Telcos: they’re not that innocent…

Telco-rageFor the third time in as many years, my brother and I are embroiled in a back-and-forth, less-than-instant messaging service between his mobile carrier in north-eastern Europe and my carrier here in Australia.

My brother moved to Europe just after the turn of the century. Over the ensuing thirteen years semi-regular phone calls have morphed into more regular Skype video calls and, all the while, our darling mother has clung tenaciously to her ability to exchange text messages with her last-born at any hour of day or night. SMS has been a bit of a security blanket for her – as only a mother can, ours has spent thirteen years in a psychological battle against the ever-decreasing chances of her baby boy ever having a permanent Australian mobile number.

A couple of weeks ago, for no apparent reason my brother was suddenly unable to receive text messages from either Mum or from me. We were still receiving texts from him and – no doubt to the hand-clapping delight of Telstra’s and Vodafone’s bottom lines – we were certainly still being charged for the privilege of sending premium-priced messages back to him without knowing that, for however long, they hadn’t actually been delivered.

To make matters even more bemusing, my brother regularly texts friends from all over the world and apparently Mum & I the only ones who’ve been affected by whatever’s going on.

There was much to-ing and fro-ing between brother dearest and Elisa – his Estonian mobile carrier – which essentially ended with the Elisa folk advising, via an extremely vague email, that they’d done what they needed to do to solve the problem and now it was up to our Australian operators, who “needed to make certain changes, of which they’re aware”… nup, we didn’t have a single clue what that meant either. Frankly, the prospect of having to explain what was going on to someone at one of Telstra’s call centres in the Philippines filled me with abject horror. Thankfully bro and I are occasionally on a similar wavelength, so he’d already sought the clarification that I was about to ask for.

Overnight, he wrote to me to give me Elisa’s ‘explanation’ – such that it is:

“Elisa Estonia no longer allows the free sending of messages/sending of free messages at the operator level from Australia and we have informed all Australian operators how messages can be sent to the Elisa Estonia network. Now it is up to the Australian operators to introduce these changes. Vodafone and Telstra (and Optus) have been informed of the changes.”

Though perfectly fluent in Estonian, brother was unclear on the meaning of the word ‘free’ in this context, but it seems a moot point given Elisa’s insistence that something has changed and our local providers have been made aware. Presumably the change involves our carriers paying Elisa for an SMS delivery service at the other end; it’s not clear if this means they’ve been asked to pay something as opposed to nothing or if they’ve been asked to pay more, though it’s unlikely that any of them are too keen on either option.

I’ve just a couple of issues with the picture painted thus far. Firstly, it seems the Estonian mob have changed something and not bothered to proactively advise their own customers, not least of whom the ones most likely to be affected by the change – the very same customers whose accounts would clearly show a frequency of international calls and texts involving numbers with a +61 (Australia) prefix. Secondly, despite having totally sucked at keeping their own customers in the loop it appears the Estonians did at least advise our local carriers of some required change, but with the response from said local carriers being to either not make the requisite change and/or not advise their own customers, not least of whom the ones most likely to be affected by the change – the very same customers whose accounts would clearly show a frequency of international calls and texts involving numbers with a +372 (Estonia) prefix.

Anyone else seeing a pattern here? Typically poor form on the part of all three telcos so far.

So what are our options from here? Well, I could spend time generating emails to both Telstra and Vodafone, documenting what I know and asking for their help, though I’m almost certain that I’d only receive responses which suggest that either a) I’m on drugs, b) they don’t know what I’m talking about, c) I don’t know what I’m talking about, d) everything’s fine at this end and the problem is at the other end, or e) all of the above. My brother could change networks and I’m sure many of us know how fun, easy and trouble-free that can be. Whatever option we go with, ultimately we’ll be doing most of the work to rebalance a situation that was only rendered unsustainable by the actions of one or more of the telcos at the centre of the issue.

Whichever way we go, it’s an utterly contemptible lack of customer focus which anyone who’s ever had anything to do with a telco will likely be all too familiar with.

