How to lose a customer

Forgive me for hi-jacking my own work blog, but I wanted to get this down before the details fade and I start gibbering incoherently when I try to recall what happened. If you want a communication steer on it, let’s just say the following story highlights the need for clear and honest communication between a company and its customers.

Take a deep breath now, we’re going in…

At the end of August, my 83-year-old father moved from the house where my three siblings and I grew up and where he lived happily for 46 years. Last year my mother died and Dad found himself rattling around in this six-bedroomed pile with an acre and a half of land. He has Parkinson’s disease too, so finding somewhere sensible to live became urgent.

He found a nice flat overlooking his beloved Dover Harbour and with stunning views of the castle from his kitchen window. The move was emotionally and practically difficult for all of us but he made it and is now well on the way to settling in to his new home. And my siblings and I are all really proud of him for the way he took on these huge challenges. I think they say the death of a spouse and moving house are two of the most stressful things anyone has to deal with in life – imagine what it’s like doing them both within a year when you’re in your eighties.

Because he’s on his own and has Parkinson’s, for some time now Dad’s had an SOS alarm – one of those things you wear around your neck that has a button on it that you can press in an emergency. The alarm, which works through the phone line, is operated by Saga and has always functioned perfectly. This is just as well because his condition has worsened over the months and he is now decidedly unsteady on his feet.

When he moved he decided to switch providers to Sky. He already had – and liked – Sky TV and wanted to simplify matters by using the same company for phone and broadband too. I ordered his new services and was impressed by how straightforward it all seemed.

There were a few technical hiccoughs when he moved in on 24 August, which was a bit disappointing but not altogether surprising. Most of them were ironed out quickly but one proved more stubborn: the SOS alarm didn’t work.

After a few days of hoping for the best and blaming teething problems, I called Saga to ask why they thought it might not be working. They suggested I speak to a chap called Gary (contact details available) from Chubb Alarms, which makes the units in question, and he told me that the issue would most likely be with the kind of technology used on the line.

Apparently these alarms don’t work on the kind of line Sky gives you by default – what they call an SVBN line (which stands for Sky Voice and Broadband Network). You have to request a non-SVBN line, otherwise known as a wholesale line rental package, I think. This information is available in Sky’s terms and conditions, he said, but you have to be looking for them to find them and in the excitement of the move it never occurred to us to look (would it to anyone?)

So I called Sky on 6 September, said we’d made this mistake and asked if it could be rectified quickly, since we were worried about dad having no reliable way of alerting anyone in an emergency. I was assured that it would be sorted out but that it might take up to 30 days to happen.

This seemed a bit sluggish but I know how big companies work so I reluctantly accepted it – but made a point of stressing the importance of resolving it as quickly as possible. The woman I spoke to (whose name I didn’t take…always take their names!) seemed very sympathetic and assured me that she’d push the case personally.

On 27 September I called back, to make sure everything was on track and see if there was any chance they could make the switch more quickly than the 30 days they’d said it might take. This time I spoke to a man (again, no name) who sounded a bit less switched on than the woman I’d spoken to before. He looked up the notes and told me he could see that the request had been made but could find no evidence of anyone picking it up and actually doing anything.

I asked if this meant we were back to square one; that the request would have to be made again and that it could take another 30 days. “I’m afraid so”, he said. I asked if there was any way he could escalate the case to make things happen any faster, given the circumstances. “I’ll do my best”, he said.

These things happen I suppose – although an apology would have been nice.

But then I called back on 5 October and spoke to yet another person. This one was called Barry and his dad also has Parkinson’s so he fully understood why I might be feeling concerned. “Let me just check for you”, he said, before slipping into an ominous silence.

Sure enough, yet again there had been no progress. The wrong form was submitted on both previous occasions, it seems, and no one picked up on it. So once again we were starting from scratch – another 30 days of dad without an alarm, another 30 days of concern.

On 6 October Barry left a message to say that Dad would need a new phone number.

On 7 October I called to check things were still moving forward and ask if there’s any way it would be possible to keep the number. I was told there probably wouldn’t be. Barry also assured me he was doing all he could to expedite the case.

On 8 October Dad called me to tell me he’d received a letter from Sky acknowledging that he’d asked to cancel his phone and broadband service and leaving Sky.

On 10 October I called Sky to check on this and was told not to worry, it was just a standard letter. Perhaps, but it’s a standard letter that should never have been sent. It caused unnecessary anxiety – and really would it have been that hard to stop? I was also told that there might be a ‘small gap in service’ when the change was finally made, but that it shouldn’t be for longer than 48 hours.

On 14 October Barry called to say the line should be switched by Tuesday 18 October.

