THE CUSTOMER SERVICE EQUATION: there’s no “i” in Team Telstra


There’s no “i” in Team Telstra…

The other day I was at the end of my tether just trying to load a basic webpage on my iPhone. So I went online and, after a brief search for something that could help, I started an “instant chat” with a member of Telstra’s mobile support team.

The initial enquiry form asked me to enter all kinds of details. I’m sure anyone who knows me or who’s read this blog won’t find it hard to believe that I was pretty specific about my problem.

When the “instant chat” initially connected, I was introduced to a very courteous online presence – for the sake of argument, let’s just say she was known as “Imelda”. I never know whether to believe these are their real names or not, but one thing seemed clear: I had an innate sense that if I spoke to her, she’d sound just like all the “Joeys”, “Marions” and “Ana Marias” I’d spoken with at Citibank over the years. In short, I was pretty sure that Imelda was somewhere in Manila.

After several chat minutes (because everyone knows a chat minute is about the equivalent of two and a half actual minutes) of re-explaining to Imelda exactly what I’d already entered quite clearly and in some detail into the initial web form, it became clear that I was going to have to speak to someone slightly more techy. Someone who was simply able to read and digest the very basic problem I’d already been asked to describe would’ve been an acceptable alternative, even by this very early stage. I’m not sure why Telstra choose to assume all their customers are, by default, brain-dead and don’t provide an immediate Tech Support “instant chat” option. It’s all about cutting out the middle man, I say.

So Imelda called my landline. First she very courteously introduced herself, then very courteously reiterated the problem, just for our mutual understanding of course, then very courteously introduced her technical specialist colleague “Mark”*#. Just as “Mark” got into his own introductory spiel, the line suddenly went dead. Luckily the chat window was still active, so I told Imelda what had happened. After a time, she explained there must have been some “technical issue” (a-ha, I believe you Imelda) and that she’d try again. She called back, put me on hold briefly, then introduced me – again with almost painful courtesy – to “Antonio”*#. “Antonio” got a little further into his introductory spiel but, again, without warning the line went dead. Luckily for me, I suspect Imelda had hung about to see if the technical fault was recurring. When I confirmed what she no doubt already suspected, she called back a third time, put me on hold again and this time introduced me to “John”* #.

Thankfully Imelda had very wisely decided not to do anything post-transfer this time and the call continued unabated until my mobile web connectivity had been restored to a somewhat more acceptable level of service. But the whole thing got me to thinking.

Other than for one very brief period more than ten years ago, I’ve had a Telstra landline, mobile or internet connection since 1996. And what do I get for more than sixteen years of loyal custom? Well, had that question been asked of me up until 2008 I would’ve been one of the few Australians that had Telstra’s back. I’d had nothing but good experiences with Telstra and all of the services they’d provided me over the years. Which isn’t to say that anything especially good had actually happened, but I’d never gotten anything less than I’d have expected as a customer who signed up for a fairly standard service offering and paid his bills more-or-less on time. Then the unthinkable happened: I had my first taste of the kind of customer service that Telstra was known for.

In mid-2008, I decided it was time to speak to Telstra about changing the home phone account from my former housemate’s name into my own. Before long, I’d spent more hours on the phone than I care to think about, even now; I’d been shuffled about from person to person, department to department, state to state; I’d had more calls “drop out” and go unanswered than the average call centre would have in a year; I’d been offered so many callbacks from people who turned out to be, in 100% of cases, impossible to ever track down again that I’d filled several A4 pages with hand-written notes of our unfortunate interactions. Multiple times I was assured the delays were entirely due to a Telstra system outage at the time that my initial request was submitted. Oh I see. And that was my fault… how, exactly? Fourteen weeks and one visit to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman later, my request was finally actioned. The relief was palpable.

Some time later the same year, I went onto the Bigpond website to amend to my Internet plan. A fairly straightforward transaction, I would’ve thought. One, in fact, which Bigpond actively encouraged customers to make with great ease and simplicity online, any time of night or day. Make no mistake about it, I’d asked them to significantly increase my Internet plan. I was, in effect, inviting Bigpond to deduct $50 a month more from my bank account than they had been doing up to that point. I duly received the email notification of my request, as promised. I waited 24 hours – nothing. I waited another 24 hours – still nothing. I called Bigpond to ask where my request was up to, only to be told that a Telstra system outage at the time my request had been submitted had “probably” prevented it from going through successfully. “Probably”. Nothing like a bit of solid reassurance from the one person who should be able to tell you what’s going on. What followed was another series of promises, something approaching twenty hours of phone calls, misdirected and redirected transfers, more dropped calls, more callbacks that never eventuated from people I never heard from ever again and could never hope to track down, contact not noted on my file, requests not made on my behalf as promised and an ever increasing blood pressure reading. Ten-and-a-half weeks and a second visit to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman later, my request was finally actioned. The relief was still there, if slightly less palpable than before.

