Great and Dreadful Customer Service: same company, same day

I don’t usually rant about the everyday frustrations of life in a modern urban democracy. After all, people are being paid a lot of money to do that in the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and other public organs. But yesterday convinced me that I should make an exception.

One of the things I really, really care about is good customer service. It affects most of my buying decisions. For anything involving a relationship – like utilities, agents or repair men – I’d rather pay a little more and know I’ll get a reliable service than cut corners and feel unsure that I can trust the company. My insurers haven’t changed in over a decade because whenever I call on them, they do what they promised to do when we signed the contract, and they make sure I know exactly what’s happening and when.

We’re changing our broadband supplier. The main reason we’re changing is poor customer service and inaccurate information. Unfortunately we seem to be in the same situation again.

For those with no time to read a saga, these are my six most important principles of customer service. Read them and move on. For those with time to spare, get a coffee now: this could take a while.

Six Simple Principles of Customer Service

1) Design in customer service at every stage of your operation. If you change anything, ask “How will this impact the customer?” Test your systems, because your customers will.

2) Hire the very best customer service team you can find – not people who just read the script perkily, but people who will listen to the customer, find out what’s wrong and offer a way forward. Pay them what they’re worth, which is always more than they actually get paid. When management, tech and logistics mess up, these are the people who will retrieve your company’s good name from the gutter.

3) Monitor their feedback and customer feedback regularly – weekly is good. A quick meeting to identify trends in customer experience and resolve any recurring issues can save time, money and reputation.

4) Choose your suppliers on the basis of their attitude to customer service. If price is an issue, consider what a lost customer costs you to get back, let alone all the people they’ll tell about your company.

5) Keep your customers informed at every stage of the process. Don’t wait for them to contact you, and never, ever leave them with nowhere to go for help.

6) At all times, and above all else, be honest. If your organisation has fouled up anywhere along the line, never, ever, ever allow your staff to lie about it. Just say sorry and offer a way forward.

The Saga: or, how one company drove a truck through most of these principles 

We did a lot of research into broadband providers, and for the service we wanted, it came down to Virgin or BT. Quite a few people whose opinions we respect had good things to say about both; one or two had negative views. In the end, we decided to go with BT.

Initial contacts were a little disturbing. First, BT told us it would take almost six weeks to switch over our phone line and get an engineer to us to connect the broadband service. They said this was down to our existing provider. Our existing provider said not: in any event, we were assured we had the first available appointment.

BT were very prompt in sending detailed documentation about our new contract and appointment – full marks there. Unfortunately the information they sent said that installation would be carried out at an address in the North of England. Weirdly enough, the address they cited is just across the street from the house where I was born, but it’s definitely too far to go every time I want to use the computer. Still, they provided a contact number, so that was sorted out with a couple of phone calls.

Installation was set for 3 December between 8 and 1 p.m.. Over the weekend, I had an email and a text confirming this and letting me know what the engineer would need us to do – basically, move stuff so he could install the connection and make sure it was near a power point to plug in the hub. Good work there.

At 7 a.m. on Monday we moved everything that needed moving. Dearly beloved went off to work. About 9.30 I lost the phone line and email connection, but I’d expected that. About 11.30 and again around 12 I called the contact number on my mobile to check the engineer’s progress and got an automated reply that he was still scheduled to visit before 1 p.m..

Sometime after 12 the phone line was reconnected. At 12.55 I called the contact number again and this time managed to navigate the automated line to speak to a human being. She listened to the problem, and put me on hold while she contacted the engineer. She told me that the engineer had been delayed but had assured her that he would be with me about 3 p.m., or no later than 3.30. I expressed concern as I had been told the work would take up to four hours, but she assured me that it would take about half an hour at most because the engineer has tested my line and did not need to install a new one. It would just be a case of installing the hub inside the house.

You already know how this ends, right? Right. 24 hours on, I still don’t have my BT broadband connection. But why I don’t have it, and why I haven’t run rampant in rage and attacked the nearest BT junction box despite this, is an object lesson in great and dreadful customer service.

