January is pretty much always the same. Dead Christmas trees get kicked to the curb. The tenth batch of turkey soup arrives with only a fraction of the enthusiasm that greeted the first. And we’ll spend countless hours we’ll never get back sitting on the phone with customer service trying to figure out what’s gone wrong with the new technology that arrived with Santa. Which is why it’s a good thing if some amusement can be derived from the experience. Something like this.
As you know, interacting with customer service involves providing lots of information. Or actually, the same information multiple times. For example, I have never understood why, when I phone the bank, I need to enter my bank card number, then repeat it to the person who answers the phone, then repeat it to the person they pass me on to. It is also necessary to spell your name, your mother’s maiden name, your cat’s name, the name of the street you grew up on, the name of your elementary school, and the name of your favourite movie. I live in fear of forgetting which movie I decided was my favourite. Since new movies come out every year, the possibility of acquiring a new favourite movie is a clear and present danger. But I digress.
A typical exchange with telephone customer service has all of the characteristics of a deranged spelling bee crossed with a blind version of charades. There’s a word that must be spelled but is not spelled like it sounds. There are two people who must communicate without benefit of sight. There is vital information that must be understood or disaster will ensue. This is a problem that the nascent aviation industry had in the early part of the previous century. According to Wikipedia, The International Civil Aviation Organization “assigned codewords acrophonically to the letters of the English alphabet, so that letters and numbers would have distinct names that would be most easily understood by those who exchange voice messages by radio or telephone, regardless of language differences or the quality of the communication channel.” You know, the alfa, bravo, Charlie, echo, foxtrot stuff. Why certain words were chosen over others, and why Mike and Charlie get a shout-out while Mick and Chuck do not will forever remain a mystery, however, this alphabet has persisted more-or-less intact for close to one hundred years (except Pakistan refuses to relegate the letter “I” to India, and Saudi Arabia does not countenance whiskey for “W” – can we please observe a quick moment of silence).
However, the standard phonetic alphabet has completely escaped the world of customer service representatives. Yesterday, as I attempted to solve the issue of why the electronic dashboard on my spin bike had lost its mind, the security question that rolled around on the roulette wheel was the name of my elementary school. I went to Cockcroft Public School. The name of this school does not have difficult consonants or vowels. It only has one vowel and one of the consonants shows up three times. Nevertheless, the long-suffering CSR needed to repeat it back to me to make sure my answer matched her records. “C as in chocolate. O as in Oprah. C as in crime. K as in knight. C as in celery. R as in aardvark. O as in Oprah. F as in phobia. T as in tea,” she said. Okay, I made all of that up except for the “O as in Oprah.” I tried my best not to laugh out loud. I did not succeed. I’m guessing if there had been a “W” in the word, it would have been “W as in Walmart.” But perhaps I’m being uncharitable. Perhaps this is just a natural evolution of language and meaning. Nobody does the foxtrot anymore. Not even Oprah. But there will also be a time when even Oprah isn’t Oprah anymore, and I think the customer service front lines will be our Oprah fame bellwether. I’ll be keeping my ears pealed.