Sunday, 30 March 2014

How do you communicate with a communications company?


Big companies exist to make profits. They don't like paying tax and they don't like paying employees. They've learned that in the modern world, they can outsource many of their customer services to countries with cheaper labour, but they are even happier when they can dispense with people altogether to move on to automated systems.  These can be really efficient for dealing with routine enquiries. Problem is, when it comes to non-routine enquiries, they really suck.

I discovered this when I got a new mobile and a contract with TMobile. I signed up for monthly payments by direct debit and was happy when I received my first bill and it all seemed in order.  But I then got a mysterious text message that purported to come from 150, which is the number for Tmobile enquiries. It read:

"We recently contacted you regarding your unpaid T-Mobile bill. Just to remind you that payment can be made simply by dialling 360 from your handset."

This was odd because (a) I had no memory of a previous contact from them and (b) I was paying by direct debit and could not see how I had incurred an unpaid bill. I decided it was probably some kind of scam, but thought I should just check it out with TMobile. But here my problems began.
I thought the easiest thing would be to register for online billing, and so I tried the website on the bill. This immediately brought up a scary warning screen, as follows:

It seemed odd to me that a major UK company would have a web address that did this, so I did a bit of snooping around with Google to make sure this was really OK before over-riding the warning and going ahead. Usual thing of entering all my details, password, security questions and so on. Seemed OK and I was told I'd receive a PIN by text. And at that moment, sure enough, a message with a PIN came through on the phone. Nearly there, I thought.

Unfortunately, though, the webpage with the box for the PIN was greyed out and would not accept any input. I tried a few times, both with my original browser, and then with another one. Same problem (once I got past the scary warning message). Tried on my ipad, and this time the whole thing froze before I even got to the PIN bit.

Well, the bill suggested that if I needed help I could ring 150, so I did. This gave me four automated options: 1) make a payment; 2) get details of my first bill; 3) help setting up voicemail; 4) get date of mobile number move. Since none applied, I pressed * for other options. This gave me two options: 1) help with my mobile phone; and 2) help with home broadband. If you select neither or those, you just get a patient voice saying "Let me go through those options again..."

I'd previously battled with the TMobile website to try and find a phone number for human help, and completely failed. All the encouraging tabs offering help lead you to a hopeless set of FAQs that are totally irrelevant to the problem at hand - or they try to lure you down the 150 cul-de-sac.

I tried Twitter. It began well, with this exchange:

However, when I then sent details of the two problems (suspicious looking text message and inability to enter PIN in website), I got this:

Now, to me the idea of a firm asking you to give them your full details "for security" over Twitter is absurd. When I suggested I'd rather communicate secure information over email, I was told:

So there we have it. A communications company who will do anything other than communicate. Because employing people costs money, and they clearly don't care if their customers get stuck in a phone options cul de sac, or spend hours on the web trying to find how to fix a problem.

I've resorted to writing a letter to Customer Services, but I suspect I won't get a reply, or if I do, it will be written by a bot. Will let you know if I do!

Update: 1st April 2014
Probably not a good day to relate my further attempts to communicate with TMobile, but here we go:

I happened to be in town so, armed with my contract and invoice, I dropped in at the friendly Oxford Phones4U store where I'd bought my TMobile contract and explained the problem. They were immediately able to tell me that others were having the same problem and it seemed to be a glitch in the network. So why couldn't the @TMobileUK twitter people tell me that yesterday? It would have immediately have reassured me.

But Phones4U went further. They felt that for my peace of mind, they should phone TMobile so I could hear it from the horse's mouth. The patient young man who was trying to help me sat dialling numbers and jotting down other numbers. "It's very frustrating," he said. "I can't get past the automated system." He dialled some mega-number where he gave someone his store code: but still the advice was to call 150, the communications black hole. After 10 minutes I had to leave. He gave me the last number he'd been given, which he thought would get me through to a human, but I had a busy afternoon and have not had a chance to try it.

I got back and found that TMobileUK had been active on Twitter, perhaps stung by adverse comments from another Tweeter:

I checked out the link re websites. It did not refer to the two problems I'd had - i.e. security warning followed by unresponsive screen, but at least they seemed to be doing something.
We continued:

Ah, the elusive 'dedicated customer services team'. This got short shrift from another user and further queries from me:

So far, this has not elicited any other response. But I did find this message that TMobileUK had broadcast to the world a couple of hours earlier:

So at last, an admission that there was an 'on-going online bill issue'. That's all I needed to know. And they don't need anyone's private details in order to tell us about it.

I'm still hoping that at some point I'll hear that they have fixed their website. But I suspect that they are much slower than most companies at responding to problems because there's no way anyone can actually tell them that there is a problem.

