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Complaint handling with no goodwill - a BT production

9th Jul 2011
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I want to share with you a personal complaint handling hell. I've had my fair share of negative service experiences - and some positive ones - but I'm usually quite capable of getting the issue resolved without needing to find alternative solutions. However, I have recently experienced the worst example. Interestingly, it is the worst example because I had expected much better from the company. I've had very poor complaint responses from a variety of companies but didn't expect much more from those companies (thanks to their reputations). But in this case - despite the problems encountered over a considerable period of time - I was forgiving of the company concerned until very recently. Why? Because, despite at least being listened to and emotionally engaged by frontline complaint handlers, a manager dismissed my complaint, failed to listen and showed no interest in retaining my custom (unfortunately, where I live I have very limited choice of provider....). So, BT, here we go with my complaint handling story from hell...

November 2009

Back in 2009, I noticed that the broadband speed in our house was very low. I actually believed that this was due to the internal wiring we inherited when we purchased the house and so I contacted our telecoms provider, BT, to pay for one of their engineers to visit. The contact centre staff I spoke to just did not want to deal with the issue and wanted me to contact a local private engineer - despite my repeated attempts to explain that I was happy to pay for a BT engineer to visit and put everything right (because I am a home worker and am reliant on a good Internet connection). In the end, they agreed to arrange for a member of their "Residential Services" team to call me back. I waited and waited - but no-one called back.

December 2009

I couldn't find another number to call - so, I went online and completed BT's online complaint form (after using the BT.com website to find out how to complain). I complained about the poor knowledge of the people I was trying to deal with. I was attempting to raise an issue about broadband speed and also wanted an engineer to visit regarding wiring installed by the previous owner of my property.

I received a prompt call back but, rather than trying to address my complaint, the agent could only tell me that he would be referring me to "Residential services" and to await their call. I waited but no-one rang and so I submitted another complaint form.

January 2010

My own investigations using online broadband speed tests suggested that the line I had broadband on (our business line) supported only 0.5mb but our other line (our home line) supported 6mb - therefore, I also questioned why BT failed to advise us about this.

I completed another online complaint form (the only other alternative was to send a letter - and, sorry, but I don't do letters...) but received no response other than the automated acknowledgement.

February 2010

I purchased a new network hub (from BT) to try and improve the broadband speed and also phoned BT to query the difference of the supported broadband speeds across our two phone lines. The contact centre agent advised me to transfer the broadband from my business line (in my home) to the home line - this would not only be an inconvenience because of accounting issues but also because all devices that needed internet access were downstairs. The other problem was that the home line socket was located in our young son's bedroom. But, improving the speed of broadband was important and so I decided to give this solution - the only solution on offer at this time - a try.

I did add to my complaint - and another online complaint form was submitted - because I now thought that I had been paying for low speed broadband when BT had been able to provide us with a much improved broadband speed. I didn't get a response but received a new network hub - for us to install - and the broadband was transferred from the business line to our home line. Our 3 year old son now a 'nice' glowing box in the corner of his room...

Because of the lack of any effective response to our complaints, I contacted the Ombudsman for the UK telecoms industry. The regulatory rules require that a company must issue a deadlock letter or 8 weeks must have passed before they can get involved. They therefore asked BT to respond to our complaint.

At the end of the month, a BT Digital Care agent phoned me and helpfully explained that both of our telephone lines supported 8Mb - there was no difference in the speeds they supported! - but that the business line had a fault that had reduced the speed it could support. Therefore, he helpfully agreed to arrange for an field service engineer to visit us and move the network hub back downstairs free of charge and transfer our broadband service back to the business line. On the same day, he emailed me:

"Dear Michael Hill,
Thank you for your email of the 23rd February regarding your complaint. I am sorry that I have not answered the enquiries correctly or within an acceptable time. Please accept my apology for any inconvenience that this may have caused you. As discussed today I agree that I should have resolved this fault quickly and without any delay, or distress to your self. It should never have taken repeated contacts from our customer's to resolve any issue and can only apologise for that. In our conversation of today I can confirm that the sync rate for your current connection is 8Mb. The ADSL2 service is available at the St Albans exchange and should be available for upgrade on your circuit. I have tried to find the charge for your home hub, and I am unable to access the billing records as I am not in the accounts section. I would like you to find which bill the charge appeared on and I will contact accounts and have that charge waived and added as a credit to your account.
I thank you for the opportunity to discuss and answer your enquiry and should you require any further assistance on this or any other matter please feel free to contact me.
Thank you for contacting the BT Digital Care Team."

I was happy at this point that the complaint appear to be owned by someone now and looked forward to resolution of the ongoing issues.

