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Customer service, version 3
Categories: Life

With regard to the modern customer service function in the developed world, I have a theory. I witness a peculiarity that, whilst the capability of a company to deliver excellent service is directly proportional to its size, its willingness to deliver the same is largely inversely proportional. That is to say that, the larger an organisation gets, the more likely it is to put mechanisms in place to prevent the customer from obtaining a satisfactory outcome. I have a splendid example to support my thesis: my patience has been sorely tested by the “customer service” processes at 3 UK, who have thus far been awkward, argumentative, legalistic and obstructive at every turn.

I’m a long standing customer of four years or so, spend £25-£30 per month, am well out of contract, and run a battered old Sony Ericsson that refuses to give up the electronic ghost. A friend had suggested that I could sign up to a new contract, get a whizzy-bang Android widget, and save money into the bargain. Since I’ll not ever be without a mobile, this didn’t seem too arduous, so I ‘phoned 3 customer services and asked about my upgrade options.

They suggested a two year contract, for £13 per month, on a pretty basic Samsung Galaxy Europa. It sounded good to me, so I popped down to my local store to see if it was any good. I showed them my old phone, explained that it was due for replacement, and checked that I could port my old number over. Yes, they said; just ring customer services, and they’ll sort it out for you. Smashing, says I – and I signed up on the spot.

So imagine my surprise when I ring Customer Services the following day to port my number, only to find that the contract the store had put in front of me was a new contract and not an upgrade contract. Thus, I am now assured, I must jump through a number of hoops: cancel the old contract with a month’s wait, convert it to Pay-As-You-Go, and only then will I be able to port my old number. But, “don’t worry,” they said, “just go to the store in question, and they will help you out”. So I popped to the store, where a gentleman told me that I would “probably not” be charged for the first month on the new contract, but that otherwise there was nothing he could (or would) do, other than recommend I get on the telephone again.

So, I gamely called Customer Services, where a chap called Varun quickly became difficult and argumentative, and with various on-holds and speak-to-my-managers, managed to waste over an an hour of our mutual time. He was sure that if the store had assured me I’d not be billed for the first month, that this was the case, but was unwilling to actually check until pressed into doing so. It took him a good twenty minutes to agree that, if I had correctly been given an upgrade, that I would be charged less than I am now due for, and it similarly took some persuasion for him to agree the store may have made a mistake. The icing on the cake was that, since “I had signed a contract”, any complaints about the process automatically did not merit a complaint, and I had to push for some ten minutes before he would even raise one. Interestingly, it became quite clear that the operator terminals are specifically designed to prevent certain kinds of complaint from even being recorded.

Thus, I now have a complaint pending. In the meantime, since it would be good to get the immediate problem resolved, and on the advice of the angry man in India, I spoke to the store again – where I felt I might get some sympathetic help. Sadly this was not to pass; although I had explained prior to signing that I wanted to “replace my old phone” and “transfer my old number” as “an existing Three customer”, the store now maintains that the new phone “could have been for someone else” and refuses to take corrective action. They could, of course, simply transfer my old number and cancel the old one immediately as an act of goodwill, and all would be rosy. But there is, I am assured, nothing they can do. I couldn’t quite tell whether the store manager was being deliberately obstructive, or simply wasn’t empowered to be able to usefully help, and so became defensive as a desperate last recourse.

As might have been expected, the suggestion that I won’t be billed for my first month on the new contract was nonsense plucked from thin air. Why, just this very moment, I’ve received a cheery text on the new phone that my “new ebill is ready to view”. Great! So I am expected to maintain two contracts for a month, entirely redundantly. The infuriating thing is that 3 will spend a great deal more money defending their claim to that precious month of subscriptions than they would lose in delivering some genuine service that would keep their customer happy.

Today, in a defeated mood, I called Customer Services (ha!) again, and this time asked for my old number to be ported to Pay-As-You-Go (another 45 minutes). The assistant tried to talk me out of it, as “you’ll lose all your previous good customer history”, so I gave him the potted history of the complaint, and he contacted the Complaints Department to get their view, who – it seems – are sticking to their guns. At this juncture, my helper – in a astonishingly crass example of up-selling that’d have embarrassed Thatcher –  suggested I find “a family member” to whom the new contract might be transferred (my response was rather robust).

Since I’m not entirely convinced that my customer history has given me much beyond price rises and additional charges (the “valuable customer” upgrade deal was exactly the same as the store offering), I am not sure I’ve lost much. I’ve therefore transferred the old number to PAYG – from what I can tell, I can still port the old number if I choose to.

So, I join the thousands of others who are dissatisfied with this hopeless shower of jugglers. As I’ve remarked on this blog before, there is something about the Fordian fracturing of corporate roles that has disempowered thousands of decent working people and converted them into armies of burnt-out, pressure-tactic clones, wrapped up in as many race-to-the-bottom labour migration exercises as the UK public will tolerate. It is legalistic and frustrating, even when caught out on potential contract mis-selling. I’m installing this article as Google bait, even though I’m not much of the view that any of 3’s competitors are significantly better. As ever in this increasingly nasty game, caveat emptor.


19 June: found contact details for the Executive Office on the web. Emailed complaint details, with the URL of this article, but received an automated bounce (or a cut-n-paste fobbing off – not sure). I’ve replied to that, and received an identical response, so am now trying support from Twitter, which might actually be getting somewhere. Failing that, of course I have Citizens Advice and Trading Standards still to go!

26 June: phew, fixed it. Signing up for Twitter and tweeting this post got the attention of UK-based customer service staff, who sorted the problem within a day or so. I wonder why their staff in India are not similarly empowered?

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