Operator: Welcome to Directory Enquiries, Bob speaking.

Caller: Yes, I'd like the number for Papazillo's Restaurant on Willowbrook Lane.

Operator: Which town is that in please?

Caller: Huh? London of course!

Operator: Of course. Hmm... (2 seconds later) ...would that be Parandi's Steakhouse on Willowlane Drive?

Caller: Oh yeah, that was it.

Operator: Would you like to be connected?

Caller: That'd be useful, yeah.

Operator: Ok, texting the number and connecting you now, thank you.


Like any normal person, you've probably never given the slightest bit of thought to the workings behind a call like this. Neither did I, of course, before I started working in Directory Enquiries (or Directory Assistance in the US). Skip over the next few paragraphs and I'll give you an overview of how it's done.

You've never given it a second thought, because you don't treat the operator as a real person. In exactly the same way as we don't treat the majority of you as a real person. It's said computers will do our job in 10 or 20 years' time. Maybe so, but we still read out the numbers personally (rather than hitting a button to trigger an electronic voice as most places do) because customers like that illusion of a personal touch. All the same, I'm glad I only work part-time.

I'd never worked in a call centre before DQ, but when it's busy (which it is most of the time thanks to the intricate science of Resourcing), we answer a call every 20-40 seconds. After doing this for a few weeks, it becomes second nature. Just like any other call centre you can have snippets of conversation with the person beside you, using judiciously-timed tapping of the mute button. You can read magazines, books... even talk on your phone if there's gaps between calls (hey, Resourcing can't get it right ALL the time).

The key to finding any number (either in the UK amongst 40 million listings, or in the US with 120 million) within 5-10 seconds is knowing what to type. The generic search strategy used is known as 4-2-1. This means, to find a business listing, we need exactly the following information from you:

  • The first 4 letters of the first word (of the company name).
  • The first 2 letters of the second word (if there is one).
  • The first 1 letter of the third word.
  • The name of the town you're looking in (unless the company is well-known, has an unusual name, or is located in a popular shopping centre or mall).

Anything else you've included we mentally filter out. Anything you haven't provided we'll ask you for in an artificially pleasant tone. If we "don't have a listing with that information" (we NEVER say "can't find the number"), then we might ask you for more information - a street name for example. There's designated fields for all this information, and the listings come up instantaneously (unless you don't know the town and we're doing a National Search, which means searching the entire 40 million listings... this can take say 1 or 2 seconds).

All towns (with a population of more than a couple hundred) are in a drop-down box. This means we don't need the exact spelling. For large cities, there are shortcodes (L for London, BI for Birmingham... etc). But the system doesn't really need the town; it's just there to give it an idea of which range of phonebooks to look in. Things like embassies, airports, and football clubs are arranged so they can be found instantly.

Connection to your number is not free. A LOT of people imagine it is. We tell you the cost if you ask (35p or about 50c per minute) - and you may think it's a small price to pay for convenience. But if you're being connected to an 800 number (you could have made the call yourself for free) and we KNOW they'll put you on hold for ages - then you're being ripped off. If you've been nice to us, some of us will subtly suggest you dial the number yourself.

Of course, you should always be nice to us. With over 100,000 calls a day, even the supervisors don't really flinch at cutting someone off, either accidentally or 'accidentally'. After all, it's only a number.

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