Phone Fright - The Seven Circles of Hell

Updated: Apr 19


Sometimes, a person with dementia has to be brave.


Today was one of those days, and I'm still not sure whether or not I was a "hero" or or "zero". You decide. Making a phone call to a utility company (or any large organization) can be a difficult business, and for a person who is living with dementia it is daunting in the extreme. No two businesses use the same call system. You never know how many hoops you will need to jump through to verify your identity, or even whether you'll successfully navigate through the layers of multi-choice options to find a human being to speak to.


And so it was with some trepidation that I phoned one of the largest UK Electricity and Gas suppliers today to try and find out why I haven't heard from a Gas Engineer who called at my home a couple of weeks ago. He had come to diagnose a pressure leak in my central heating system that has left me without proper hot water or heating since early February. First, I tried the phone number on my service agreement...

"Sorry, but this number is no longer operational. Please use our new number.. blah, blah, blah".

"Sorry, but this number is no longer operational. Please use our new number.. blah, blah, blah". Needless to say, I didn't have time to write the number down or the capacity to remember it, so I had to ring the old number again in order to get the new one. Armed with the correct number, I phoned again...

After an interminable explanation of how Covid 19 has affected working practises, an exhortation to book service appointments through the website and a plea to answer a "short survey" after the call, I finally reached the first hurdle. I was presented with a choice of three options, none of which were pertinent to the reason that I had called (following up an existing problem). I listened to the choices a second time and chose one that sounded sort of similar, only to be taken to another three options that bore no relationship to the reason for my call whatsoever - and still no opportunity to speak to a human being.

Out of options, I had no choice but to hang up.


I phoned again, sat through the Covid 19 blurb, website blurb and survey blurb, then chose a different option. Still not correct, but after selecting a second random option I was asked to wait to be connected to someone who could help me. After waiting for around ten minutes, a voice said "good afternoon".... and the line went dead. I hung on for another minute or two (just in case), then suddenly... A robotic-sounding voice began to ask me questions about my "customer experience" of the call I had just completed.


I was forced to hang up yet again.


But, tenacious me, I tried again. I couldn't remember the magic set of directions that had led me through the maze on the previous call, but luckily, I managed to duplicate it and was finally connected to a human being.

"Service User Number" she said.

"What's that?" I replied.

"It's the long number at the top of your bill" she replied in a tired voice.

I started to become flustered. I hadn't prepared myself for the process of jumping through these hoops, and I didn't want to fall at this final hurdle.

I started to become flustered. I hadn't prepared myself for the process of jumping through these hoops, and I didn't want to fall at this final hurdle.

"Sorry. I haven't got a bill," I said. "I just need to ask a question about when an Engineer will visit me. I haven't had any reliable heating or hot water since the beginning of February".

"I'm sorry if I sound a little vague or flustered, but I have dementia, and I'm finding this whole process quite difficult and stressful".


As soon as I had mentioned the magic word DEMENTIA, the whole tenor of the conversation changed. The words "my love" were appended to each sentence the operative spoke, and she found a way to access the information I required through my postcode.

"Are you on our vulnerable persons register my love?"

"No," I said (Why would I be? I didn't even know that such a thing existed.)

"Would you like me to put you on there my love?" "Yes please."...


Well, for those of you still interested in this saga, it turns out that my problem had been written off without being solved! But a visit was arranged for the very next day, and investigations and repairs are on-going.


The purpose of this diatribe is to illustrate the difficulties that confront all of us when trying to use an unfriendly and complex consumer-facing "front end" that is inflexible and designed to do everything in it's power to circumvent human-to-human interaction. It's difficult for ANYONE to navigate these unfriendly systems, but it's even more stressful, challenging and scary for someone who is living with dementia.


Epilogue


Later that day, i visited the Utility Company's website to see if there was a way to register my feelings about the hoops I had been forced to jump through in order to accomplish single task.


"Complaints" said the menu item. I clicked on it and was taken to a page that asked me to phone a certain number to register my complaint.


I phoned the number provided and..... I was dumped straight into the same maze of multi-layer, multi-choice options I had encountered during my earlier calls, NONE of which included an option to speak to someone from customer services! You win, faceless Utility Company. I'm too old and tired to pursue you anymore, but if you'd like some friendly advice and guidance from the perspective of a service user who is living with dementia, I'm always ready to discuss...



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