The world’s longest phone call is set to end next Thursday afternoon after over 34 years, it was announced this morning.
“I look forward to spending time on other things,” said the caller Arthur Cummings, now 78. Galaxy Tech, which handled the last five years of the call, told shareholders it was a “great example of smart customer service”.
The call will be formally ended by Bob Zachnich, head of Galaxy customer services, and Mr Cummings simultaneously replace the handset of their phones at 3.3 pm at a special live-streamed ceremony, marking the time the initial call.
The terms of the call-ending deal were not revealed but it is rumoured to involve a four figure telephone bill and a new vacuum cleaner. One former Galaxy executive, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it set a “ludicrous precedent”.
The phone call began on Tuesday April 14th 1987 when Arthur Cummings, then 44, called the local branch of Orbit Electrical in Stoke-on-Trent to report an unexplained rattling noise coming from a new vacuum cleaner.
“After about ten minutes we reached an impasse. The lady on the other end said rattling noises were not covered by warranty because they were a user error. I was not prepared to settle for it,” said Mr Cummings, a retired electrical engineer, now 76.
The telephone operator who received the initial call, Irene Morely, who died in 2004 at the age of 84, was prevented from hanging up on Mr Cummings’ call because it would break the company’s customer service policy.
“And I, for my part, was unwilling to back down in my complaint, so we were both stuck. At the end of the first day Ms Morely said she was going home, but that her line manager had said that the call could be kept on hold overnight.”
The call then resumed at 9am the following morning with Ms Morely checking to see if it was still active and if Mr Cummings wanted to continue to hold, which he did. “I said, yes, of course,” said Mr Cummings. The same routine continued for days, weeks, which eventually became years.
“She was quite frustrated with having to take responsibility for my call to begin with, but after a few months we started to become friendly, passing the time of day. We realised we were both trapped in a situation we could not control ourselves.”
The pair finally met face-to-face in 1994, with Mr Cummings being a special guest at Ms Morely’s retirement celebrations deliberately held outside call-centre hours. After over nine years the two had come to see it as more than a routine work conversation.
“She was a nice lady and inevitably, after a few years on the phone, you start to talk about other things, family, kids and so forth. She even let me off a few times when I failed to respond. She did not want it to end that way, she told me.”
And the pairs’ call did not end entirely. Mr Cummings had installed a second line in 1988, to enable him and his wife, Mary, to make and receive other calls. Mr Cummins says Ms Morely called once or twice a month to see how he and his call were going. “She and Mary became friendly too.”
Retirement meant Ms Morley was finally given permission to pass the call on to her line manager, Geoff Griffiths. He took a cooler approach to Mr Cummings’ complaint, merely checking-in every 45 minutes for caller activity without smalltalk.
“You had to be on your toes with Geoff. And I respected him for that. But, to be honest, there was no love lost either and no margin for error. One slip and it would all be over,” Cummings says. Mr Griffiths was promoted to area manager in 1999, but opted to continue fielding the call.
“It became personal with Griffiths. He just could not let it go. And I could understand that. Once you have invested a decade or two in something, it gets more and more difficult to stop it, even if the situation is going nowhere.” Mr Griffiths chose not to comment.
It was under Griffith’s 21 year stint that Mr Cummings, an electrical engineer, installed a hands-free system. It initially sounded an alarm, but it later was programmed to play a recording of Mr Cummings saying, “Yes, I’m here,” if it detected activity at the other end.
“I went through some long periods of feeling bitterness towards Orbit Electricals and Galaxy, after it was take over, but I got through that towards the end of the early 2000s. I had retired and needed something to do. I think, in the end, it was honours-even.”
“I’m looking forward to experiencing what life might be like without monitoring this call.” But old habits die hard, “I have noticed a cracked manhole lid outside the local supermarket and have considered calling the council. Mary is not so keen on that idea, however.” ■