My kitchen sink drama when BT’s repairs left me in the lockdown lurch

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HELP! My mobile only gets a signal in the kitchen sink or outside in the road

 

Kitchen sink drama or BT soap opera?

Kitchen sink drama or BT soap opera? COLIN WAKELING finds himself left in the lockdown lurch

 

I RECENTLY ‘ENJOYED’ an enforced digital detox when BT engineers unintentionally severed my connections with the outside world.

Friends and family, my bank account, the local council, supermarkets, Amazon. . . the very services I had been pushed into accessing online during lockdown, all lost to me. My phone, dead as a dodo, could only  pathetically display a message advising me to check my landline; the wireless router flashed muted orange.

The jungle drums next door told me that Openreach had been working at the end of the lane around the time  I lost connectivity,  too much of a coincidence for any other explanation.  Another neighbour had been similarly affected the previous month.  If BT broke it, BT should surely fix it.  But how to tell them?

I get no consistent mobile signal within the house; text messaging is possible but only when positioned at the kitchen windowsill on the far side of the sink. True, I could stand in the middle of the lane and brave passing harvest machinery, midges and plagues of locusts, enabling me to make and receive calls without sitting in the kitchen sink. . . how I wish I hadn’t given up my flock of messenger pigeons all those years ago!

Keying in the only 0800 I had for BT – whatever happened to those handy things called ‘phone books’ that  no longer seem to be produced? – while keeping an eye out for speeding staycationers, I joined a queue to notify my plight, at the same time fighting off a mass of wee black thunderflies that were making hay in what’s left of my hair. No good: a recorded announcement informed me that I was calling the wrong number and spat out an alternative so fast that I had no time to tattoo it on the back of my hand.  Distracted by the itching and never much good at remembering numbers, I had long forgotten it by the time I retreated to sanctuary indoors.

So it was back to the drawing board (or, rather, the kitchen sink) to text a message to partner over the Border asking her to contact BT on my behalf. No response.  But a repeat plea mistakenly sent to my son did at least elicit another 0800 number.

Back in the lane again, the thunderflies had ceded their territory to the midges  who buzzed me madly while yet another recorded message told me BT was experiencing high call volumes, suggesting I try the online service (!) before rather more helpfully providing a text number even I could remember.  So, back to the kitchen sink again.  The text was answered by a robot voice telling me that a line check had found no fault, but further checks would be run “as long as you are not using it” – hardly a difficult condition to meet since that was the very issue I wanted to report!

Meanwhile my over-the-Border buddy had managed to raise a real BT person in Falkirk, only to rapidly rue her success.  She is not built to juggle two phones at one time, but managed to relay part of the exchange to me on a dodgy mobile contact.

Her total sense of helpless frustration was as palpable as it was heart-rending: the call handler would only consider my problem if we could provide the name of my first (and only) pet, a blue budgie.  This was relayed, but not recognised, and requests to note my vulnerability or be transferred to a supervisor were refused because of the failure to pass ‘security’. The call was terminated with the distinctly unhelpful suggestion, given my lack of internet connection, that I “send an e-mail”!

Large organisations’ call centre operations, spread between multiple locations, often suffer from operatives’ lack of ‘ownership’ of issues being reported and their accurate recording.   With BT, as with any other outfit, sometimes one strikes lucky; other times not.  My partner certainly hit the jackpot with Falkirk.

As a preliminary to any call centre conversation it is desirable to check the name and location of the respondent.  During the days of off-shoring to the Indian sub-continent that produced such wonderful identities as Ray Charles who was both blind, and dead, and Moira McTavish who was more likely to be at home with a meal of curry and dal than with a plate of haggis and neeps.  At least BT seems to have realised the folly of these operations and brought most of them back onshore, but with mixed results.

