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ITV's accent survey reminds me of the time we tried to blame bad service on the Brummie accent

The corporate PR world can be dull - no really. Come ride with me as we take a weekly sideways glance at the world of PR in the lofty world of big business, from someone who has been there, done that, and was mostly fired.

ITV’s recent research on what people think about accents around the globe reminded me of the time I worked for a utility company and tried to blame poor customer service scores on our call centre workers’ accents.

PR 101: Don't pin your failings on Ozzy's accent

It has been a while since I worked in the wonderful world of utilities, but when I was there we had to hit certain targets for attending call outs, answering calls and customer scoring of call handling and the like. We had to report our performance statistics to Ofgem on a quarterly basis.

If you did not hit certain targets the company was fined by Ofgem. This was serious business.

After years of doing well in most areas, we needed to try and get a handle on why the call handling scores were so bad. Money was at stake in terms of a big fine and this had a big effect on directors’ bonuses. Given that shit always rolls downhill, it became a project for the comms and lobbying team that I worked in.

I cannot remember the actual reason why it was so poor. It was probably something to do with the phone queuing system, you know: press one to be patronised, press two if you are poor and don’t mind being shunted off to an overseas call handler... that type of thing.

Anyway, during a 'blue sky thinking session' at an overly expensive spa that our directors thought was ok to go to on a bi-monthly basis, and probably after one too many glasses of something tropical, we came up with the idea that we needed to prove that our call centre staff's accents were the problem.

You see, the call centre was based in deepest darkest West Midlands - yes, the land of yam-yams and the word 'bostin'.

We decided to commission research on consumer attitudes to accents and rather fortunately, the Brummie accent came out second worst (after the Liverpool accent).

There were also lots of anecdotal comments about the Brummie accent making people sound depressed and unmotivated. This was perfect.

We dressed up all of the research, put on our best powder-blue suits and headed off to the Ofgem offices in Millbank to present our case. It was thrown out within minutes by a rather irate Ofgem panel of turds.

All that work, all that effort, all of those blue-sky thinking sessions, all for nothing.

Instead, we had to do something rather bizarre; we had to try and actually improve our customer service rather than cover it up.

Unheard of!

This was one of my first 'proper' jobs and this whole saga was the first time I realised that you can’t use PR to cover up a bad situation; you need to fix the bad situation and then maybe look to see how you can fix the reputation problem.

Next week: the time a protester spat in my face when I represented the utility company at a public hearing.

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