Telecoms through the looking glass: bad deals, bad data, bad customer service

This is the story of customer disconnect in more than one way. The service provider in question (names withheld to spare the blushes of the guilty party) had no need to lose a loyal SoHo customer, other than through their own incompetence. It is the true tale of poorly-designed processes, bad data, badly trained CSRs, poorly thought-through pricing strategies and a complete lack of commonsense. Service providers are gearing up to spending millions on TV ads for aspirational services, but it’s clear that many still haven’t sorted out the basics.
Contributed by Ashley Bowen
Our ‘loyalty’ is still being abused
So, I’m lazy! I hadn’t been checking the price of my broadband package until it came up over dinner with friends one day. But then I started doing my homework.
I looked at a number of different suppliers and found that while their prices were very similar, they were very different to what I was currently paying. The ‘pack price’ averaged £25 per month for what I needed – 30 or 40Mbit/s broadband plus a landline phone. In contrast, my existing provider was charging me just over £60.
Every supplier made it clear that these were introductory offers and that prices would increase after a year to a ‘pack price’ of about £35, which is still considerably less than what I was currently paying. This included my current supplier!
I phoned my current supplier but was told that they could only reduce the price if I removed my landline phone, but only then by a small amount. If I chose to keep it, there was nothing they could do. An hour later I had signed up with a new supplier. My ‘loyalty’ was not only worth less than nothing, it had been abused.
A tale of poor data and even worse customer service
My new supplier said they would look after all aspects of the swap, including informing my current supplier of the change.
The following day I got a call from my previous supplier, as if nothing had happened. As I had been such a good customer for many years, they said, they would review my account to see if there were any ways they could improve my package. [Editor: oh the irony.]
I informed the CSR that I had terminated my contract with them. She apologised and said that she could see that I had terminated my landline, but she may still be able to give me a discount on my broadband. I told her the information she had was inaccurate: I had terminated the entire contract.
Two days later, I was enjoying a sunny barbeque in somebody else’s back garden. My phone rang – it was my previous supplier again. “Password please,” was the first thing the CSR said. “I’m sorry, I don’t have it on me,” I replied. “Well how do you think I can help you if you can’t give me your password?” she replied.
Even banks are better at customer service
I started getting calls from a number in the Cape Verde Islands. After a while I listened to one of the voicemails and it sounded like a professional person with a UK accent. The next day I took one of the calls.
The caller said he was from my bank and he asked me for my password. I said I was hesitant to do so as he was calling from Cape Verde.
The caller apologised and replied that they had had this problem before, as many smartphones identified the Solent area (UK) dial code as Cape Verde. [Editor: another telecoms-related problem.] He said I was right to be cautious and asked if I would phone the number on the back of my bank card. He would leave a note on my account to confirm who he was. I did as he asked. His ID was confirmed and I was happy when he next called. This was an entirely different class of customer service to what I had received from my telecoms service provider.
If the data is so bad, can we trust them?
A few days later, my wife suggested I check that my supplier knew I was terminating all aspects of my service with them. In a very terse manner, the CSR said they had received no such request and I would be charged for a full 30 days from today’s date. I said that my new supplier was supposed to have informed them, which she emphatically denied. She said she couldn’t handle my request and would put me through to the appropriate department. I stayed on the line, ready for battle!
The new CSR was extremely pleasant. She reassured me that they had been informed of my disconnect request and the date coincided with the date I had from my new supplier.
On the day of the switch everything went smoothly.
Two weeks later I started receiving calls from an unknown ‘0800’ number. Google told me it was probably the Collections Department of my previous service provider. When I answered the call, the CSR asked me if I was the account holder. I said I was no longer a customer. He was happy with my response, didn’t question it and we finished the call. To date, I have not received any more calls.
Learning points – if only anyone will listen
My disconnect journey raises a number of points.

  1. Customers should not have to monitor their pricing to ensure they have the best possible deal. The best pricing should not be a reward of churning. The current push by consumer organisations to highlight this practice is welcome.
  2. Despite this practice, I was willing to renegotiate with them but their processes were too restrictive to do so, resulting in an unnecessary customer loss. The economic logic of this makes little sense.
  3. On more than one occasion in my disconnect journey, I encountered CSRs who were not in possession of accurate and up-to-date information. Realtime integration across the whole business is obviously not in place despite all the boasts around digital experience and 5G services. Realtime integration is complex and costly, but not having it is also costly to the business.
  4. The quality of customer service was extremely variable. Employing good people, with the correct training and access to uniform and sufficient levels of information is also costly. However, I suspect low-cost, quick wins have not all been mined out by the technology companies (eg outbound calling lists).
  5. The practice of calling a customer and immediately asking for their password is questionable. Firstly, people do not always remember their passwords. Secondly, how does the consumer know that the caller is actually who they say they are? Being asked for a password over the phone always leaves me feeling very uneasy.
  6. The collections department would seem to be making (according to my Google search) a large number of outbound calls to non-customers. What is this costing them? Surely a better quality outbound calling list could save them money?

None of the issues I’ve raised are new. They’ve been around for an awfully long time. But after millions of pounds and thousands of words have been lavished on customer experience, little seems to have changed.
About the author: Ashley Bowen spent many years implementing customer service and billing infrastructure for communications operators around the world. He is now a founding member of the Brighton Community IoT project, implementing free-to-use IoT services across the city with a view to increasing local awareness and, importantly, increasing local skill sets.