Phone inquiry turned into Death by Mozart

STEPHEN PULLINGER Not even the most avid fan of Wolfgang Amadeus could enjoy a soulless electronic version of his 40th symphony in G minor going on for more than 67 minutes.


Not even the most avid fan of Wolfgang Amadeus could enjoy a soulless electronic version of his 40th symphony in G minor going on for more than 67 minutes.

But that is the experience that could be dubbed Death by Mozart that one caller to Yarmouth Borough Council has endured in the past three months.

A report to cabinet members on the authority's telephone woes makes it clear that the maestro's classic might easily be renamed the unfinished symphony because of the number of dissatisfied callers hanging up before they are answered.

The council call centre was set up a year ago with the aim of providing a customer-focused single point of contact - but the scale of the problems facing it are shown by the fact that fewer than half of the 28,000 calls received in May were answered.

A report prepared by head of customer services Clare Metcalf and external customer services manager Estelle Bawden points to a failing system further clogged by people ringing to complain about it.

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During the last three months the average response times have been between 4min 41sec and 5min 51sec, and the single longest wait was 1hr, 7min and 20sec.

Those people who do hang on receive messages that “are not particularly customer friendly or useful,” states the report.

Adding to the problems were a benefits and council tax backlog and a lack of evidence-based preparation which had “severely limited the likelihood that the centre would work satisfactorily from the outset”.

The report says: “Insufficient thought seems to have been given to how customers who are waiting in a queue would feel. As a result software which would indicate a person's place in the queue and how long they would have to wait was not purchased.”

It warns that the 20 under-pressure staff were in danger of sliding into a culture of accepting low standards and that the earliest any improvement could be seen would be October.

Ahead of next week's cabinet meeting, the council's deputy leader Barry Stone said the ruling Tory group was fully committed to addressing the problems.

Money would be made available for five new members of staff and £15,000 would be spent on upgrading the authority's computerised call-handling package - this would provide more information to callers such as where they were in the queue and what options they had available.

Mr Stone said: “If people have to wait longer than two minutes they frequently hang up and that adds to the burden of calls which clog up the system because they tend to ring back later.”

The council's corporate director Brendan Bergin said the authority would be providing extra training for staff and laying down an acceptable waiting time benchmark - initially two minutes - which they would strive to meet a minimum of 60pc of the time.

Stress-busting music would also be offered to waiting callers in place of the present system, which sometimes offered Mozart and sometimes silence.

Opposition Labour leader Trevor Wainwright described the present service as “appalling” and said if a company performed at such a level it would go out of business.

He said: “One of the council's slogans is putting people first and they simply are not. People have to pay for the call when they ring the council and one pensioner complained to me recently they kept on ringing and waiting only to be cut off.”