept cutting out, mid-question, making it difficult for me to understand what she was asking. By cutting out, I mean the line would go completely silent – no background noise at all – the way some of these call centre systems do when the person at the other end isn’t talking; their end tends to completely mute. That’s perfectly normal, but not in the middle of something being said by that person.

I pointed this out to her, and she switched to another line and we tried again. For the first question, things seemed fine, but then it started happening again, so I pointed it out again, and again she switched lines. The result seemed the same, things were fine at first, but the cutting out soon ensued. This time, though, I decided to just carry on – it seemed likely that if I pointed it out again, it might only resolve the problem for a moment, and it would be back.

After a little while (the overall length of the telephone call was 48 minutes, having been given an estimate at the start of about 30 – the point I’m now referring to was probably 25 minutes in), I noticed something odd. When the call was cutting out mid-question and then cutting back in again, a couple of seconds later, the question was actually carrying on from exactly where it had seemingly left off – which was surely odd. Shouldn’t I have been missing a couple of seconds of what the young lady had said?

This was quite probably the case earlier in the call, when I’d first spotted the problem and pointed it out to her – but I had just assumed I was missing parts of the question in those mysterious silences. That observation made, though, it made no sense – until then, it could have been a faulty line, but now that was ruled out. What was going on? Was she suddenly stopping mid-question, waiting for a couple of seconds, and then starting again? Pondering this, I actually found myself listening intently to the silences as well as to what she was asking – and finally, the reason for them hit me.

She had a speech impediment.

The realisation came when she tried to say the word “contact” – she stuttered on that word, and her stutter was vocal enough that it actually broke the silence. Other times there was no sound at all, presumably because the nature of the words she was struggling with meant there was no sound significant enough for her mic to pick up, but on this word there was; this was the word that gave it away.

For the remainder of the call, now that I knew what the problem was, I started to “hear” it more – I don’t know if that was a psychological effect (think about that blemish on the carpet that you didn’t notice until it was pointed out to you, but which you now can’t help but notice) or perhaps, for the remainder of the call, the words she had trouble with happened to be ones which allowed a small sound to be picked up by her mic – but there it was, loud and clear, so to speak.

She also couldn’t say the word “acquisitions” at all and had to spell it out to me. I don’t think this was because of her problem, because when she reached the word she said she didn’t know how to pronounce it and would spell it out.

Now, maybe it’s just me, but it seems to be an odd choice of job for someone with that problem, and an odd decision by her employers to consider her for that role!

VinceH