Now I don’t know if it’s dawned on anyone else by now, but there are so many obvious comparisons I could draw between telcos and Britney Spears – they’re so similar on so many levels! Like Britney herself, telcos look bad, lip-sync, forget the moves and generally underperform for years, then slowly but surely seem to get better. They appear to put some effort in, even start to look ‘good’. They make out like they just want to make us happy, they leave us believing we’re more than just friends… then BOOM! It’s back to “oops, I did it again!… I played with your heart… that is just so typically me”. Over and over, they drive us crazy! While we’re left to scream and shout just to get the most basic level of service, they take an If U Seek Amy approach to everyone and repeatedly prove they were never quite the slave for us that they made themselves out to be. Telcos truly are toxic.

So it’s now less a question of “which telco provided shit customer service?” and more a question of “which telco provided the shittest customer service?” Is it Elisa, by not proactively engaging with those customers who’d clearly be impacted by their change? Or is it our Australian carriers (which wouldn’t be entirely unexpected) for not acting on Elisa’s advice or proactively engaging with their own customers who’d also likely be impacted by the change?

Or does this scenario simply paint a universal truth: that the default position of telcos the world over is to provide shit customer service?

After all of this, I got to thinking about something else that’s oft-cited in relation to text messaging services – most telcos don’t even guarantee delivery of text messages, particularly ones to numbers overseas. A few basic Google searches revealed the true scale of the problem – both anecdotal and formally documented evidence of telcos all over the world not guaranteeing delivery of text messages in any number of circumstances. Some try to explain that it’s down to the complexities and inconsistencies of the world’s telecommunication systems, others simply make blanket statements that delivery just isn’t guaranteed.

…but hang on a minute!

phone-rageI’m the customer! I’m a consumer and I’ve paid for something in good faith, with a more than reasonable expectation that my telco will deliver whatever service I’ve just incurred the charge for. That’s how it works with virtually everything else in life, isn’t it? When I pay for a stamp, apply it to the outside of a physical item and put that item in the post – from anywhere in the world and for delivery to anywhere else in the world – I expect my request to be actioned and for the item to be delivered according to the instructions I write or otherwise apply to the envelope or the packaging. When I pay for a phone call by dialling a phone number – any phone number, from anywhere in the world and to anywhere else in the world – I expect my request to be actioned and for the call to be connected. When I pay for internet data to send an email – from any email address, from any physical location and to any email address in any physical location around the world – I expect my request to be actioned according to the instructions I input and for the email be delivered to my intended recipient. Now when put into words like that, my requirements sound kinda complex, almost demanding, maybe even a little unreasonable, but even so they’re fairly basic requirements and I can’t recall the last time a single one of these expectations wasn’t met.

So why’s it OK for my mobile carrier to charge me every time I press ‘Send’ – effectively triggering my request for them to send a text message to an international number – without guaranteeing delivery? Why should we have to sit back and cop that? Well I don’t think we should, but I have to trawl the depths of my somewhat twisted imagination to even begin to conceive of a place where it doesn’t happen like that…

Imagine you’re watching TV right now and the screen’s starting to shimmer… <commence dream sequence now>: let’s imagine life in an alternative universe, separate to our own but running along a parallel time line, where everything is virtually identical except for the fact that telco customers can’t be continually screwed over by their providers. It’s a big, bold utopia of legally enforced customer focus, where Telstra, Optus and Vodafone have introduced the option of the Non-Guaranteed User Payment (NGUP) billing system. Since telcos repeatedly refused to commit to the provision of consistently good customer service and wouldn’t guarantee delivery of one of the highest-volume forms of communication on the planet, but at the same time steadfastly maintained their right to charge customers for said non-guaranteed services, the lawmakers of this other-worldly Shangri-La decided it was only fair that the telcos’ customers should have a similar option. So they replaced PAYG with PIYP: Pay If You’re Pleased. Text message not delivered? Customer service unsatisfactory? Complaint unresolved? Question(s) not answered correctly or completely or at all? Call transferred to the wrong department (again… and again)? Telco customers in this idyllic paradise don’t pay for any of these things! Under the provisions of the PIYP Scheme, customers in this alternative reality can quote the Terms & Conditions under which they entered into business with the telco and make reference to numbered sections, clauses and paragraphs which support their rights, under the Non-Delivery of Non-Guaranteed Services Service Agreement (NDNGSSA), to withhold part or full payment for any service delivered with a sub-standard level of customer focus or not delivered at all.

