Feb 13 2012 By David Baker
HARROW and Brent Council could face a backlash from angry customers after their decision to introduce automated switchboard systems.
In Brent the voice recognition technology is already in place as it bids to cut costs, saving money through redundancies, whilst it is expected to be introduced in Harrow after it was put forward during the most recent budget.
Although there is still an option to hold for an operator, customers are asked to name the department, service or council officer before being transferred.
Stephen Bennett, 48, of Eastcote Lane, South Harrow, said: “I hate those systems, you never get through to who you want to speak to and you end up just getting angry at being put through to the wrong place and being pushed from pillar to post. People want to speak to a human, they don’t want to speak to a robot.
“What if the system doesn’t understand your accent or you’re not quite sure who you need to speak to? You just end up going round in circles.”
With nearly half-a-million calls a year between the two boroughs, there are concerns the change could alienate customers for whom English is their second language.
Although both boroughs have translation services within the council, the new systems will be entirely in English and Wembley resident Nitesh Patel, of Harrow Road, thinks this could be an issue.
Brent and Harrow are among the most diverse areas in the country and the 26-year-old said: “Whilst I think that a switchboard should be in English, if you don’t speak the language well, at least with an operator it would be clear that you need help with translation.
“With this though it seems as though no one will be able to make the distinction because there is no one there to actually make a judgment call.”
Councillor Lesley Jones, Brent Council’s lead member for Customers and Citizens, said it ‘may take a little bit of getting used to’ but many services can also be accessed on the council’s website.
She said: “Excellent customer service is very important to Brent Council, which is why we’ve introduced an advanced phone system which uses voice recognition to speed up calls. It means customers no longer need to go through to an operator but can go straight to the council department, service or officer they want to speak to instead.
“Like many new systems it may take a little bit of getting used to. So please remember that you need to say clearly who you wish to speak to, but just the once.”
The Observer tested Brent’s system by making some basic enquiries, with mixed success.
Although it failed to recognise my request of ‘council tax’, it did ask whether I wanted to make changes to my current claim or start a new claim for housing benefits when I said ‘benefits’.
There was less success when I said ‘parking’ and was put through to the wrong department because an officer’s name resembled the request, while ‘bins’ and ‘waste’ were not recognised by the system when we tried.
When I said I ‘didn’t know’ the service or officer I wanted to speak to, I was finally put through to an operator but when I asked to be put through to the ‘Lib Dem group office’ at Brent Council, I was surprised to be greeted by someone in the Labour group office.