In this way, their cost-cutting strategy of replacing people with robots is counterproductive, as it can lead to major snarlups escalating much further than they need.

Update 3rd April 2014

Well, the good news is that my letter did receive a reply from one Phillip Wilson from EE Customer Service. The bad news is that it was no help at all.
He wrote:
I have reviewed your account and although there are no notes about an SMS being sent to you about your balance I can see that there is £xx outstanding which is now with our Collections Department. There is no Direct Debit set up on the account. Your number has been suspended for non payment since 29 March 2014. I am sorry to hear that you were unable to log onto the online account system. I would advise you to discuss your balance with the Collections Department on 08454122801.
Mr Wilson also rather sadly remarked: "I would have liked to discuss this issue with you, unfortunately I was unable to contact you so I am responding in writing." I know just how he feels.
I called the collections department and got through to a nice lady. I explained to her that I had all the paperwork for my direct debit, plus a first bill that stated "We will collect £11.00 on or around 22/4/14". Since she focused on debt collections, and did not apparently have any record of my account, she could not help. She said she'd put me through to the right department, but after five minutes of listening to awful tinny music I gave up and got back to the day job.
If anyone knows of a mobile phone company that has competent, efficient customer service personnel, please do let me know, as I rather urgently need to find one before I lose my sanity.

Update 9th April 2014
So, after the last abortive attempt to communicate with TMobile, I thought I'd give them one last chance. I wrote another letter, this time enclosing a copy of the direct debit mandate I had set up on March 6th, and also a copy of a bill from them that said they would be collecting payment for my next bill - implying they had a direct debit. 
Alas the only response I got was a peremptory demand for £11 and a statement that my phone had meanwhile been cut off for nonpayment.
I've had some suggestions from happy customers of alternative providers, but my only concern is that there seems a high probability that the minute I try and cancel the account, TMobile will suddenly discover and activate the direct debit. Watch this space....

11th April update
At last! A resolution!

When last in town, I'd found that O2 offered a good deal on a contract that would suit my phone, and I was keen to change. However, I realised it might not be easy to extricate myself from TMobile, and so I decided to ring the TMobile number I'd been given by Phones4U, which they claimed would lead to a person. It did begin with automated options, but one sounded relevant - changing my plan - and indeed this produced a human voice.

I explained the situation, only to be told that I was not in arrears, I had a direct debit set up, and my phone should now be working. Baffled, I asked about the date on which the direct debit had been activated. More waiting and tinny music, but eventually someone came on the line who seemed to know about my case. The direct debit had been activated the previous day and the suspension on my phone account lifted. And indeed, when I checked again, the phone was now operational.

I was surprised that nobody had bothered to tell me any of this, but later that afternoon, I did get another email from Phillip WIlson of EE Customer Services (my comments in red)

I am sorry for the delay in responding to you previously. I sent you a letter response yesterday which will arrive with you shortly. The letter I sent is below.
Thank you for your letter which I have received into the Customer relations Department today. The letter was in relation to the correspondence I sent you recently about the Direct Debit on your account. I would have liked to discuss this issue with you; unfortunately I was unable to contact you so I am responding in writing. [Would indeed be difficult to contact me as they had cut me off!]
I am sorry to hear that you were unable to speak with the Collections Department when calling the number I provided to you. [I did speak to the Collections Dept - they did not understand why I'd been given their number but tried to put me through to another dept]. I know it is frustrating when you have to wait on the line for an agent to answer. [Not just frustrating - quite impossible for anyone who has a demanding day job]. I can see from the account that the Direct Debit was set up when the account was created, however it failed to take the first bill as a Direct Debit does take 14 days to set up. [Bizarre - the direct debit was dated 6th March. I was cut off on 29th March]. The first bill always has to be paid manually using a Debit/Credit Card. [So why did nobody tell me that?!]. As the Direct Debit failed it was cancelled from the account. I have re-set the Direct Debit for you today. As a gesture for your issues I have also waived the £12 balance on the account.
I would be unable to disconnect your agreement for you as you are in contract until  6 March 2015. To early disconnect your agreement would cost  £15.61. As stated I have cleared the balance and set up your Direct Debit again for you.

I am delighted to be able to report this resolution of my problems, and I appreciate that TMobile at last has shown some recognition of the snarl-up by waiving the outstanding sum.

But really, it's not about money. It's about a catastrophic fail in customer relations that allowed a trivial issue to escalate into a prolonged exchange with numerous TMobile staff, damaging my sanity and TMobile's reputation - and presumably costing them far more than £12 in staff time.

