Tried calling HSBC (in India) today, with quite comically frustrating results. I wish I had been able to record the conversation, it summed up everything that is wrong with offshore call centres. But here is my best recollection of the conversation, which lasted just over 30 minutes:
HSBC: HSBC Card Services, this is Rani speaking, may I have your merchant number please?
BG: I don't have my merchant number handy, but can I please give you our postcode?
HSBC: The merchant number is an eleven digit number, starting with a '1'
BG: Er, as I say, I don't have it with me, I am not in the office at the moment, could I give you our postcode?
HSBC: The merchant number is an eleven digit number, you will find it ...
BG: Yes, I know what a merchant number is, but I don't have a note of it with me, can you find our details from the postcode?
HSBC: What is your postcode, please?
BG: SW11 5TG
BG: Sierra Whisky one-one. Five-Tango-Golf [I spend too much time watching The Bill]
HSBC: And your company name, please?
HSBC: Do you trade under any other name, sir?
BG: No, but I think you still use our old postcode. The Post Office changed it. The old one was SW11 5TF.
HSBC: No, no, sir. I asked if you trade under any other name?
BG: Yes, I know what you asked me. We don't trade under any other name.
HSBC: I cannot find your details, sir.
BG: Have you tried the old postcode?
HSBC: What is your postcode, please, sir?
BG: SW11 5TF
HSBC: Thankyou. Please confirm the first line of your address
BG: Shakespeare House, 168 Lavender Hill
HSBC: Thank you sir. How may I help?
BG: I have quite a detailed technical question about changing the way we transmit card details to you, can I speak to someone about that?
HSBC: How may I help, sir?
BG: Well, at the moment we still manually key each card transaction onto a terminal in the office. We would like to transmit the card details directly to you, in some kind of electronic report, rather than keying each transaction in one by one. Just trying to find out a bit about whether that is possible, that sort of thing.
HSBC: So, do I understand that you are having some difficulty with your card processing terminal, sir?
BG: No, it is working fine, it is just that at the moment we key the customer's card details into our own database and then at the end of each day print out a report of those card details and manually key them into your terminal. We would like to be able to send a file direct from our database to yours, to save keying each transaction manually into the terminal.
HSBC: Sir, you do not have to do anything manually. If you key the transaction details into the terminal, we automatically poll it and the money is deposited into your bank account overnight.
BG: Yes, I understand that, it is just that we don't want to have to key each transaction both into our own database and into your terminal
HSBC: Sir, you should not have to rekey each transaction. You should just key the details into the terminal, and follow the instructions on the screen. Once you do that, and that transaction is confirmed, the money is deposited into your account overnight.
BG: Yes, I understand that. The terminal works fine. We know how to use it. We have been using pretty much the same terminal for six years. It's just that we'd like to avoid keying every transaction into the terminal and instead send you some kind of file electronically, with all the transaction details in it.
HSBC: Sir, you don't need to send us a file. You just need to key the details into the terminal. Do I understand that you want to send us a file with all the details of each transaction?
BG: Yes, that's right
HSBC: Sir, you don't need to send us a file with all the receipts for each transaction in it. You don't need to do that. You just need to key the details into the terminal.
BG: (astonished pause)
BG: OK, this is hard work. Let me try and explain one more time. The terminal works fine. We know how to use it. We use it every day. At the moment we take a report of the day's card transactions from our own system, print it out and then key the details into the terminal. We'd like to be able to directly transmit those details from our system to yours. I am sure there is a way to do this? Could you please point me the direction of someone that knows about that sort of thing?
HSBC: So, you want to connect your computer directly to ours?
BG: Well, yes, sort of.
HSBC: No sir. That is not possible. Not possible at all. You should only connect your terminal to the phone line.
BG: Huh? What do you mean? Of course the terminal is connected to the phone line, that's how it communicates with your system.
HSBC: Sir, the terminal can be connected to any analogue phone line.
BG: I don't understand. What are you talking about?
HSBC: Sir, you cannot connect your computer to the terminal. The terminal must be connected to a phone line. If it is connected to your computer, it will not work properly.
BG: You think I am suggesting that I can transmit card details from our server to you by simply running a cable from our computer to your card terminal?
HSBC: Sir, perhaps you could explain again to me what it is that you need to do.
BG: Well, it is pretty simple really. We have a computer system which stores details of our customers, the jobs we do for them and so on. During the day, if a customer pays by card we key that information into our computer system (to save having to drop everything, key into the card terminal there and then, then return to the customer call). At the end of the day, our system produces a report of the card transactions taken that day, which we print out and then someone sits by the card terminal and manually keys in each transaction. We'd like to avoid that manual process and simply transmit that transaction report directly to you. I don't think it is that unusual or radical a suggestion. Other companies must do it all the time.
