We live in a time obsessed with feedback. Even as I sat down to write this an e-mail pinged into my inbox from a theatre I have not visited for at least five years, begging me to rate their programme and facilities (with the lure of a prize draw for participants).
In the last few weeks numerous stores, online retailers, auction sites, restaurants, hotels, garages, theatres, train companies, my mobile phone provider, insurers and power companies have all e-mailed, texted, written and / or rung to ask me – in some detail – what I think of their products or services. The really annoying ones pursue their victims through all possible channels simultaneously.
In fact just about the only people who haven’t asked me for a 0-10 rating this year are the men who deliver my coal and cut my hair, and the rector whose sermons I occasionally listen to on a Sunday.
Please don’t get any ideas, chaps.
I have been lucky enough not to have had any hand in organising a funeral for more than 20 years, but I can’t help worrying that the day after the next one I will receive a long form asking me to award marks to the undertaker for the embalming, looking suitably solemn, and not crashing the hearse or falling into the grave.
This mania for consumer reactions is beginning to make me think that the best definition of feedback is the one relating to microphones and amplifiers: a hideous distortion of sound that can drive the listener, in extremes, to screaming point.
So in a way it is quite nice find one last surviving bastion of good old-fashioned British “stuff the customer” couldn’t-care-lessness. And where better to look for that than to our dear old friends at British Telecommunications, the comically named utility company that seems to operate mainly from India.
Certainly all their engineers must be based there, and on contracts that specify first class return air travel if they I have to attend a call-out in the UK, judging by the lengths to which they have gone to avoid sending one out to attend to my failing broadband for as long as I can remember.
I report the fault. They agree there is a fault. I beg them to send an engineer, repeatedly offering to pay for his services if the problem turns out to lie within my house. Because I can see quite plainly that it is very much more likely to lie in the 40 feet or so of cable that they have left loosely flapping against my wall since the telegraph pole that used to stand literally within a foot of my house was moved a couple of years ago.
In particular, the fact that parts of said cable appear to have been enthusiastically chewed by rodents seems unlikely to increase my chances of reliably sending an e-mail, let alone streaming a film.
But no, they say they don’t need to send an engineer because either they can fix the fault remotely, or they can identify from Hyderabad or Bangalore that the problem actually lies in my weak wifi signal indoors, or my having the temerity to try to use more than one electronic device at the same time.
Then they tell me triumphantly that the fault is fixed. And, a few days later, I report that it isn’t and the cycle begins all over again.
This has been going on literally for years. Imagine my delight, then, when I returned home recently after a business trip to find a sign at the entrance to my little hamlet proudly announcing that Ultrafast Broadband had arrived.
It seemed unlikely, in such a remote corner of Northumberland, but there was the shiny new fibre optic cable clearly strung all along the poles leading up to my house, with suitable warning signs presumably aimed at the drivers of highly extendable hedge trimmers.
There was even a roll of cable hanging from the pole nearest to my house, clearly just waiting to bridge the last few yards to my desk.
And, for final confirmation, there was a leaflet on my mat from the nice people at www.inorthumberland.org.uk telling me that it really wasn’t all a dream.
I went online in a trice – well, about an hour, given the difficulty of getting the existing broadband service to work at all – and BT duly advised me that my current contract was about to expire. Would I like to upgrade?
You betcha. I ticked all the boxes for the fastest, ritziest, all-bells-and-whistles service known to man and … BT told me that I can’t have fibre broadband “because of where you live”. They kept repeating this however hard I tried to convince them that the infrastructure is, almost literally, sitting on my doorstep.
But no, their reaction was very similar to that of a four-year-old confronted with some uncomfortable home truths. “La la la not listening” sums it up nicely.
In a way, as I said at the outset, this makes a refreshing change from the lust for customer feedback in every other quarter. But to save everyone else the trouble of repeatedly asking, you may assume that you have attained a satisfactory standard in your product or service if I don’t complain and keep coming back for more. You should be able to judge your level of success by counting your takings, rather than sending out feedback requests.
If I am particularly delighted or disgusted I will post a comment on Twitter, Facebook or TripAdvisor. Or maybe write a column for Voice of The North.
And if you really want to know how to improve your business, I have one simple tip. Make a close study of what BT is doing. Then do precisely the opposite.