Saturday, June 09, 2012

The Customer Is Always Right!

This is a very long and bad-tempered rant against telecom companies, written mostly to get a lot of frustration out of my system. 

The market economy - that great panacea for all consumer ills. Once the market was freed up, we were promised, we would never be short-changed by all-powerful companies again. Instead, the companies would be scared of us, the consumers, because we would be able to walk out and go to the nearest competitor in a jiffy.

Ha! I say to that. Double, triple, HA!

It all started at our last house in Koramangala, that most elite of all Bangalore neighbourhoods. We had just got married, and we needed the internet at our house, like all young people.  Both of us had had Airtel broadband at our previous houses, and had been happy enough with it. So we called them up, they gave us some options, and we chose our plan.

Things went fine enough initially. And then it started. Every half an hour, the net would suddenly disappear. It would come back again after ten-fifteen minutes, but that wasn't exactly what we were paying a bomb for every month, was it? It was extremely frustrating, especially if one of us was trying to work from home.

So we called up Airtel Customer Care, dumb dutiful customers that we were. They sent somebody. And of course, as generally happens when the service guy arrives, the net worked fine. The guy presumably diagnosed the problem as our joint hypochondria, and went away.

And then the problem started again. The entire Customer Care-Service Guy-No Problems cycle played out twice more before they decided that it was a hardware problem.

"Okay great," we said, "Now that you've diagnosed the problem, fix it."
"Um, no ma'am," they said, "We can't."
"Eh? Why not?"
"You need to talk to our hardware supplier, Alcatel-Lucent."
"Eh? Why should I talk to them? I'm your customer, not theirs!"
"Still, ma'am. Only they can service this. This is their number."
"Okay wait," I said, unable to believe this. "Let me get this straight. I use Airtel Broadband. Airtel uses Alcatel hardware. But if there's a problem with the Alcatel hardware, I have to contact Alcatel-Lucent, even though I'm not their customer?"
"Yes, ma'am."
"Brilliant. Very logical."

Anyway, I gave up, and called the Alcatel-Lucent guys. They came and did something. The problem continued.

Nikhil escalated to every single person possible, including the Airtel CEO for Karnataka. He spammed them on Twitter, he called up Customer Care every day - I guess the poor Customer Care guys became very familiar with his name, his voice and his sheer frustration with their system.

This continued for a couple of months. In September, we finally decided to give up on Airtel. Our faith in private companies irrevocably gone, we decided to switch to BSNL. People who had used BSNL Broadband said it was good.

Nikhil applied online and got two calls from their people within a day. Strangely enough, the first guy said he was from the Peenya exchange - a place so far way from Koramangala it might as well be in another city. When the second guy called up, Nikhil mentioned the first caller to him. The Koramangala guy asked us not to talk to the Peenya guy, because he wasn't authorized to deal with the Koramangala area.

But apart from that little bout of intra-organizational territory poaching, BSNL was just wonderful. We had our new connection within a week, and to have non-stop broadband was such a luxury after the Airtel experience! Everything worked fine till May, when we moved to CV Raman Nagar, about ten kilometers away from Koramangala.

We shifted on 2nd May, and Nikhil submitted an application on 5th May to have the phone transferred from Koramangala to CV Raman Nagar. Ah, that accursed date of 5th May - how many times we have referred to that date since, in frustrated phone calls to frustrating people!

Here's a rough timeline of what happened.