March 2010

Subsequently, I was left a message to call BT to arrange the agreed visit of an engineer and for the works to be completed.

I had no contact number and emailed them back asking them to call me on my mobile number.

The BT Digital Care team emailed back and I responded immediately to let them know that they could contact me anytime on my mobile. Unfortunately, I did not get a response and so made contact again with the Ombudsman.

May 2010

The process of complaining to the Ombudsman was not without issue. I completed and submitted their online form but the form was returned several times. I didn't understand why until I spoke to one of their call centre agents who identified the problem as being due to their system having a limit of 2500 characters for the details of the complaint. This is not specified on their PDF form although the contact centre agent did tell me "Don't worry it happens all the time.."!

September 2010

After the Ombudsman confirmed that my complaint had been accepted, I were informed that they had a large volume of cases to handle and to expect a delay before their issued a decision.

January 2011

I received the Ombudsman's preliminary findings. They recommended that BT should pay us £50 compensation and arrange for the engineer to visit. However, teh Ombudsman explained that BT had advised that they would never have agreed a free visit and - because the Ombudsman was unable to prove this - I would have to pay for the visit.

I wrote to the Ombudsman asking them to reconsider given that I should not be punished because BT had failed to keep proper records of their handling of our complaint. However, the Ombudsman chose to stand by the decision.

I accepted so that I could finally get the problem resolved.

The Ombudsman also decided that BT should pay the compensation and contact us to arrange an engineer to visit within 28 days.

28 days passed but I had no contact from BT. Again, I had to write to the Ombudsman.

I received a call from the BT Digital Care team and.... they recalled that they had agreed for us to receive a free visit by an engineer to move the broadband line downstairs!!

Of course, I wasn't go to complain about this and agreed for an appointment to be arranged. Unfortunately, I couldn't make the time slot offered and I was told that another slot would not be available for several weeks. I had waited this long so again I decided to be the nice customer and agreed to wait...

April 2011

An engineer visited and moved the broadband to a new point - ideally located for all our media devices - downstairs! I did experience one hiccup - he had been told that he was to move the business line that is already located downstairs... However, I managed to persuade him not to require us to book another appointment although I did have to promise that I wouldn't tell anyone about this... none of you are reading this - are you... ;)

May 2011

Wonderful, the saga had finally come to an end. No more complaining for us (well, at least about BT...)

But... one Monday morning I woke to discover that neither home phone or internet was working. I immediately phoned the BT fault reporting number and spoke to an agent who told me that he would arrange for the problem to be investigated and that the fault would be fixed within 4 hours and, if not, would be resolved within 12-24 hours.

Unfortunately, the problem continued beyond the 24 hour target - and then I was informed that an 'acute' problem existed outside our property. The contact centre promised that "Residential Services" were investigating and that the problem would be fixed by the weekend...

The problem was becoming more than an inconvenience and I tweeted about my growing frustration with getting the problem fixed.

Within a few hours, @BTCare contacted me asking for more details of the problem. They sent me a link to an online form so that I could provide them with more details. I did so and a member of their team phoned me back. He investigated but could not understand why I had been told that a problem existed outside my home - because their was no record of this. However, he questioned whether I had ever had a phone line(!). I explained this was astonishing because of the history to my contacts with BT.

Thank you for the email you have sent in relation to your broadband not working. I tried to call you today to explain exactly what has happened and how we can get the broadband back on again.

In December 2009, broadband was activated on a line with no existing telephone service ('home phone'). You telephone service was active on the 'business line' since November 2006. On Monday 23/05/2011 a light cease order was placed on the 'home phone' number. This is an automated action on the side of BT Wholesale because the system would have recognised that broadband was working on an inactive line.

I am very sorry about this Michael, but the only thing I can do at this stage in order to get the broadband back on again, is to place an order to activate the broadband on your active telephone number 'business line'. Once this is complete, if you would like your telephone number changed to 'home phone' number we can then place a re-number order to do this.

I must let you know that according to our records, you have never been billed for a telephone service on 'home phone' line. You have only ever had 1 telephone number and this is the 'business' number.

If you would like me to place the order to activate the broadband on the 'business' number, please either reply to this email or contact order management directly, by calling 150 and selecting Option 1 and Option 1 again after entering your telephone number.

Thanks for contacting BT.

I was especially stunned by the sentence "I must let you know that according to our records, you have never been billed for a telephone service on 'home phone' line. You have only ever had 1 telephone number and this is the 'business' number." - as I had been billed by BT for several years and had the bills to prove it. I spoke to BT and they told me that I had to provide proof that I had the phone line - so I had to search through my records and scan and copy and send to BT a copy of a bill from 2008 to show them that I had been a long standing customer!

