Bangkok 8 by John Burdett is that rare thing – a thriller with real depth of characterisation and a cultural backdrop you can almost smell and taste. The narrator is a Thai Buddhist cop, a half-caste who inadvertently forms a bridge between westerners and a Zen(ish!) approach to life, corruption and sex.
I was suddenly struck in the third eye with a vision of how customer service - particularly dealing with call centres – could be profitably approached with a Buddhist attitude. When you hear the incomprehensible menu of options, try adopting an advanced state of detachment, and when you are listening to the holding music, how would it be to think “Oh, Enya again – how delightful to revisit a thousand hotel foyers and health clubs in my mind!” Then proceed along these lines.
“Hello. Thank you for calling Zarg Bank. My name is Dave – membership number please?”
“It means, ‘I bow down to the god within you, David.’ “
“Er, thanks. Membership number, please?”
“I don’t have one. Or at least it’s mislaid amongst all the sparkling and fascinating membership rewards brochures you have sent me. It was you, wasn’t it, David, who sent me these enticing pamphlets?”
“Probably marketing actually. I’m afraid I can’t help you without your number.”
“David, does it help that I’ve paid one hundred and fifty of your charming English pounds for a Premier Service?”
“Er no, I’m afraid not.
At this point your anger meter may show sings of swinging violently from 0 (The Compassionate One) to 10 (a particularly vicious prayer that the other party be reincarnated as a pair of rat’s gonads). But remember, anger – even righteous anger – has no place on the Eightfold Path, and adopt the Buddha’s mudra (posture) of compassion and begin again.
“David, I have enjoyed the exciting array of options your touch tone menu has revealed to me and revelled in the special music you have played for me this morning while you were on your well-earned coffee break, but now my simple wish is for you to help me to facilitate my daily business. Can you rise above all this and find the compassion in your heart to treat me as a revered and valued customer?”
“Not without your membership number, no.”
Take your time out to reflect on what past-life transgressions have led David to the cubby hole he now inhabits for seven hours (including a half hour ‘comfort’ break) a day in this beautiful block somewhere outside Newcastle, Leeds or Glasgow (all merge into one in the consciousness of the Buddha), and try re-establishing human contact. He is, after all, your esteemed relationship manager. Surely he must, even in this tortured incarnation, recall some of what this means?
“David, I believe you are one of my relationship managers. Am I correct in this assumption?”
“Er, yes, that’s right.”
“And I call you most weeks. Is that also right?!
“Yes, and you never have your membership number.”
“But you do have intimate details about me, such as my blessed mother’s maiden name, my date of birth and the name of my pet goldfish. Is that not true?”
“David, would you tell me your mother’s maiden name, please? Just as an act of faith, to demonstrate that this is really you to whom I speak? Most Tuesdays, as it happens.”
“I’m sorry, but that’s private information.”
“But David, surely a relationship is about give and take, about sharing, even intimacy. Do not your overseers use expressions like ‘customer intimacy’ and ‘delighting the customer’ in your very lengthy and demanding discipleship?”
“Look, I’ve got six calls waiting. This is all very interesting, but I’m afraid that without your membership number I cannot help you. Do you have a pen?”
“Indeed I do, David. It’s a Parker rollerball that my father gave me on. . .”
“O.K. Write down the name of our website. You’ll find instructions there for gaining membership access in the event of losing your current number. It’s www. . .”
“You are my relationship manager, no?”
“No! I mean, yes!”
“You never even asked my name!”
David’s usual sang froid finally bubbles to boiling point.
“What’s that got to do with anything?!”
I know now we can have a ‘relationship’ – I know also that it will move through the stages of psychological chess (he will offer me the number of his customer services department or his ‘supervisor’ – I will not respond as these are only ways of blocking my Queen), ice-cold rage (when I ask him the impossible question, “Could someone ring me back?”) Even an avatar does not have this power in his world.
Finally, one of us will put the phone down, he pretending that it’s a system failure, me acknowledging that it’s my system that has failed.
I reflect on the fact that in this exchange it’s probably dear David who has been more patient and understanding than I, and it’s I who will reap more heavy karma. He is, after all, like a trainee monk reciting in good faith the scriptures revealed to him by the more senior monks in his shiny ashram. It is they who worship the false idols of economy and cost reduction instead of finding the true dharma of service, they who will be condemned to spend eternity wandering the lonely plains of that special hell called Cyberspace.
Tomorrow I will return from my failed attempt to gain a higher state of omniscient, all-forgiving detachment and become just one of the crowd of alienated angry ones. The forgotten tribe mocked with the name, Customer. The Untouchables.
Surely David will know how to relate to me then?
Originally published: 19 Jun 2006