Rescued! The Openreach van that came to my rescue

My enforced detox was brought to an end thanks to an acerbic e-mail from my partner to a BT email box which was actually monitored, bringing a call to my mobile, answered as always while I squatted over the sink.  A sympathetic human in Newcastle took details of my vulnerabilities and promised she would take the matter in hand.  She did indeed, with the result I received a late evening call from an engineer who indicated my line was fixed.  Without him coming near my premises, he had located the fault under the inspection cover further down the lane where his colleagues had been working the day before, and had, presumably, failed to close off a job properly –perhaps an indication of unrealistically timed target-setting.

The next day I also received an email asking me to contact BT urgently about the repair and helpfully offering the same 0800 number with the long waiting times, hardly a clever move considering  I could not even access it when the fault was active.

Getting some form of recompense for the hassle would mean an equally Herculean tussle. Telecoms providers baulk at going an inch beyond the terms agreed with the Regulator.  Organisations with an eye to assuaging legitimate consumer grievances, even financial institutions and electricity concerns, generally ‘fess up and pay up when they are found at fault.  From my experience, BT would figure prominently in any league table of worst performers in the customer redress stakes, alongside the likes of Ryanair.

Appealing to the Regulator is time-consuming and frustrating, requiring great stamina.  Is it any wonder that many aggrieved consumers give up the uneven struggle, letting BT off the hook and thus providing it with little incentive  to heed any lessons from customer complaints?

As a state-run organisation, BT may have been over-bureaucratised, but with privatisation it seems fixated on costs and profit rather than delivering customer service – not mutually exclusive objectives.  It has slashed headcount and, while it retains some excellent staff, the financial imperatives can be reflected in loss of staff morale and indifferent performance.

It seems hard pressed to adapt to the new commercial realities in which it finds itself.  Its path has been uncertain.  Since 2013 it has invested heavily in its streaming services, bidding eye-watering sums to secure exclusive coverage of prime sporting events. Attempts to establish an entertainment business in an extremely competitive and arguably overcrowded marketplace suggest that is now its main focus.

Has it the overall management capability to grow its core business organically, or seek out and exploit new opportunities? Some years ago, having developed Cellnet, it floated off this mobile business (renamed O₂) and subsequently sold it on to Telefónica. Now it seems to have belatedly appreciated that mobile connections may be serious alternatives to fixed-line infrastructure, with the result it has recently bought a controlling interest in EE for £12.5bn.

For some years, PlusNet was a challenger, supplying phone and internet services, with an effective team of helpful ‘techie’ people based in Yorkshire at a time when BT had migrated a lot of its contact centre operations to India.  True to form, BT made them an offer they couldn’t refuse and took them over in 2007 accompanied, from my experience, by a lowering of standards (presumably cost-driven) as they sought to recoup some of their outlay.

To all intents and purposes Openreach is a monopoly provider of fixed-line telecommunications infrastructure, even though this may be under threat from advances in mobile technology which could leave much of its equipment underused and potentially redundant.  In the interests of ‘competition’ it is treated as a separate business.

It appears, though, to be very much a law unto itself.  Its customers are not you and I, who use its kit to access broadband and telephone, but the service providers to whom it rents its facilities – BT Consumer, PlusNet and so forth.

To report a fault, we consumers must first contact our service providers who, in turn, contact Openreach who will then arrange an engineer visit to fit their work schedules and priorities.  Lack of direct consumer contact renders Openreach remote from consumer needs and experience.

True, they are regulated by Ofcom, a body concerned with retailers, suppliers, the government, and, of course, consumers who are relatively small fry with cases whose complexities baffle Ofcom case handlers.  Such a degree of central regulation and layers of delivery cannot benefit individual consumers who are as likely to suffer from infrastructure as billing issues.

From my experience, over the years BT has become  a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ organisation.  I am left with the impression of a monolithic organisation grown too big to survive.  I now see rumour that, with its share price at rock bottom, it could be open to a takeover bid, possibly from one of its partners, Deutsche Telecom.  Should that come to pass the Competition Authorities are almost sure to insist it divests itself of some of its operations and, if that is not the case, new owners would seek to recoup some of their outlays through asset disposals.

With BT, synergies of scale have morphed into inefficiencies of scale.  Like many other political and business empires in history, it may well be laid low having sown the seeds of its own destruction.

 

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