On 18 October I called Barry to check on progress. While we were speaking, he received an email saying that the change had been made. It was at this point that he said – for the first time – that Dad would lose his broadband service for up to two weeks since the new line couldn’t support the normal broadband service and a new one couldn’t be ordered until the new line was up and running. I asked if this could be expedited, Barry said he’d do what he can.

On 20 October the alarm started working again, thank goodness. So our main concern had finally been addressed, seven weeks into this process. Barry called to say he was having problems circumventing the internal processes to speed up the provision of Dad’s broadband service but that he was still working to find a way of doing this. Meanwhile the order still hadn’t been placed. He also said he’d be on holiday for the week commencing 24 October but gave me a reference number to quote when discussing the case with his colleagues.

On 27 October I called to chase. The person I spoke to couldn’t figure out what was going on so put me through to provisioning, who seemed very confused. According to the records, Sky doesn’t provide any phone or broadband services to Dad’s address. They offered to place an order for talk and broadband, which I told them not to do as I was worried it might mean going back to an SVBN line and thus stopping Dad’s alarm working again.

I asked to speak to a supervisor but was told that the supervisor was too busy to speak to me. This really wasn’t what I wanted to hear. I remained calm and was civil throughout but by this stage I was angry and said that the constant expressions of confusion and ignorance I was hearing really weren’t good enough. The operator was defensive and took my criticism of her company’s pitiful systems and processes personally, which was pathetic really. Eventually she suggested I ask Dad to ring 150 and see who answers as conclusive proof of which company supplies his phone service (Dad tried this later in the day and got through to a Sky operator, funnily enough).

I couldn’t bear to speak to this woman any longer so I called complaints. I spoke to a man who seemed just as mystified as the woman I’d spoken to earlier. He said there are no records on the number before October and he can’t escalate the case since there’s no case to escalate.

Then he put me through to yet another woman in provisioning who confirmed that the system says dad’s number is no longer Sky. She tested the line and said: “That’s definitely not a Sky number, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not one of ours.”

She went away to investigate and called back to tell me that “the system” has randomly decided to cease the line so as far as it’s concerned, Dad is not a Sky Talk or Broadband customer. This leaves us with three options:

1. Order a new Sky line (which would take up to 2 weeks to be supplied) then order broadband (which could take another 2 weeks)

2. Order broadband first, on the phantom BT line we now have, then order a new Sky line (again, both take 2 weeks but at least we’d get broadband within a fortnight)

3. Just stick with BT for everything.

By this time, I’d been on the phone for something like two hours, almost all of which was at my own expense.

I spoke with Dad, who was understandably overwhelmed by the complexity of the situation and left the decision with me. I think we’re going to get as far away from Sky as we possibly can so I reckon option 3 is the way we’re going to go – although ironically Dad would prefer to use AOL broadband than BT, since that’s what he’s used to, so we’ll end up with exactly the same three-provider model we had in the first place.

While I was mulling all this over, Sky phoned back, to say “We hear you want to order a new talk service account”. Er, no I don’t thanks.

So now Dad’s still without broadband and will be for at least another two weeks. He’s got no idea who’s providing his phone service so doesn’t know where to turn for advice, and he has no confidence that the line will even work if the Sky system ever wakes up enough to realise its mistake. According to Sky, BT is now providing the service, but Sky also acknowledges that BT might well not know this, which leaves us…where? I just don’t know.

Mistakes happen, I know, but this isn’t just about mistakes. It’s about those first two people I spoke to telling me what they thought I wanted to hear to get rid of me and then forgetting all about it – spinning a line for a quiet life. It’s about lying and no one caring enough for it to have any consequences.

It’s also about systems that don’t work and don’t talk to each other and left hands neither knowing nor caring what right hands are doing. For a short time during that two-hour epic phone session on 27 October I honestly thought I was losing my mind.

The thing is, we actually expect big companies to do this. We enter into these dreaded exchanges with corporate customer service departments with a heavy heart because we know they won’t give a monkey’s; that they’ll read some script to us to make us feel better and then forget about us; that the only reliable way we have of getting real satisfaction is circumventing that first line of defence and connecting with someone higher up who’s paid more and whose job it is to clean up the mess created by other people’s indifference.

If I did this as a sole trader I’d be bankrupt in weeks. So why do we accept it in big companies? How big does a company have to be before they can afford to throw integrity and trustworthiness out of the window? Sky-sized, it seems.

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This entry was posted on Friday, October 28th, 2011 at 2:17 pm and is filed under News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 Responses to “How to lose a customer”

  1. Heidi Stone says:

    And I gather it’s still not the end of the story…?

  2. martinthomas says:

    Nope *sigh*
    Time to start working on chapter two I suppose.

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