Towards he end of 2010 I was moving house. For reasons that are now unclear to me – possibly on account of some perceived financial benefit – I’d decided some time earlier to combine my landline and pay TV services on the one bill and have them all provided by Telstra. Heaven forbid I should go without my pay TV, but somehow I’d forgotten to ask anyone about the disconnection and reconnection of the service so, the day before the big move, I called up Telstra – by now expecting next to nothing, just to avoid inevitable disappointment. To my utter surprise and delight, I didn’t have to wait on hold – I went straight through to the woman who ended up helping me. She was extremely pleasant to speak to, nothing was too much trouble and we chatted about the weather and the woes of moving house while she did whatever she was doing. In less than five minutes I was off the phone and the next afternoon I turned the TV on and it was more like I’d rearranged the loungeroom than moved house. Everything was exactly as it had been. You could’ve blown me down with a feather!

In early 2011 my new housemate and I decided to combine some of the services in both our names into one name and bundle them together. I’d received multiple letters from Telstra about how they’d taken their customers’ feedback on board, they accepted that the level of service they’d provided had been below par and that they’d actively worked to fix it. What could possibly go wrong? So off we went, first to one call centre, then to another; with the first having told my housemate that she’d need to speak with both of us to get anything started, when we got through to the second, not only was most of the information we were provided almost entirely different, but we were also told it would be far easier to do what we needed done by visiting a Telstra store, where we’d be able to get exactly the same thing done but more easily and far more quickly for having been there in the flesh. Though I was immediately suspicious, we still blindly believed it was probably sound advice. She just sounded so convincing. Then we got to the store. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I walk into a telco’s shopfront and announce that I’m there because the call centre told me it was the best option for what I wanted to do, the first thing I want to hear the underwhelmed shop girl say probably isn’t “oh… I don’t know why they told you that, it’s not actually easier to do it with us”. Gee whiz – ya reckon? How about telling me something I hadn’t already worked out years ago! Having provided all manner of documentation to identify ourselves, having completed a multiple page application form and been given a photocopy of said form as evidence (presumably of nothing more than the fact that we’d both written on it), I promptly packed a suitcase and went overseas for a month. When I got back, it took us another month or so to work out that, in fact, nothing at all had been done. The landline was still in my housemate’s name. Nobody had contacted either of us. Nobody had sent us an email. And when I called and spoke to “Alice”*# in Manila, it was clear from the get-go that she really didn’t understand what I was telling her. How did I know this? Just a wild guess – having to explain the situation and what we’d been trying to achieve from it four times was something of a give-away. “Alice” told me she’d investigate and call me back within 48 hours. So after another twelve weeks and yet another formal complaint to Telstra… nothing. I just gave up. To this day, fourteen months later, the request has never been actioned, nobody’s ever provided a reasonable explanation why and, least surprisingly of all, I’m still waiting for “Alice” to call me back. But I gave up. I got to the point where I had no more energy to dedicate to Telstra and its consistent ability to right-royally fuck up everything I ask it to touch.

I’m convinced that the woman I spoke to about my Foxtel service back in 2010 didn’t actually work there. She couldn’t have. She was probably just passing the office one day, minding her own business, when she heard the phone ringing, went in of her own accord, answered the phone and somehow understood exactly what I needed, how to talk to me like a normal human being and exactly what needed to be done. It’s certainly nothing I’d ever expect from an actual employee of Telstra.

My latest interaction with Imelda has done nothing to change the image I have of Telstra – that of an over-sized, massively bloated, grossly inefficient organisation that resorts to off-shoring key frontline and support staff instead of continuing to support employment here in Australia. Although, given the damn most of the Australian staff I’ve dealt with haven’t given, that probably isn’t such a bad thing. Poor Imelda – it probably wasn’t entirely her fault and at least she tried her best. I’m still waiting for “Alice” to call me back. And Deanne. And Stephen. David. Marco. Arabella. Courtney. Bree. Alyson. Jonathan. Chloe in Melbourne. Brooke on the Gold Coast. Mathew in Adelaide. Peter in Tasmania. Oh and Kris in Brisbane, Staff ID #B10467 – she never called back either. Oddly enough when I asked, nobody seemed to know who she was, or even what Staff ID #B10467 was either!

As hit rates go, I’d say mine with Telstra was especially poor. How the hell any organisation of its size and standing can get away with providing such a consistent level of astoundingly bad service, I can’t even begin to fathom. Just as there’s no “i” in team, there’s just as assuredly no “me” in Team Telstra.

*not his/her real name
#no way I can prove that, just a hunch