"Hello you're through to the unhelpful desk. How can I annoy you today?"
It might excusably have slipped your attention but we're apparently in the grip of a technological revolution. Mr Blair has told us that we in the UK are going to be at the heart of the European digital economy and that Broadband Britain will be a fine and mighty place in which to surf.
Which is all fine and dandy except that with New Labour predictability the fine words don't extend much beyond the next soundbite and Broadband Britain is as much in evidence as a working NHS, improved transport, efficient education, the repeal of Clause 28 and on and on and on. (Fear not Blairites, we'll have a pop at the Tories later on...)
The most recent shocking statistics on the true state of Broadband Britain reveal that although 60 per cent of us live within the reach of a broadband enabled telephone exchange, just over one per cent of us have decided to invest in hitting the fast lane of what once so quaintly was referred to in hushed tones as the information superhighway. Here in the UK, we're happy pottering along in the slow lane it seems.
For those of us who have taken the plunge though, what's it like? Well, as one who was wired up last year, I can tell you it's pretty fab when it works. When it doesn't work, it's pretty awful, largely because the support infrastructure is so dire. The results of a Motive Communications survey this week confirms that this is not just my problem. Appalling levels of customer service are inhibiting what little progress there is towards us becoming a digital economy.
One of the problems I face most regularly is when my "24x7, always on" connection decides it's actually going to be "mostly off". Upon calling the help desk, you immediately enter into a terrifying world of intertwined divisions within BT that make picking your way through a maze seem like a doddle. It's a legacy of the Thatcher administration - see, political balance! - which turned BT from a state monopoly into a private one in all but name. This means BT owns the overwhelming majority of the underlying network infrastructure in the UK.
Oftel has made the company open up that network to the ISPs who actually provide the broadband service you access, but those ISPs largely still have to deal with BT's Wholesale arm. BT's Wholesale operation holds the people who actually provide your physical connection to broadband, but BT also has its own ISP arm in BTOpenworld, who compete with AOL and Freeserve et al.
The problem that therefore ensues is that if, like me, you call the BT Openworld helpdesk and it becomes apparent that the problem is with the actual line, then the person on the helpdesk goes into a bureaucratic tail-spin. Because BT cannot be seen to be favouring Openworld over other ISPs, different divisions of the same company are not allowed to contact one another except by specific procedures which translates to slowly. (By the way, anyone else think it's ironic that BT Openworld as an internet service does not allow online customer complaints? You have to write to them via snail mail.).
So you get the typical scenario of HelpDesk Person telling you as customer that he/she can't help you. "I'm part of BT Head In The Sand. I need to write to BT Head In The Clouds and they'll get back to you directly. How long will that take? Oh, about two weeks, sir. Yes, I know it's the high speed internet age, but it will take that long. Well, we can't talk to them you see, we have to email them and wait until they get back in touch with us.
'Call them direct sir? No, I'm sorry I can't give you the telephone number of BT Head In The Clouds, I'm not permitted to do that. No sir, I'm sorry, I can't pass on that information. Actually we don't know what the number of BT Head In The Clouds is. Yes I know we're all part of the same company, but I'm not allowed to know that information, sir." It's like something out of Alice in Wonderland.
Mind you, when my BT broadband connection was first installed it failed almost every day for almost a month. Not that you'd have known that from my customer record which mysteriously failed to note that I had called at all on most of the occasions. Curious....
Of course it's not just BT. Let's not even get started on NTL or NT-Hell as several people I know habitually refer to it. One colleague of mine turns a curious shade of crimson whenever NTL is mentioned, which really can't be good for blood pressure.
But then so many technology helpdesks seem to look for the first chance to tell you they can't help. I recently installed OS/X on my iMac, but ran into problems connecting it to my modem. Calling up the Apple help desk for which I pay for three years extended support to ask a simple question about how to add a modem to the Finder, I'm dismissed at once because I have a broadband modem linked to my computer rather than using the internal Apple one.
I manage to splutter out that my question is about OS/X. not the modem, but no, the 'get out of answering' card has been played and I'm left to figure it out myself. As I do so, it occurs to me that I've never yet called the Apple helpdesk and had anyone answer a question. So money well spent on that extended support in this case...
This state of affairs has got to stop. The pathetic progress towards Broadband Britain can be blamed on many guilty parties, but we can at least put a stop to customer service desks adding to the problem. I personally find playing the "I'm a journalist, put me through to your press office" quite effective, but that's not really an option open to many of you. But you can insist on talking to the most senior person, especially if that person's busy and has to drop what he or she is doing to attend to you. And if you don't get what you want, just keep going further up the totem pole. If anyone refuses to put you through to their superior, get their name and report them. Remember these people are being paid to sort out your problems, not to fob you off with excuses.
We're too ready in the UK to put up with having the buck passed. In the US, they're far happier to make a fuss. Let's start a campaign here and now. All CRM Forum subscribers should pledge that when faced with unhelpful help desks to create the maximum amount of fuss until you get some kind of satisfactory resolution that suits you, not just a blandishment that gets the vendor off the hook.
In the meantime, have you had a bad experience with a technology vendor's help/support desk? Let us know who it was and what the nature of the problem was. It's time to name and shame.
Motive’s study into broadband customer service can be found here:
Poor UK customer service holds back Broadband Britain