HSBC: So you have a list of card details which you want to send to us?
BG: Well, yes.
HSBC: Sir, the terminal can store a list of card details. The terminal has a list of lost and stolen cards which is sent to it by us each night.
BG: Huh? What has that got to do with it?
HSBC: Sir, the way that lost and stolen cards work is that the terminal is sent a list of lost and stolen cards so it knows whether a card is valid or not.
BG: Well, yes, but I don't understand why that is relevant. How did we get onto that? Every time I ask you something, you just respond by giving me some information which is loosely related to what I asked, but is obviously not the answer to my question. Are you winding me up?
HSBC: Sir, no, sir, I am not winding you up. I am just trying to help. Could you please tell me again what it is you need help with?
BG: OK. One last time, then I give up. We want to send to you a batch of card transaction details, probably over the internet, for you to process. So we don't have to key them manually onto the card terminal.
HSBC: You would like to use the internet to process credit cards?
BG: Well, yes, probably. The internet would be the obvious way to transmit the file, but I suppose there could be other ways
HSBC: OK, I think I understand now.
BG: (sceptical) Great
HSBC: Internet transactions allow the customer to select products or services on a website, then enter their card details on a secure server. Their card details are then processed by us, and the money is sent to you.
BG: (heavy sarcasm). No way! What, so I can buy stuff on the internet? Select products on a website and then enter my card details on the website and you process them using a secure server and pay the website owner? Wow. That's amazing. I never knew that.
HSBC: (failing to detect sarcasm). Yes sir, that can be done. Would you like me to set that up for you?
BG: No. I need to speak to someone who knows what they are talking about.
HSBC: Yes, sir, I will connect you to my supervisor.
HSBC: But first, please tell me what it is that you need to do.
BG: I have told you many times already, I just don't think you will be able to understand.
HSBC: Please tell me just one more time.
BG: OK. Write this down exactly and pass it to your supervisor: "customer would like to transmit batch file of card transactions". That'll do. They'll know roughly what I need. Please write that down exactly, word for word.
BG: Please read back to me what you have written
HSBC: "Customer would like to e-mail card details as an attachment"
BG: (losing rag) What???? What??? Who said anything about e-mails and attachments? This is insane. Please connect me to someone who knows what they are talking about.
HSBC: Very well, please hold the line
HSBC: I have Ranju on the line, he can help you.
(Note: conversation has taken 34mins so far, I check on my phone)
HSBC (Ranju): This is Ranju, how can I help?
BG: (deep breath). OK, Ranju, to cut a long story short, we want to transmit a bunch of card transaction details directly to you from our server.
HSBC (Ranju): Sure. You can send us an XML file to our API.
BG: (gobsmacked) That sounds like just the ticket. How do we set that up?
HSBC (Ranju): I can e-mail you the spec for you or your technical guys to review.
BG: Yes, excellent, thank you.
E-mail arrives as soon as I hang up the phone. It describes exactly what I was hoping it would. Time on phone with Ranju - about a minute.
I really cannot understand why Rani (the first guy) spent so long trying to understand what I wanted when he must have realised he was a million miles from understanding. There is such a huge cultural gap between India and the UK, these types of conversation are often so painful. If you look back over the conversation, each time I described my request Rani seized on some part of it (or even just one word in it) and earnestly offered an "answer" which was loosely related to my question, while surely obviously (even to him?) not the right answer. You cannot really answer a question until you at least understand it. Did he really, honestly, think, that I needed to know about lost and stolen cards?
Hear phrase "list of card details", use answer which includes "list of cards": "the terminal maintains a list of lost and stolen cards";
Hear phrase "send file", use answer "you don't need to send us a file of receipts, sir [which you used to have to do with old-fashioned manual paper voucher machines]"; etc.
It is like interacting with a very bad search engine that serves up loosely related, but largely irrelevant answers. Maybe Rani really was a machine. I guess it is not impossible. It would certainly explain how he managed to keep so calm and polite while I got increasingly frustrated (although I did stay polite).
And the thing is, I just can't see how this whole conversation works out cheaper for HSBC. It took 34 minutes to (fail to) extract information which really should have taken 3 or 4 minutes. Are Indian call centre workers really TEN TIMES cheaper? They would have to be at least that much cheaper if every conversation takes ten times as long as it needs to.
Maybe it will get better. Maybe there will be sufficient cross-cultural contact through call centres that the cultural (and language) barriers will erode away and we will be able to exchange easy banter with Indian call centres and find out what we need quickly, instead of putting ourselves through this tortuous process of slowly, slowly, inching our way towards mutual understanding of the most basic of questions.