I phoned the automated helpline I’d used before – the only contact number BT provided – twice more just before 3.30. Each time, the automated pathway took me to an automated message which said that our broadband was not going to be connected today and they’d be in touch: and said it, moreover, in a perky yet sympathetic feminine voice obviously tested and tried to defuse customer rage. This effort was set at naught by the fact that said voice then hung up on the customer without providing any option to speak to someone or find out more.

Hello BT: your autovox hanging up on the customer is exactly the same as a member of staff hanging up on the customer, having said “We’re not going to do what we promised and we’ll get back to you when we’re ready.”

Being, by this stage, both angry and unreasonable, I punched different buttons on the autocall next time – lying by automation that I had a query about my bill. I got through to a very helpful man in the BIlling department. He listened to my problem, took the time to find out who could help me, then put me through.

This is where the chainsaw metal soundtrack of my day changed to angelic chorus. Maria of BT’s open orders team is exactly the kind of person you hope to encounter whenever you dial a number to tell a company about a problem. She listened to me, she took time to check what had happened, she apologised, she offered a way forward. She was thoroughly professional and completely focussed on making things work for me. She set me up with free BT Fon wireless access so that I can get online while waiting for my broadband, apologised that she couldn’t make an appointment for today, checked my availability and contact details, and said the appointments bookers would contact me with an appointment for Wednesday or Thursday. She also said she would refer my problem to the escalations team.

So far, so much better. One intelligent employee has defused my rage, given me a solution and almost transformed my view of her company.

Why only almost? Because there’s a paradox in the way BT have set up their logistics that made my experience almost inevitable. (And I still haven’t had that call making a new appointment, or heard from the escalations team.)

The BT Paradox

In order to transfer service from one provider to another, the existing service must be disconnected and the new one reconnected. Since this is a statement of the obvious, one would imagine that it is taken into account in planning the service transfer process. But it isn’t, or so it would appear.

Obviously, this transfer can’t be simultaneous. So many changes are happening in the course of an hour that I imagine delays of an hour or two are normal. I wasn’t annoyed or surprised to be without a phone service for a couple of hours yesterday.

However, it appears that if there is no active phone connection when a BT engineer scheduled for an installation tests the line,  the engineer cancels the job there and then, and a new appointment is made. This is their normal procedure.

Consequences of the BT Paradox

This would suggest that many installations cannot be carried out on the day for which they are scheduled. It’s down to chance whether or not your new BT line has been connected when the engineer scheduled to install your broadband checks it. Yet BT’s procedure doesn’t include notifying the customer of a cancelled appointment.

Instead, at least in my experience, BT staff spun me a yarn. When I was told that the engineer had promised to keep the appointment yesterday afternoon, my phone line had already been disconnected and reconnected, so the engineer must already have cancelled my appointment. If I’d been told that at the time, I wouldn’t have wasted the afternoon hanging about.

There is a substantial can of worms here, and I suspect something similar can be found in many corporate structures. Staff who do a great job are hampered by colleagues who, for lack of training or effective management or any other reason, don’t. Processes that should work for customers sometimes work against them, but no contingency plans are put in place. The idea of customer service is honoured everywhere, but too often, to too many people, the actual practice is lip service only.

If the way you organise your business means that sometimes customers have to be let down, common sense dictates that you let them know when this happens and have a backup plan in place. The fact that the engineer wasn’t going to come round at 3 or 3.30 yesterday was established by BT’s own processes, yet nobody contacted me to let me know. The phone number I’d been given led to an autoloop that gave me no option to contact anyone and get further information, just suggested I wait patiently for the organisation that had just let me down to contact me in their own good time.

If I hadn’t persisted and spoken to two people who actually cared about their company’s reputation, I might still be waiting for that call to re-make the appointment, with no internet connection. So great work, Maria, and the lovely guy whose name I didn’t get because I was so angry. You two are amazing. You would be an asset to any company. But BT as a whole have not impressed me so far.

And I still haven’t had a call or a text from them to confirm a new appointment. You really wouldn’t think they had any competition at all, would you?