It’s pretty sad, isn’t it? With any other industry there’d be no need to put a science-fiction spin on any of this stuff, just to be able to imagine a time and place where it might actually happen. Is Ricardo Montalbán waiting for us to visit he and Tatoo on Fantasy Island so they can make our dreams of getting a fair go from a telco come true? Why should the only place this level of service is provided by telcos be some alternative universe which only exists in my warped imagination?

Somebody please tell me, coz I really would like to know: exactly how do telcos keep getting away with being so consistently awful?

Dear Dad…

DSC00538Dear Dad,

It was my birthday yesterday. But then I suppose you remember that without needing any reminder from me… y’know, that whole thing about you being my Dad and all, I guess it makes it hard to forget my birthday 🙂

My birthday always gets me thinking about you.

Did you see me the Friday before last, floating around in that beautiful warm bath they call the ocean up in Cambodia? Did you see me immersing my whole body in sea water for the first time in 23 years? I was having a good old chat with you while I was out there – couldn’t tell if you heard a single word I was saying, but I just had to talk to you while I floated on that gorgeous bed of warm liquid salt, watching a gigantic burnt orange sun dipping below the horizon right before my eyes. I felt so calm, it was so peaceful. It was March 22nd that day, Dad; it was the fourth consecutive March 22nd that it’s happened to me like that. I always think about you more on March 22nd. I wish I could say I thought about you most on Father’s Day or on your birthday – and you do come to mind more than usual on those days, too – but March 22nd’s always the one that really jumps out of the calendar and smacks me in the face.

I’ve been all over the place these past few years, Dad. About six months after I last saw you, I took Mum up to Townsville. It was amazing how much of the place I remembered and just as amazing how much more of the place it felt like I’d never seen before. ‘The Crabbys’ were there, they were the same as always. Our school was there, your cruddy-looking old bank building was still there and our old house was still there too. Looked almost exactly the same as it did thirty years ago! I couldn’t help but think back to that night we’d been out and came home to find that giant cane toad on the driveway. I was so concerned about you running over the fat, ugly thing but too scared to go anywhere near it. Remember how I poked and prodded it with that stick for what seemed like tens of minutes? Then when I’d finally convinced it to jump off the side of the driveway and gave you the thumbs up to move the car, it jumped straight back on to the driveway and went right under the front tyre – SPLAT! What a disgusting mess that was.

The year after that I went off to America for nearly five weeks – can you believe what you’re hearing, Dad? Me! In the United States of America! The one developed nation I’d always said I had absolutely no interest in ever visiting – must’ve been the diet of 60s American sitcoms I  spent my childhood consuming endless repeats of. Clearly, if the entire country wasn’t just populated with families exactly like The Brady Bunch, I didn’t want a bar of the place! And yet in September 2010, there I was – and you’ll never guess what? I loved every single moment of it! Nearly two years ago, I took Mum over to Estonia so she could be with her baby boy on her 70th birthday. She was older than you for the first time in her life, Dad! That was kinda weird. She had the most wonderful time over there, we travelled all over Estonia for four weeks, went down to Latvia, then back to Tallinn in time to leave. The only thing that could’ve made it better is if you’d been there with us.

I had a bit of a meltdown last year, Dad. I wish you’d been around to talk to about it. Maybe I would’ve been able to make more sense of what was going on… although according to most people, if you’d still been around it probably wouldn’t have happened at all! Seriously Dad, so many people tried to blame you! I’d honestly never thought about it that way, but everyone kept asking me if it had started after you went. But don’t worry – I jumped to your defence every single time. No blame game, no finger-pointing… I think I was just a bit fucked in the head all along, Dad. But then, I probably don’t have to tell you that 😉

Once I dragged myself out of that hole, I made it down to the South Australia wine region for the first time. I know you and Mum loved the times you spent down there and I loved it just as much. Had a fantastic four days with three of my best friends, drank loads of wine – you taught me how to do that! – and loved myself sick! I even managed to get fit and lose more than 20kg in just under six months last year, Dad. You wouldn’t have known me by the end of it – I hadn’t been that thin for more than a decade!

