As I’m writing it in October, perhaps this editorial should have a Halloween theme. Then again, it will still be up in November, by when it would look hopelessly irrelevant. Having said that, I will be addressing some truly horrific subject matter, namely the issue of customer service. Or should I say, customer non-service. ‘Customer service’ is one of those terms that management types like to bandy about – in a world where giant corporations are increasingly indistinguishable in terms of the products and services they offer, ‘customer service’ levels are seen as another marketing tool with which to entice customers. It’s even infecting the public sector, which is becoming increasingly obsessed with the mantra of ‘customer service’. Unfortunately, it is all bollocks. When you actually contact the customer service departments of any of these big corporations, you quickly find that the last thing they want to do is solve whatever problem you might be having with their services. Their first line of defence is to try and establish that the problem somehow lies with you – it’s your equipment which is faulty, or you’ve abused their equipment/services in some way. Obviously, they don’t want to admit that they could be at fault – that could leave them liable. Not solving your problem is simply a logical extension of this tactic – if they fix it, then they’re admitting that there was a problem, which obviously there couldn’t have been, as their services/equipment never break down. If you’ve ever had the misfortune to call up customer services at one of these conglomerates, they employ a variety of strategies to try and avoid actually addressing your problems. Inevitably, the first hurdle you have to negotiate is that menu, where an pre-recorded voice gives you a series of options: “If you are having your scrotum fondled by a defrocked Catholic priest, press button one; if you are having your butt cheeks spread by a convicted sex offender, press two; if you are already being shagged up the arse by an assailant, press three; for all other types of sexual assault, press four.” Pressing any of these buttons will inevitably draw you into yet another series of options: “Thank you for reporting your bum shagging, if your assailant is using lubrication, press one; if they are wearing a condom, press two…” Eventually, if you don’t simply give up, or find yourself back at the beginning of the options process, your persistence will be rewarded by being told: “All our operators are busy right now, please hold the line until one becomes available”.
Having, in recent months, had to deal with the so-called ‘customer service’ departments of both NTL-Telewest T/A Virginmedia and British Telecom (BT), I feel that I’ve become something of an expert on the strategies you will encounter if you finally do get connected to real live customer services operative. The most important thing to remember is that just because you’ve reached a human being, your ordeal is nearly over. On the contrary, it is only just beginning. With NTL-Telewest T/A Virginmedia, if you are trying to resolve a problem with your broadband, you find yourself confronted by the Indian call centre, who don’t listen to word you are saying, instead asking you if you’ve tried switching your modem off and back on again. If this doesn’t work, they’ll insist that an engineer needs to come out and check the (non-faulty) modem and (non-faulty) internal cabling in your house. Of course, one isn’t available for at least two weeks and they can’t give you an appointment time, so you have to take a day off work on the off-chance they turn up. Deeming this state of affairs unacceptable, I then spent the next three days attempting to navigate my way through further call centres in search of someone in the UK prepared to take my complaint seriously. The first hurdle to overcome, of course, is that bloody Indian call centre, where they don’t actually engage with the customer, they just read stock questions and answers from their work cards. Personally, I found the best response to this is to reply to each of their scripted utterances by simply reading a sentence from my work Health and Safety guidelines: “Have you tried switching it off and back on again?”, “Protective clothing should be worn in all areas where contact with effluent, medical waste and chemical spillage is likely”; “Are the lights on the modem flashing?”, “Penetration of the skin with sharp blades is potentially dangerous and should be avoided under all circumstances”. Having got past the offshore operatives, I found myself facing the ‘bad cop, good cop’ act from the UK end of customer service. The ‘bad cop’ was a rude and confrontational operator who basically tried to convince me that the problems I was having were all my own fault and that I was being entirely unreasonable in expecting NTL-Telewest T/A Virginmedia to provide any kind of service for its customers. When I asked to speak to his supervisor, I was transferred first to the installations department, then back to the Indian call centre, before being cut off. When I rang again, I managed to get through to the ‘good cop’, who actually got me in touch with the engineering department and arranged for an engineer to call the next day.
I got my broadband fixed, but at the cost of increased blood pressure and hours of my life wasted on the phone. However, this was nothing compared to the ordeal I had to endure when I subsequently tried to switch my phone line back to BT. Basically, BT failed to connect me on the day they told me they would, leaving me with no phone. Consequently, every day I’d stand in a filthy phonebox, which reeked of stale urine (the steel casing of the payphone apparatus had rusted where it had been pissed on so many times) for at least half an hour whilst I was passed from department to department before finally being told that there was a fault at the exchange, but that engineers were working on it and that my line would be live by 6pm. Of course, it never was. After five days of this I finally lost my temper when I was told that BT’s engineers knocked off at 4pm, so as I was phoning them (for the third time that day) after 5pm, there was nothing they could do. “I’m not an engineer, I’m customer service, what do you expect me to do?” wailed the operative. Provide me, a customer, with the service I was promised five days ago, perhaps? She also said that if I gave her a contact number, somebody would call me back tomorrow. I exploded, pointing out that if they connected my fucking phone they could call me any time they liked, but until then I had no contact number. Two days later I finally got someone to admit that they needed to send an engineer to my house. In fact, they’d known this for seven days, but as I didn’t have a contact number, they couldn’t arrange an appointment. Obviously, it was all my fault for not having a second phone line or a mobile. The fact that I’d been calling them on a payphone up to three times a day for a week didn’t count. I had to wait until the weekend for the engineer. Eleven days after the date specified, my phone was connected. I have no doubt that BT customer service really don’t give a toss about the customer. Their entire strategy is to get you off the line – even if it is only until the next day. They’ll pass you from operative to operative in the hope you’ll give up, if that fails, they’ll just lie to get rid of you. This is where the public sector is going wrong with its approach to customer service – treating even simple letters of enquiry as ‘complaints’ and instigating complex ‘complaints procedures’, which tie up huge amounts of staff and resources, which could be better deployed providing, well, public services. They really need to take a leaf out of the private sector’s book here: fuck the customer! Just shred those letters and fob them off with a stock reply telling them that it’s all their own fault. Anyway, I’ve rambled on far too long. Until the next time – keep it sleazy!