The Moral of the Story

There’s always a moral. It’s usually the same. If you don’t want bad things said about you in a global forum, don’t skimp on customer service. Train your staff, monitor your staff, cherish and reward your staff. Test and re-test your systems and processes and design out every problem you can. Great staff can turn things around, for the customer and for you. It’s just so much easier if they don’t have to because everything works properly in the first place.


6 thoughts on “Great and Dreadful Customer Service: same company, same day

  1. And just as I published this post, there was a knock on the door.. a BT engineer come to find out why my phone line wasn’t working. He was a lovely chap, came in and checked and agreed with me that the line was indeed fully functional. He said he’d send in his report and they’d be in touch to re-arrange an appointment. (So not holding my breath for tomorrow or Thursday.)

  2. I had a far less severe but similarly annoying problem with BT myself not long ago. I’d called to add a service to an existing line and been annoyed when the BT salesperson kept pressuring me to take out BT broadband with it, even after explaining to him that I couldn’t. What made it worse though was that he was so busy trying to sell me something I didn’t want in the first place, he added the wrong service to my line. Cue a similar experience to yours on the date of activation, calling automated lines and working myself up into a fury. Eventually I called sales again (it’s curious how the sales lines are always answered quickly!) and politely but wrathfully explained to the person who picked up what had happened. She sorted it out immediately. A few weeks later, I received one of the standard BT e-mail feedback surveys I usually ignore. I filled it in this time, mentioning the problems and the difference in attitudes between the two members of staff – and magically, a few days later, their manager called me with a formal apology which I hadn’t been expecting at all! It’s sad that they’re still screwing up basic customer service in spite of this process. Good luck getting things up and running!

  3. Thanks! But so far things do not look hopeful. After the engineer called yesterday, nobody got back to me, so about 8.30 I tweeted BTCare and was referred to a webpage to leave yet another outline of the problem and request for information. This is the fifth BT staff member/group I’ve spoken to or contacted directly, and all of them have assured me they will get this sorted out. So today I went online to track the order, only to get an automated page informing me that the order can’t be tracked because it’s been cancelled, possibly by me (in which case, naturally, I would chase it up, right?) or possibly by one of their suppliers. And, yes, you guessed it, they will be in touch.

    Which would be fine except a) BT’s own processes were designed to cancel this order, and b) they don’t get in touch.

  4. And the saga continues… BT left me voicemail this morning offering me a new appointment on or after 17th December. Considering I placed the order on 26th October I think they’re going for some kind of record.

    I tried and failed to get hold of them by phone, so before finally getting on with the work I needed to do, I tweeted BTCare again. This time, though, I also tweeted the Director of BT’s Customer Services and the Minister for Culture, Media and Sport.

    And guess what? About three hours later I got a phone call from a real human being, Maureen, the first time a BT employee has actually called me back. She told me she’s trying to sort out an earlier appointment with the engineers and said she’d phone me back tomorrow with an update.

    On the evidence so far, if I hadn’t emailed the people right at the top, irritated them and wasted their time, BT would have gone on irritating me and wasting my time. I wish I had done it sooner, then I wouldn’t have lost two working days (and counting.) Let’s see what they propose by way of getting the service running and then putting things right.

  5. Broadband installed this morning, 5 days after it was promised. The installation itself was hassle free. I’m a bit peeved that nobody mentioned the BT Home Hub is actually two boxes, one quite a bit bigger than the average paperback. It requires two separate power points to two lots of cables. I now have more wires with wireless broadband than I had with the old setup.

    The staff I’ve dealt with at BT have been, with one exception, absolutely superb. They’ve taken ownership and done their utmost to provide a good service. It’s the systems, and the lack of thought for how they impact on customers, that lets BT down. So many of the decisions and solutions they use seem to have been designed by people who don’t actually need to use the service and thus don’t understand the annoyances and frustrations it generates. Typical of this mode of thought: the first email I had into my new BT inbox was a bill for the service this week. Yes, this week, a week I’ve spent mostly on the phone to them trying to get the installation completed. I calculate they’ve cost me 2 days’ work.

    Still, I’ll wait for them to sort that out through their complaints process. Till then, let’s see how my far-from-wireless broadband functions. I hope BT Infinity is going to live up to the claims for speed and ease made for it, and factored into its pricetag.

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