  1. 5th May - The application for the transfer of the connection is submitted at the Koramangala customer care office in the BDA complex.
  2. 9th - 11th May - We call up BSNL customer care to get the status of the application. They tell us that they can only answer technical help calls, and give us the number of the Indira Nagar exchange. We call the Indra Nagar exchange (since CV Raman Nagar apparently doesn't have a separate exchange), and are repeatedly told that the application is still pending at Koramangala. The number of the Koramangala office isn't available online, and we can't contact them. The Indira Nagar people claim, incredibly enough, that they don't have the number of the Koramangala office.
  3. 12th May - Finally, a frustrated Nikhil goes to the Koramangala office. He gets there at 9:30, not realizing that government offices start working only after 10:30. He is asked to wait, and then, at 10:30, is told that the office won't be functioning that day since it's a second Saturday! #$^@^&^&!!
  4. 13th May - 20th May - No following up on our part, since both of us are away from the house. On 18th, Nikhil gets a call from somebody asking if he knows a BSNL number that's close to our place. Since we've recently moved, we obviously don't know such a number.
  5. 21st May - 25th May - The Indira Nagar exchange still claims that the application is pending at Koramangala. They give us the name and mobile number of the person in Koramangala who is supposed to process it, but the number is always switched off. Nikhil reaches the end of his tether and calls up higher and higher people in the BSNL hierarchy. All of them promise action, but nothing happens.
  6. 26th May morning - Finally, I get tired of listening to Nikhil yelling at different people everyday, and decide to go to Koramangala myself. I get there at around 11:30, and I explain the problem. They show me a register which says the application has been processed on 8th May. Then why, I ask, are the Indira Nagar people saying that you have not processed it? They have no answer. They stop responding to my repeated questions after a while. They write the Indira Nagar exchange's phone number on a piece of paper and mutely give it to me. I already have this number, I tell them. I ask them if they can talk to the Indira Nagar people directly and sort out the confusion. They get up and walk away from the desk. True story.
  7. 26th May afternoon - I am back to calling up the Indira Nagar exchange. "Ah yes, Nikhil's number, right?" they say - like the Airtel Customer Care people, the BSNL guys have also become very familiar with Nikhil. "It is still pending at Koramangala. But don't worry ma'am - the AM has taken it up. It will be sorted out soon." The AM, I assume, is one of the poor people Nikhil has called up over the last one week.
  8. 27th May - 1st June - "Ma'am, it is still pending at Koramangala."  "Ma'am, it is still pending at Koramangala."  "Ma'am, it is still pending at Koramangala."  "But don't worry ma'am - the AM has taken it up. It will be sorted out soon." Oh, yay.
  9. 2nd June - I finally get a kind-hearted girl on the phone. She gives me the usual reply, but says she will call up Koramangala and get this sorted out. She asks me to call back in ten minutes. I call back, and she says she has spoken to Koramangala. She gives me the Koramangala office's number, and says I can follow up with them if needed. This girl is the first (and probably last) helpful person we have interacted with in the entire duration. If only somebody had done this earlier, we could have saved four weeks of following up.
  10. 4th June - I call up the number she has given me. The lady tells me that the application has been processed and is now with the Indira Nagar exchange. She even gives me our new telephone number. With tears of joy in my eyes, I listen to angels singing in heaven. It is done! Surely, we will get our phone this week!
  11. 5th June - I call up the Indira Nagar exchange again. The lady says they have processed it, and she gives me the number of the CV Raman Nagar office - the people who will presumably install the phone. Things seem to be moving pretty quickly now!
  12. 7th June - I call up the CV Raman Nagar office. The lady says, "Final testing is going on. You will get it by today."
  13. 8th June -  I call up the CV Raman Nagar office. The lady says, "There was some problem with the wiring. We have returned it and have got the new wiring. Final testing is going on. You will get it by today."
  14. 9th June - I call up the CV Raman Nagar office. The lady, presumably frustrated with me, gives me the number of some guy named Swaminathan with whom it is pending. I call up Swaminathan. His number is not accepting any calls. I leave him a message. 
And that's where it stands. Half an hour ago, Nikhil finally called up Mr A P Bhatt, the BSNL Head for Karnataka. He was quite nice and helpful, especially considering the fact that he was called on his residence number on a second Saturday. That can't fun. He said he would get it sorted out on Monday. But BSNL Karnataka and BSNL Bangalore are apparently different entities, so I'm not sure what he can do.

Anyway, the several morals of the story are:
  • The customer is always screwed - never mind if it's a public company or a private company. 
  • Companies should have a single Customer Care helpline. We had to follow up on this application through three different exchanges because the BSNL Customer Care guys said they would be able to address only technical queries.
  • Companies should have well-built websites. If only we had been able to get the Koramangala office's number on their site, we wouldn't have had to bug the Indira Nagar people so much.
  • Moral for HR people: It's great that you have incentives for the sales guys. This will help the customers get their connections quickly, but: (a) the incentives can back-fire, given the Peenya story; (b) you're missing out minor stuff like transferring connections on time, or behaving well with customers. I wonder if there are SLAs for phone transfers.
• • •


naween said...

I think the Alcatel-Lucent thing was the worst!!! Did you pay for the time the hardware problem existed?

DR said...

Yup, we did, except for the last one month. And the story of why we didn't pay for that is even more hilarious. Apparently, once a number is disconnected, they remove the option for the customer to pay the last bill online. Talk about dumbness. I obviously decided I wasn't going to go all the way to some Airtel office to pay the damn bill.

Ninja said...

Lol LOl LOL!

Not lol-ing at your mis-fortune, but at the co-incidence of the telecom organisations. FYI - Lady M's name is well known in Anil Ambani's office. For a similar such problem. After numerous calls, mails and discussions, the problem was resolved from the chairman's office!

Prasanna S said...

Gud customer service is a mirage in our country. It's simply not in the DNA of our service providers (worst part is tht the private players r as bad as the govt-owned ones).
If u r xtremely lucky, u hit an oasis. Otherwise, it's jus false promises n slow but sure suffering.. Especially in the case of commodity services, its amazing how very few of the large enterprises adopt 'customer satisfaction/orientation' as their differentiator.. its almost like a cartel whr every player says 'if its not him/her, it'll b smne else, so why bother abt customer experience/satisfaction'..

VJ said...

The lesson Ive learnt the very very hard way - dont EVER try to transfer a connection, cancel your existing one and take a new one, even if it costs you a bit more. It'll save you months of heartburn and frustraion!

DR said...

Ninja: Whoa! We didn't go to that level. I can just imagine Mr Mittal getting a call from Nikhil one morning! :D

Prasanna: So true. And telecom companies admit very openly that its the high ARPU customers they make money from - the ones who use roaming and value added services. They actually don't care much about the rest.

V: Yeah, we should have done that. :|