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Your call is important to us, just don't expect us to answer it anytime soon

Opinion

The disdain telcos and other companies show towards some of their most loyal customers – the elderly – needs to stop, writes Michael Blucher.

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“Good morning Elizabeth.” the text message began. “In preparation for your consultation on Thursday, please download the Wello app by clicking on the link below. Once you have created an account, open Wello, tap Appointments, tap Appointment with Doctor, enter the code 4156, then tap the Green button to enter the virtual waiting room”.

Huh?

Speaka-da-English? Old people’s English?

We were with you, right up until the ‘in preparation’ bit….”

However well intentioned, the issues with the politely penned cyber invitation above start with the fact that “Elizabeth” is 92, and wouldn’t know a virtual waiting room from a bag of frozen peas.

I know this because Elizabeth is also my mother, and like most 92 year-olds, she’s not as technologically adept as she once was.

Granted – not quite as clueless as an old boss, who in all seriousness, used to refer to his computer mouse as “that possum thing”, but all the same, in terms of computer literacy, definitely a few megabytes shy of the full gigabyte.

Keeping up with cyber lingo will be challenging for us all at some point in our lives, unless of course we have permanent access to an eight year-old to keep us abreast of the latest trends.

No question – the world is moving quickly. My concern is how many elderly people are being left behind – and by how far.

The reason the text invitation to “download the Wello app and join the virtual waiting room” was sent to my mobile phone is that my mother no longer has one.

We persevered for a while, but as smart phones got “smarter” they inadvertently made their elderly operators look and feel dumber, to the point of belittlement. “What do you mean it’s a touch screen – what do I touch? Where are the buttons? How do I dial? And what about when I hang up? Where do I put it?”

Anybody with parents of significantly advanced age would be familiar with the circuitous conversations that inevitably leave everybody feeling a little empty, a little less worthy.

Life without a mobile phone… can you imagine it? Without one at the ready, the modern day world is next to unnavigable.

For the elderly and the infirm however, the technological step jumps are just the start of their problems. Of greater concern are the practices of our large telcos. It’s like they’ve drawn a line in the sand – 80 plus? We won’t worry about them. They’ll be gone soon.

They mightn’t be saying it, but everything points to them thinking along those lines.

Take the recent example of my mother’s land line. When I called her the other day, I received a message that the number had been disconnected.

Interesting. It’s not like the bill hadn’t been paid – the account is on direct debit, though I did receive late payment fee once, when somehow they’d “neglected” to pay themselves the monthly sum. Perhaps that had happened again? This time, no warning?

Armed with the account number and a copy of her latest bill, I slid a bottle of scotch onto the table and called (effing) Telstra. We’ve rebranded the telco giant in our household. They’re now referred to by their full name.

Some four nips into the call, I’m transferred to my third customer service representative, who on the strength of their abnormally upbeat phone manner offered hope, if not of a resolution then at least some clarity as to why the number had been disconnected.

“I’ll just need to verify your account,” he began. “What is the mobile phone number attached to the account?” he asked.

“There’s no mobile attached the account – my mother is 92. She doesn’t use a mobile phone,” I advised, reaching for the bottle.

“I’m sorry Sir, until you can help me verify the account, I won’t be in a position to get in and see what has happened.”

After a sixth nip, I patiently reminded the CSR that I had the account number, the address of the residence, the amount of the most recent bill, her payment history, and of course the number that had been disconnected, hoping that he’d be swayed by the impregnable battery of “alternative verification” evidence.

But no – he needed the mobile number attached to the account. There was no such thing. I suggested he try and call the number they had listed – see who answered. The scotch had started to kick in.

It was only when I reinforced the full gravity of the situation – a 92 year =old woman, living alone, currently without any contact with the outside world that I began to get some traction.

An NBN issue apparently. They were getting rid of one thingamajig and installing a whats-a-ma-call-it, but there’d been a delay with who-si-what-sit.

The what and the why, I told him, weren’t nearly as important as the when – when would it be fixed?

That was a question, the customer-non-service representative advised, that only the NBN would be able to answer.

Mysteriously, within 24 hours, the phone had been reconnected, perhaps because somebody in a decision making position had grasped the potential seriousness of situation – a 92 year-old woman, living alone, unable to call for assistance in the case of an emergency.

But the broader issue remains. The 80 and 90-something year-olds without a scotch-swilling son, or preferably, a polite, diligent daughter… who is looking after their interests? Who is fighting their battles?

How for instance would my 92 year old mother, without access to a phone or email, go about resolving her “disconnection”? Courier pigeon to Mumbai?

It’s not just the telcos – the same computer generated disdainfulness applies to the energy suppliers, other utility providers, even government departments – you know, the “public servants” – those whose job it is notionally to “serve the public”.

In the rush to minimise customer interface and reduce overheads, corporations and bureaucratic entities are freezing out those most in need of a little community warmth.

Progress, it’s called. Technological advancement. New age operational efficiency. Monstrous executive bonuses are being achieved on the back of these practices.

It wouldn’t be so offensive, if while waiting impatiently to talk to the “next available customer service representative”, we weren’t reminded 40 times of the “importance” of the call. They’re just experiences “an unusually high backlog of calls”. But don’t worry, “somebody will be with you shortly”.

They’d be much better off being honest. Transparent.

“Look we get that you’re probably pissed off, but we really don’t care. Our job is to save money, so you’d be much better off logging on and working through the issue yourself. Capisce?”

For the benefit of our elderly readers, that’s “putting your possum thing” to work.

 

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