Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The Porkolab: all of our agents are busy helping other customers

You've all called the "customer service" number for some faceless monolith like AT&T or Comcast and heard, over and over, "all our agents are busy helping other customers". The useful content - the denotative significance, as semanticists would say (though it might take them a couple of goes, especially if they've already started on the semiotic cocktails) - is "so you're just going to have to hang on for another hour or two". But what else is it saying? Why did they choose this rather than just stopping at "all our our agents are busy right now"?

The answer is of course that it is subtle psychological manipulation. If they just said "all our agents are busy", you could reasonably get cross after the third full cycle of hold music, asking yourself why they don't hire more agents. But because they say "helping other customers", there's an instinctive reaction - even amongst cynical uber-rationalist grouches such as myself - that this wouldn't quite be cricket. The subtext is "the other people they're helping are just as important as you are, you have no right to expect that you should be served any quicker". Clever, huh? Instead of being mad at Comcast for being such cheapskates and not hiring enough people, you feel guilty because you were putting yourself above your fellow man.

I'm sure they pay psychologists a lot of money to come up with this. It's amazing how easy it is to manipulate people's feelings without them realising - there are various recent books about this, though offhand I can't remember any of their titles.

Another good one is "your call is important to us". I don't actually care whether my call is important to them - I just care that it's important to me, because otherwise I would long since have given up listening to cheesy electronic renditions of classical music. But it really does work - even though you know it's a blatant lie, and the only reason your call has the slightest importance is because of the remote chance that you might transfer your custom elsewhere, it still takes a little of the edge off your impatience and anger.

Then there's "please listen carefully, because our menu has changed". Without knowing you personally, how can they possibly know whether it has changed since the last time you were obliged to take your cardiac health in your hands and call them? Nearly always, you can short-circuit all of the "press 1 to pay your bill, press 2 to order a new service, press 872344100000019461111 to complain about your existing service" by just banging away on the 0 button - guess how I know. But the subtext here is that not listening carefully would be on a par with conspicuously keeping your iPod earphones on during the cabin safety announcement. Not only would you be imperilling your own safety, but you would also be acting irresponsibly to society at large. You would be a Bad Person.

You may wonder how they decide exactly what subtle implicit psychological lies they decide to use. Do they have batteries of simulated users, with blood pressure monitors and positron scanners? Probably. I was inspired to write this partly by having to deal with Comcast, but also by a piece of business spam I got today (you know the kind of thing, very professional-looking emails inviting you to vitally important conferences about the latest developments in HR). It was from someone called Porkolab (a somewhat uncommon Hungarian family name, so I've learned). In British English, a "porkie" is rhyming slang for a lie (via "porky pie"). I'm sure the "porkolab" is just the place where they try out all these messages.

"Hey, we're getting a lot of complaints from Islamabad about people being rude to the call centre operators. I think we need some new decoy messages."

"OK, let's get on to the Porkolab and see what they can come up with."

1 comment:

Jayme Porkolab said...

Hi. I just read your article and wanted to let you know that my name is Jayme Porkolab and am the head of Marketing and Sales for The Global Leaders.

Enjoyed your article on Customer Service although not the derogatory use of my name. Interesting enough I have also written a white paper on improving Customer Service Delivery. You can view it at


Jayme Porkolab