BT and the art of customer service #1

Apologies for the length and confusing nature of this post. Ironically, it is exactly that confusion which illustrates the point I’m making here. I hope.

Well, I certainly didn’t expect to wake up to this on this bright Saturday morning. While I wait for a BT service person to pick up the phone (for a second time), I’ll let you know where things have reached. Came down this morning to a phone bill, of the so-enormous-it-verged-on-the-amusing sum of £1,245.47. When I checked, I found that most of the cost was down to the ISDN line, on which a total of 998 minutes of calls had been made. How could this be, as I was using Surftime Anytime – the fixed-price Internet access package? Only one way to find out, so I called BT on their billing enquires number.

My first contact was with a lady called Kim. Having worked through the various items of security, discussed the problem and apologised for the inconvenience of it, she tried to put me through to the Home Highway division as, she said, the problem was theirs. Unfortunately, after a few rings, an automated voice told me to replace my handset. So much for that.

I called back and this time, after a much longer wait, I spoke to Nadia. We did the security thing again, at which point she put me through to Michelle of the Home Highway division in Sunderland. We had a good chat, during which she checked what number I have been using to accumulate all these costs. It was an 0845 number, she said, so I checked the configuration of my Buffalo ISDN box. Sure enough it was indeed an 0845 number, as she was telling me that that was a lo-call number, not a free-call number. As she spoke I remembered back to the Buffalo box having been reset to its factory defaults a couple of months ago. I had hunted around for the number, finally finding this one – it had worked so I hadn’t thought any more about it. Yes indeed, this could be construed as a mistake on my part. I waited for Michelle to finish, then I explained what I could see. Michelle was very apologetic, she said that she was surprised Tiscali didn’t have a mechanism to catch that sort of thing. However, she said that the issue lay with Tiscali, as BT didn’t do anything other than see Surftime Anytime as a free service. So I thanked her very much and prepared to call Tiscali.

No – it’s not amusing any more, it’s turning into a nightmare. Here’s how I see it. Clearly, at some point, I configured my ISDN device to use the wrong number. Did this therefore mean that this whole situation was my fault? Back to the plot.

I’m now in a queue waiting for Tiscali’s customer service. They also apologise that my call is in a queue. Thank goodness for speakerphones.

Now I’ve spoken to Richard at Tiscali. He said that BT was wrong about it being an 0844 number, as Tiscali used an 0808 number. He said also that Tiscali could not be held liable for what is, in Tiscali’s eyes, a customer mistake. He made the point that the correct behaviour would have been to call up Tiscali and find out what is the right number. He also said that Tiscali had no way of checking whether the right number was being used, and that the only people who could do that were BT. I commented that I had tried to call up Tiscali on several occasions in the past, and all the numbers I tried had failed. Without apology (don’t get me wrong, he was pleasant enough), he said that this was due to Tiscali acquiring a number of companies and the call centres being consolidated as a result. Also, I think he said that Lineone used to use an 0844 number for dial-up rather than 0808. There’s that number thing again. During the course of the call I found the original 0808 dial-up number written on the letter that Tiscali had sent me originally, the one which started “You may already have heard the exciting news that LineOne is now part of Tiscali…” This is also the letter with the incorrect help and support numbers on it, so – I would argue – how could I differentiate any other numbers that I had scribbled on this letter? This was also a memory jogger for me, as I remembered that I had been given the 0808 number over the phone. Is that really considered a sufficient or appropriate mechanism for issuing what is clearly such an important number?

I thanked him and called back BT.

I’ve just spoken to Barry at BT’s Middlesborough office. I hope I’ve spelt that right. He mentioned once again about the 0844 number for freecall (which sounds horribly similar to 0845 to me) and I said to him that that wasn’t the number that Tiscali was quoting. I said, I hope not too glibly, that if BT could get a number wrong, or at least have incorrect information about the right type of number to use, what hope was there for the customer – however I made the point that because the customer made the configuration rather than BT, it would appear to be the customer that was liable rather than BT. He told me the amount of the phone bill was very unusual for a residential customer, and that BT have mechanisms that can monitor line usage but that they are only normally used for new customers and are turned off after 12 months. He did agree that this issue was something that would not have happened if BT had had their monitoring mechanisms in place. I have asked to escalate the issue to a manager, who will be calling me back today or Monday.

There you go – that’s all for now. Sorry about washing all this dirty linen in public. I feel a bit sick, I think it’s the adrenaline.

Back – so soon. I have just spoken to Geoff, the BT manager at Middlesborough. He told me that this was the largest residential phone bill he had seen for a number of years. This rang huge alarm bells, as surely they should have noticed it if it was really this big? We had quite a long chat, during which he said that if Tiscali had referred the situation back to BT, they would have been wrong to do so. The fact of the matter is that this is about liability – Geoff once said “not BT’s responsibility” and once, “BT is not at fault.” I said that between Tiscali and BT, the two companies had failed to provide a sufficiently solid safety net in order to protect the customer and provide a suitable level of service, despite having the mechanisms available to do so. The mechanisms were not used for policy reasons, I was told, at which I commented that therefore the policy was wrong as clearly it did not provide the required safety net.

Geoff is now going to talk to his manager, and they are going to send me a letter in the middle of next week. This will enable me to take the case to Oftel, which I plan to do.

Let’s look at some of the more salient facts.

– The fact that this could happen dependent on a single digit being typed in error – 0844 to 0845
– The fact that BT have mechanisms to watch for this sort of thing, but they were not being used
– The fact that Tiscali did not send a letter, but gave be the number over the phone
– The fact that Tiscali’s customer support numbers are incorrect on the written correspondence I have been sent.

That’s all (again) for now. I am at a loss. I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t about the money, because if it had been only 50 quid, I might have quietly changed my settings and got on with my life. That, maybe, is what a lot of people do, so maybe it’s a good job that that isn’t the situation. We shall see. Ironically, the fact that the configuration change was effected right at the start of a billing cycle might also be seen as somewhat unfortunate. The fact this is one of the largest quarterly residential bills BT have ever seen, makes me want to take it further. Inconsistencies and weaknesses exist all the way down in the process, and yes I entered the incorrect number into my Buffalo box, but the issue seems to fall between the stools of BT and Tiscali, both of which are quite happy to send me to the other. Having worked in network management for over 5 years and having spent 16 years in the IT industry, I’d argue that if I’ve fallen foul of the complexity, it could happen to anyone. I’m decidedly concerned about BT’s inability to implement perfectly reasonable and available mechanisms. Also, the 0845/0844 issue concerns me. Chances are, if I’d configured all this for the first time last month, and this had happened, it would all have been cleared up in a jiffy, but because it was a reconfiguration of a piece of equipment on a 20-month old line, it has not.

The whole liability issue alarms me as well, I think it’s a bit of a sticky wicket considering the legal state of telecoms regulation in the UK at the moment (think Oftel being replaced by Ofcom, and why). As I said to Brian, Michelle, Richard and Barry, if this was about misuse of a credit card and my spending patterns changed suddenly, they would likely have been in touch very quickly. The phrase “appropriate safety nets were not in place to protect the customer” seems to fit quite nicely, at least I think so – I wonder what the rest of the world thinks. I also wonder if the situation is merely a symptom of the fact that BT and Tiscali aren’t able to work together to deliver a single service, or to respond to an issue when it arises.

I will be interested to see what Oftel say about this. I’’ll wait for BT’s letter then take it from there.

BT and the art of customer service #1

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