LET your fingers do the walking. Remember that? It was the slogan to encourage us to ring firms listed in Yellow Pages, rather than legging it to their doors with our inquiries.

We obviously took the advice far too well. When firms found our fingers were doing the walking, and telecommunications were developing new gimmicks daily, it was obvious those fingers could do the working as well.

No longer did firms need a pleasant telephone receptionist to ask us which department we wanted, or which service we required, and to connect us to someone who could help.

A pre-programmed system now asks us to press 1 for accounts or 2 for customer relations. Press 1 or 2 and there is a further "menu" of options. Expensive-to-employ human beings are in short supply, though not pressing any keys may sometimes bring one on the line.

Then there's the call centre, where the button pressing does end at the desk, or rather the computer terminal, of a person. It is not an improvement and has developed into one of the most vilified aspects of modern business, to the extent that not having one is becoming a selling point.

Most of us would have had at least a twinge of sympathy for Ashley Gibbins, in court last week for hijacking cable company ntl's call centre and venting his anger at being kept hanging on for far too long by changing the recorded message to one spattered with a four-lettered expletive. Magistrates let him off, saying his message was "offensive" but not, as the charge stated, "grossly offensive".

It showed a lack of command of a more inventive vocabulary, as most swearing does, but he used a word heard on every street corner without anyone being charged with using offensive language.

The example I was sent of ntl's call centre operation just made me laugh, as it did the household receiving it - or they'd have cried and banged their heads on the wall. Here it is.

Caller: "You've cut our phone off."

Call centre: "We told you you'd be cut off if you didn't pay the overdue bill by Thursday."

Caller: "We paid it the previous Tuesday." (Over the phone, directly to ntl.)

Call centre: "Yes, that's why we cut you off."

Caller: "You cut us off because we paid the bill?"

Call centre: "Yes. Er, I mean no, er...bear with me a moment."

That has led, I understand, to a game played with call centres - count how many times they say "bear with me a moment", divide that into the number of minutes your call lasted, and start a league table among friends or colleagues.

Sky came off no better for the customer who knew only the name of his service package. The form he was filling in required its number. The customer helpline couldn't tell him where to find the number, only, and repeatedly, that he must not leave the box blank.

We'd all rather deal with human beings, but human beings, even outsourced ones in countries where wages are low, cost money. Are we prepared to pay?

I'd willingly go back to paying bank charges if it killed off our joint account's call centre. I don't ring it. I go into the branch and, if I'm cross, I'm cross face-to-face.

Remember, however, next time a call centre drives you wild, that, at the other end of the line, staff are being offered counselling to help them cope with the rudeness of customers. It is, of course, much easier to be rude to someone you can't see and who may be thousands of miles away.