In the sequence of events above, there are no less than six points at which this issue could have been resolved, yet TMobile failed to act appropriately every time:

  • The most pressing need is for a telephone help line that had a non-automated option for non-standard problems. TMobile's 150 number is hopeless in this regard. Their website is just as bad - everything automated and no opportunity to contact a person.
  • The staff manning the Twitter account @TMobileUK should have been able to sort out my problem, but they were unwilling or unable to communicate with me by phone or email, which severely limited their effectiveness, especially when they expected me to provide confidential information.
  • The @TMobileUK staff showed a striking lack of initiative in failing to respond to my request for instructions how to contact a human operator via 150. Even if they did not know how to do this, they could have explored the options themselves to give me the sequence of keystrokes I had requested. They did not.
  • The initial letter from Customer Services was remarkably unhelpful. Having said he had tried to contact me by phone, Mr Wilson should have given me a number where I could get back to him. Had he done so, I suspect this could have been sorted out promptly. Instead, I was referred to the debt collections department.
  • If Mr Wilson had told me in his first letter that there was a time lag on direct debits and that I needed therefore to pay by credit card I would have done so. Instead, he said I did not have a direct debit and implied I was untruthful in saying I had one.
  • When I called the Collections Department, I had given them all my details including a landline number where I could be reached. After I gave up waiting for a reply, they could have called me back but did not.
The final paragraph of the last letter from Mr Wilson does, of course, explain everything. Once you've signed the contract, you are stuck with them, unless you are willing to pay to terminate it. So they have absolutely no incentive to treat customers well, and their customer service department is set up like an obstacle course to deter all but the most persistent people.  

I am so sick of TMobile's lack of regard for its customers that I was tempted to terminate the contract anyhow, and blow the expense, but of course that would all take time and it's the one thing I don't have much of. So for the moment,  sticking with the current contract is the least bad option. I just hope that the increasing power of the internet enabling customers to document experiences like mine might eventually trickle through to affect the company's policy.



  1. Here's a link to a Dutch website detailing an experience of fighting back against unhelpful customer 'service' - given to me by @kizomba_NL

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  3. Your are not quite at the point that some Belgians reached with Mobistar. Enjoy 10 minutes watching and be inspired.

  4. I know the feeling! Google isn't much better.

  5. You should have gone with O2, You can always visit the T-mobile shop in your local high street.

  6. I spent five weeks trying to get Vodafone to untick a box someone at their company had mistakenly ticked specifying 'no internet service' to my home address. At the end of that time, The Irish Times ran an article on my experience. The problem was fixed within, and, later that day, four different customer representatives contacted me to check all was well. None of them knew about the other, which inspire confidence...

  7. Reading your blog post was just what I needed to lighten my mood! Some things are universal. After a series of complaints earlier this year to Npower about their seeming inability to take an opening meter reading, they eventually solved the problem, and now the system is running like clockwork. But I still get regular letters telling me that their customer services department are working hard to resolve my problem, and reminding me that as so much time has now passed, I have the right to contact the Ombudsman about their ongoing failure to resolve my complaint. There must be an infinite loop somewhere.

  8. Hi Dorothy
    I’ve had good experiences with giffgaff. SIM only or phone and SIM, easy to unlock phone to use their SIM. Main feature is flexibility. Buy services flexibly by the month /or data amount.

    No stores but seem to be v efficient at responding to email problems. There's a good FAQ, and also community too which is helpful (they are rewarded by free minutes for helping others).

    Uses O2 network.

  9. Thanks Tristram. Someone had mentioned this on Twitter and I did look into it. It sounds good from the website but I also did find some very negative reviews on other sites, re limited connectivity.
    Anyhow, as you will see from my update, I am tied in with a contract to TMobile, so any change of provider will probably wait until next year. Though if they misbehave again I will pay to get out!

  10. Inspired by your experience I made the mistake of buying a printer from PC World because they had a human who talked to me in the shop, half a mile from my house. He also emailed me with advice and answered the phone with more advice.

    Unfortunately the advice was wrong in one crucial respect: PC World did not supply the printer I wanted. The part number he gave me was for a similar printer that did not print double-sided. When I discovered this, after installing the printer and trying unsuccessfully to get a double-sided printout, I rang him and emailed him several times. He agreed to take the printer back and I ordered the printer I wanted from Amazon.

    Two weeks later, nothing has happened. Yesterday I rang his colleague and secured further promises. However, I do not feel confident that I will get a quick resolution.

    I think that there is a general problem that companies do not invest in staff or systems that handle exceptional cases very well. The question is, would we pay more for a product in order to get better service when problems happen?

  11. I am in the throes of a very similar situation , and was wondering - as I ahve not kept a record of how many times in the last three months I have spent hours on phone having dialled 150 to find a resolution to my problem, might T-mobile have a record of the 150 calls I made and would they give it to me? They owe me a lot of money through their error in billing and I have had to make numerous 150 calls to chase it, and now regret not making a record of those calls as believe I am entitled to compensation for those calls