Just before Christmas last year, GMD came home and we all went over to WA for a couple of weeks. Spent more time revisiting old haunts – our schools, our suburb, our old house is literally exactly the same! It’s a rental now and I don’t think they’ve actually done anything to it since we moved out! We saw a whole bunch of other places too, places we’d never seen while we were living over there. Mum still loves Fremantle. If it wasn’t so far away from the rest of the country I’m almost convinced she’d still love to live there!

I’ve been looking after Mum for you as best I can, Dad. “Looking after” is probably a slightly weird, patronising term to use but then I’ve felt this slightly weird paternal thing where Mum’s concerned ever since you’ve been gone. She took a long time to adjust to you not being around. She didn’t like it at all to begin with; to be fair, she still doesn’t speak to highly of the whole arrangement. You were supposed to go after her, remember? Not sure how you missed the constant reminders of that – she’d been telling you, in no uncertain terms, for as long as I can remember! At any rate, you’d be so proud of her for everything she’s achieved. She bought a new car. She eventually worked out how to use the email and the internet – well… sort of! She manages the household finances now too – your mantle has indeed been taken! And she’s now more than confident about going in to bat and standing up for the her rights and the rights of everyone in the complex with that tedious battle over the building cracks, the dodgy driveway and the rusting underground pipes. Yeah I know, I can hear you now… I can’t believe all that shit is still going on either! Se even got through Uncle B dying suddenly of a massive stroke 18 months ago – you know how much she relied on her brother being around. After you went, he was the main man in her life. I thought she was going to fall apart when that happened, but she didn’t, not really. She kept herself going. She’s doing so well – you’d be so proud of her, Dad, just like I am. I probably don’t get up to see her as much as I should, but I go as regularly as I can and I make sure she gets a ‘To Do’ list ready for me every time, just so I can get some of the things she can’t manage any more done for her. I know she loves it when I’m up there and I try to spend as much quality time with her as possible while I’m there. Even if it’s just taking her to the club or having dinner and a few drinks at home, she loves it – and you’re never long out of the conversation, either! If your ears have been burning, that’s possibly why. Actually a lot of people still regularly talk about you. You made quite the lasting impact, it seems 🙂

GMD’s still overseas, of course. I think Mum’s finally reconciled to the fact that he’s never moving back to Australia, which I’m pretty sure she’s known for years. I’m convinced you accepted it a long time ago. He does his best to support Mum in whatever small ways he can but, let’s face it, there’s only so much you can do from 17,000km away and it’s always going to be fairly limited when a few texts and a weekly video chat on Skype is about the sum of it. His is more of an emotional support for Mum, I suppose. She gets as much from her Skype chats with him as she does from me being in the house with her, so that’s what counts.

Oh yeah, something I just remembered I have to tell you – you’d be so proud of Lee Sales! Remember how you always sat up late (generally just to fall asleep in your chair anyway) to watch the wonderful Lee Sales hosting “Lateline”? Well you’ll be pleased to know she’s moved up the food chain now – she’s the host of “The 7:30 Report” now! Of course the ABC, being concerned with taxpayer funding, went on an efficiency drive with the name of Lee Sales’ new vehicle of choice, so it’s just called “7:30” now… but you’d be so proud of her, Dad. I know you’d be glued to ABC1 every night at 7:30 if you could, just like you used to do with “Lateline”.

So, my birthday…. I’m getting old, Dad! 40 next birthday – can you believe that?! How did I get to be this old? I’m going back to Las Vegas for my 40th – “Matt’s ‘BIG 4-0’ Month Of Me Celebration”, that’s what I’m calling it. Sounds totally self-indulgent, I know, but you know me Dad – it’s all tongue-in-cheek. I wish you were gonna be there with us. You’d think it was all a frivolous waste of money, but I know deep down inside that you’d love it over there!

