Welcome To Your Local Telco/ISP: Where Expecting Decent Customer Service = Dreaming The Impossible Dream

MattsOldManRants-ISP-Poor-Customer-ServiceAfter twenty years as a customer of Telcos and Internet Service Providers, the conclusion I’ve tried to avoid for so long is now inescapable: it really doesn’t matter which one you go with – they’re all crap!

Let me start by reiterating something I’ve said on Matt’s Old Man Rants before: I don’t go out of my way looking for poor customer service. I certainly don’t antagonise innocent telephone staff to the point where their only aim is to give me a horrible experience. Having worked in frontline customer service for much of my working life and, latterly, in roles that support those frontline service staff, I know all too well the highs and lows of working in a high-volume customer service environment. Yes, I have expectations of what makes good customer service. They’re not unrealistically high expectations, just expectations of decent, even-handed, consistent service that’s provided in such a way that shows the customer – without whom no organisation could exist – really is their #1 priority. Over time it’s become abundantly clear that my definition of acceptable customer service and the definition used by the majority of ISP and Telco staff couldn’t be any more different.

So recently I had the very great misfortune of needing to contact my ISP. I’ve had loads of hideous experiences with phone and internet providers over the years, so these days I initiate contact with any of them with extreme caution, absolute skepticism and an obsessive need to have everything in writing. But more than anything else, I enter into dialogue with any of them from a baseline of zero positive expectations.

So psychologically scarred am I from previous jousts with Telcos and ISPs that I now expect the whole thing to go pear-shaped before it even starts. I now expect to speak with ten or more different members of staff about the same thing, re-telling the entire story each and every time; my request will go missing or something will go wrong with it; I’ll have to complain about my outstanding issue just to get it resolved; the response to my complaint will be utterly rubbish, so I’ll need to ask the lovely folk at the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman to force a resolution. Going into the situation without any positive expectations makes it far easier to cope with the expected outcome. It’s a kind of twisted logic, borne of years of Telco-inflicted torment, which says that if nothing is what you expect and next-to-nothing is what you get, you can’t be disappointed.

MattsOldManRants-ISP-Poor-Customer-Service3If the many horrendous experiences that have led me to this bleak and jaded place have taught me one thing without a doubt, it’s that contact with one’s Telco or ISP rarely ends in anything but tears or, at very least, significant frustration. Unfortunately, on this recent occasion I had no choice. My connection to the internet had stopped for reasons unknown, so I needed them to work out what was going on and to resolve it. From what started as a technical issue that I was never likely to identify – much less resolve – myself, it transpired that the security of my account may have been compromised, so I was understandably concerned.

Given my position on expectations, with hindsight it was slightly absurd of me to hope for the kind of ownership and accountability that Telcos and ISPs only ever take if they’re forced to. While the immediate issue was resolved by a pleasant-enough tech support guy on one call of not unreasonable duration, both his explanation of what had happened and his general response to my obvious concern were woefully inadequate. I needed more. So after the call I went to their website to provide “feedback”, although it wasn’t really feedback. What I really wanted to do was share my security concerns with them; I wanted a layman’s explanation of how what had happened was even possible; and I wanted to understand any associated security implications. I made my point eloquently and with sufficient – but not excessive – detail, if only to ensure that nobody who read it could misinterpret anything. Or so I believed.

Their auto-generated email response to my feedback said, “We will respond to you shortly (no later than 2 business days)”.

16 days later I wrote to them again. Writing to anyone these days probably seems a bit old-school, but written correspondence is often my weapon of choice against Telcos and ISPs. Over the years I’ve learnt the hard way – I know what they’re really like! There are few sensations quite as satisfying as seeing a Telco convicted by their own words. Hoist by their own petard, if you will… but I digress. As well as providing actual feedback about the many gaping factual errors in their system generated email of 16 days earlier, I also made clear my dissatisfaction with the situation and left them in no doubt about what I’d do next if I hadn’t received a reply by <>. For anything more than the most straightforward transaction, this is almost always the base and confrontational style in which virtually all ISPs and Telcos need to be addressed just for their customers to secure a sub-par level of service. And believe me, sub-par is exactly what I got.

MattsOldManRants-ISP-Poor-Customer-Service2Perhaps unsurprisingly, their response to my passive aggression was in my inbox within seven hours (and in the early hours of a Saturday on a long weekend to boot – anyone would’ve thought the poorly constructed ESL response was sent from an outsourced Contact Centre in the Philippines or somewhere!). I could’ve started that last sentence with “credit where it’s due”, except that it absolutely wasn’t. The response to both my initial enquiry and my follow-up email was, frankly, pretty shit. It offered a token apology for exceeding their guaranteed reply SLA by two weeks, no acknowledgement of anything raised in my follow-up email and a reference to “investigation” in respect of my original concerns. This so-called investigation apparently “did not find anything to indicate any malice intent was made to your account” and they were “confident that this will not happen again”. Note that they didn’t say nothing had happened. In fact their confidence that the same thing wouldn’t happen again virtually confirmed that they’d determined what had happened to start with. All suitably vague and all the more unsatisfactory given that I’d specifically asked for a clear explanation, which was also conspicuous in its absence.

It was this combination of responses that, when wrapped up into one neat package, revealed one thing very clearly: my ISP took the clearly expressed concerns of one of their “much-loved customers” and disregarded them wholly and absolutely. Effectively, they gave me the finger. If I could even be bothered taking the matter further with them, they’d no doubt argue until they were blue in the face that this wasn’t the case. Even if they conceded that the situation had been handled poorly, they’d only dress it up with corporate platitudes and ‘customer experience’ buzzwords, before telling me that they always strive to provide superior customer service and how confident they are that this was a one-off failing, etc., before offering the written equivalent of a grovelling apology. A tad sarcastic, perhaps? Maybe, but I’ve seen it all before.

I finally made the change to this ISP after years of torment and exorbitant prices with one of the majors. Something told me this smaller, more affordable outfit would be better, nicer, easier to deal with and with a real focus on the customer. How wrong I was. It’s rather miraculous that I still had any faith in any ISP at all, but I must have. More fool me. I won’t fall for that three card trick again.

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?