Of course, I was still without phone or internet.

I contacted BT again - desparate to get the services reinstated. But now BT explained that the problem was that - for an unknown reason - I had three separate accounts - home phone, broadband and business phone - but from my online account I could only access and pay for two. Therefore, I had a situation where I was in credit on one account (broadband) but in debit on another (home phone) and this caused BT to terminate both - but without their staff knowing this!!!

[The root cause of this problem is of course that when Bt transferred my broadband from the business line to the home line they created another separate account - unknown to me of course - so that my two accounts expanded to three...]

June 2011

I was now dealing with a different complaint handler. I told her that I wanted the problem sorted and I also wanted to know why the problems had ocurred and how BT were going to compensate me for the considerable inconvenience. She acknowledged my frustration but advised that she wanted to focus on getting the services reinstated and then address the other aspects of my complaint. This was okay but more frustratingly I was told that the problem was likely to take several days to correct and reinstate the services.

On 9 June I tweeted that I had got home and the broadband and phone were finally working again - 18 days after the problem was first reported.

On the afternoon of the next day, BT emailed me to ask if I could confirm to them if the services were working okay - they had stopped listening to me on Twitter...

The email also failed to recognise that - after 18 days of no service - more might be required to resolve the complaint... If you require no further action but would like to comment on the service that I have provided please can I ask that you complete the survey you may receive rather than replying to this e-mail.

I hope you have been happy with all I’ve done for you. You’ll be getting an email soon with a short survey. Please be honest, Questions 1&2 are about how I’ve dealt with things and the others are more generally about your overall BT experience. (of course, to the customer this sounds like someone saying "I know that you don't like us but please be nice about me..." - probably because of internal performance management targets...)

I now had the rest of June to spend waiting for BT to get back to me to resolve the complaint - now that the 'fault' had been fixed. I had occasional calls and tweets but no response to my concerns.

July 2011

A BT complaint handler contacted me and told me that she would refund me the money I had paid during the period that I received no service. She also agreed to refund the £130 engineer call out charge that had been promised for free but then charged to me - and also to refund a late payment fee that had been added to my account. However, she explained that she was not authorised to make goodwill payments - and would have to speak to a manager.

The complaint handler call me several times to apologise because the manager was 'busy'.

Finally, the manager called me - she didn't want to discuss my complaint and told me that she was only willing to give me one month free on a phone line (value about £10...). She told me to contact OFCOM (the industry regulator) if I was dissatisfied with this (I, of course, was able to correctly advise her that she should have informed me of my right to complain to the Communications Ombudsman not the regulator...!).

Now, this is also incredibly insulting to me - the customer - as BT have yet to fully resolve the problems they caused. I'm still unable to access all my accounts online, I'm still waiting for the voicemail, I'm still waiting for the refund of the engineer charge and - adding insult to injury - they appear to have now double charged me rather than refund me for the 18 days of no service and appear to have tied me into a brand new contract.. my account is now more confusing than ever - unbelievable!

So, now I prepare myself for another complaint to the Ombudsman.... or maybe - having just read Stuart Lauchlan's blog - I should go to the Executive team....?

Some complaint management lessons that could.. should be learn't from this?

Number 1.... Empower you agents to handle and resolve complaints - invest so that they have clear sight of the customer's contact history and especially their complaints. Also, trust your employees to make goodwill payments where appropriate - they will protect your brand and enhance your reputation. Money is not always the answer but sometimes a bit extra is needed to do the right thing for the customer and to reassure them that you really do recognise the hurt that the company had caused them.

Number 2.... Don't jump to conclusions and make sure you are fully aware of the facts before telling the customer that they made a mistake. Don't ever blame the customer and be very careful if you are going to say something that suggests that you don't believe their version of events.

Number 3.... When handling complaints on social media and you need to move the conversation to another channel - don't stop listening to them on the social channel!

Number 4.... When mistakes are made, make sure that you explain to the customer how things went wrong and what you are doing to learn and prevent the same problems from happening again.

Number 5.... Even when cases go to an external body, you still have a chance to retain a relationship with a customer. Sometimes, the externalised complaint can be a useful lesson for both parties. But also don't tell the customer to go to an external body when you haven't fully fixed the service or product that failed.

Number 6.... When you are regulated and fall within the remit of an Ombudsman scheme - don't create an Ombudsman liaison team that is distanced from your complaint handling activities. The Ombudsman is an escalation stage and therefore you must make sure that your responses to the Ombudsman are informed by your internal complaint handlers who previously engaged with the customer and never, ever make assumptions (ie "we would never have said that...").

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