I’m looking at your picture now, Dad – you know that photo of you in the cheesy red Christmas t-shirt and the green Santa cap, sitting at the kitchen table? I look at it practically every day and right now I can feel you looking right back at me. I can smell you. I can hear your big, booming voice calling out to me, that over-enthusiastic greeting you always offered every time you saw me – “hullo dare, me’boy!” – before planting a big squelchy Dad-kiss on my cheek with your funny old squishy lips. Always used to be my forehead, remember? I think I was all of about 14 by the time I got too tall for you to reach my forehead any more, so the squelchy Dad-kisses were relocated to the cheek!

You remember that day we were sitting in the courtyard, just you and me, at the back table? What was it, two weeks before you died? Maybe only one? I asked you if your affairs were all in order. It was the hardest question I’d ever had to ask anyone in my life. I never wanted to have that conversation with you, but there it was. There was so much more I wanted to say that day. And when we were sitting out on the chairs near the front door the next day. I wanted to tell you how much I loved you and how much I valued every single thing you’d ever sacrificed for me and every single thing you’d ever done for me… but every time I went to say the words, the lump in my throat came back and the tears welled up and I didn’t want to cry. I didn’t want to fall apart in front of you, I wanted to stay strong – for you, not for me or for anyone else, but for you. Coz, let’s face it, you had the shit end of the deal, well and truly. It wasn’t my place to make you acknowledge my pain when you were sitting there with less than a week to live and knowing there wasn’t a damn thing you could do about it. So we just sat there and looked at the sky, soaked up the sun and said virtually nothing. The situation notwithstanding, those were among the most wonderful moments of my entire life.

So I guess the upshot of this letter is that I miss you Dad, so much more than you can know. Despite my love of the English language, mere words couldn’t possibly do justice to how very much I miss you. Other than during the earliest years of my life when I actually was one, I don’t think I’ve ever felt more like a helpless child than I did when I woke up the morning after you died. It was scary. Really scary. I had no real idea what to do, no clue what was meant to happen. I didn’t know what to look for, what I needed to find, where to go, what to do first. You’d always been there for me. For nearly 35 years you were the one I came to for advice, for help, to tell me stuff I didn’t know about coz you always seemed to know about everything in the whole world, or to rightly admonish me when I knew I’d done wrong. You copped that >$600 phone bill I racked up by calling all those American car companies and the Doctor Who office in London back in ’89. You graciously held both your tongue and your temper when you realised, at my 21st birthday party, that some of my friends had opened the bottle of port you’d been given the night I was born, only to push it aside without enjoying a single drop because they thought it was “horrible”. I lost count of the number of times you let me in the front door when I was too drunk to get the key in the lock. You helped me move out of home, then back into it, at least three times. You rescued me from a car accident at 2 o’clock one Sunday morning. You bailed me out as I lurched from one self-created financial mess to the another on more occasions that I care to recall. You always knew the answers to my questions and always knew what I should do… so what the hell was I supposed to do without you?

But guess what, Dad? Somehow it happened. There’s a school of thought that says every first-born, regardless of age, feels orphaned when they first experience the death of a parent; every child, however grown up, reverts to a child-like psychological state. However ‘adult’ you might feel, you never actually grow up until you lose a parent. It might’ve taken you nearly 35 years to get me across the line, Dad, but I finally got there. I finally did it. I doubt I’ll ever truly grow up and I daresay you never expected me to either, but for what it’s worth I’m pretty sure I kinda have… sort of. I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t mostly thanks to you, Dad.

Five days after you went away, there was a whole bunch of people in that church you used to go to every week – hundreds of people, all there to farewell you, old boy. And you know what I told them? Exactly what I just said back there. I said to them As I grew older, progressed in my career and moved into people management roles of my own, I strived to become like my Dad. He’d always been so loved by his staff and I wanted to be like him. To some extent, I think I succeeded. Even though he could never teach me how to effectively manage my finances, at least he knew that his influence when it came to effectively managing people had rubbed off and would never leave me. At the end of the day, if my only claim to fame is that I’m the man I am today because of my Dad, then I couldn’t be happier or more proud.”

I love you, old man. I miss you.

M xxx