Call centres can be too helpful

| January 17, 2011

In customer service, what is the line between being helpful and being too helpful? How do we get this right?

To my great delight, customer service and privacy have enjoyed lots of exposure in the past week. Both The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald reported on the privacy benchmark conducted by Global Reviews and IIS in November last year on eight leading banks in Australia.

Far from being a bank bashing exercise, the pilot study raises an interesting problem with important privacy implications.

Global Reviews made 160 calls to the banks’ call centres. In one of the scenarios used, the callers sought advice on how to access their boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s account to transfer money to pay a bill.

The study found that when pressed, half the time the call centre operator was willing to assist the caller in accessing the other account. It must be stressed that the operators did not give out any personal information. Rather, they advised on other methods such as internet or telephone banking and how to proceed from there by utilising information that is either known or easily obtainable, such as an account number, mother’s maiden name or date of birth.

At this point it is worth noting the important role call centres play in the perception of an organisation. Research has shown that whether individuals are prepared to trust a company depends on the risks of failure of any sort and who bears that risk.

Call centres are there to manage the cost of many risks, be it time, money, emotional anguish, etc. Some of these risks are primarily borne by the organisation, others by the individual. They are often the first port of call when something goes wrong or needs to be done. However, if customer service is pursued too zealously, the consequence may be that the cost to an individual is not managed, but magnified. This is what we are seeing in the privacy benchmark.

So what can be done? As I outlined in an opinion piece for The Newcastle Herald on Saturday, security and privacy are a shared responsibility of both organisations and individuals.

All organisations (not just banks) should provide the necessary training and support for their customer service operations. Call centres have a notoriously poor reputation, but the difficulties operators face on the job must be recognised. Are there times when we demand too much of them and place them in an awkward situation? Each of us must be careful with our personal information when transacting with others.

There also needs to be greater awareness and understanding of the problem. The pilot study is a good start and I believe further, more comprehensive benchmarking will be well worth doing.


Malcolm Crompton is Managing Director of Information Integrity Solutions (IIS), a globally connected company that works with public sector and private sector organisations to help them build customer trust through respect for the customer and their personal information. Malcolm is a former  Australian Privacy Commissioner. He was also foundation President of the International Association of Privacy Professionals, Australia New Zealand,