An open letter to Jackie O’Leary, Vice President of Member Services Office

Yes. The title sounds bit funny and might make you think what am I writing here? Well, this time I wanted to explore the service delivery and my own experiences of the same with it.

Over the next three blogs I am going to explore three major service failures I have observed and have been in the middle of it. And as they say the system (house being the right word) always wins, I felt victimized in almost all cases.

The three of them are going to be:
1. Internet service provider (AOL)
2. Credit card corporation (NatWest credit card)
3. Consumer durable (Indesit washing machine)

So here comes the first one.

Being an academic I teach, train and consult, current as well as future managers about service and relationship marketing in global context. However, when I talk to the companies somehow they completely indifferent to it. Reading Harvard Business Review and such other practitioner focused journals make me think the world is changing and for the betterment of the consumers’ service experience but reality bites and that too very hard.

For the last four and half years, we stayed loyal to a single ISP (AOL) even if at times I paid £17.99 for the most basic connection in comparison to the much cheaper alternatives. The idea being it serves the purpose so we didn’t mind giving away a little more. However, after about 3 years of being with AOL I realised the prices had dropped significantly and so I called them up saying why not give me a better deal for my loyalty. Interestingly enough the answer was a BIG FAT NO.

After a day of searching through the web of other deals and such, I realised I was paying nearly £10 more per month and so called up stating I wish to stop AOL services and would go to another ISP and know what, the same moment I was given a better deal, £10 off every month from there on. How quickly things change when you know the right tricks. However, I was bound to a 12 month contract for the same.

In February 2008 we moved house, it was merely from one end of the building to another end of the building. The post code didn’t change. The telephone number didn’t change. The only change was the change in house number.

British Telecom, within 5 days of notifying actually got the telephone line transferred (now that’s a surprise, isn’t it?). I thought this was going to be the tough part but it was really a piece of cake. The thing I thought was going to be easy was the easy movement of internet connection which turned out to be a nightmare.

I called up AOL on 18th Feb 2008 stating that we have moved house, and the telephone line remains the same so how much time will it take for the move to occur. I was told it could take 20 working days and that came as a surprise. Now I don’t know what is the situation in other market but in the UK broadband connection is tied to a telephone number so you can only use internet when accessing the through that specific telephone number (the telephone remains free but the connection is tied to that number).

I felt bit frustrated in about 2 days without internet at home and so called AOL who generously suggested that I can use their free dial up service for the time being. They provided me the set up instructions however, it never worked, after a full day of trial and error got me through to their service but it was complete reversal of what they had said. You also have to remember here that almost all the companies relating to telecommunications in the UK offer 0800 (free phone numbers) whilst you wish to join their service, however when you become their customers they provide you with 0844 or 0845 or 0870 numbers which are charged from 4p to 7p per minute. This way they avoid a lot of consumers talking to them.

Do you see now, why 95% consumers never talk to companies about why they left?

However, here I was, stuck, with a crappy dial up service (when you have used broadband for so long believe me, it feels that way). On 26th Feb 2008 I used a new interactive web based customer contact (live chat) service provided by AOL and to my surprise I was told that by the next Monday (3rd March 2008) the connection will be on. I was happy.

As I came back home on Monday from office, the first thing I did was to connect my PC to the modem and know what, the connection was not working. I thought of calling AOL and asking what was the trouble but remember calling AOL is not as easy as that. The 0844 499 5555 number costs you 5p a minute but moreover, there is seldom a chance that you will get connected to a person before 20 minutes. By that time you will have heard Frank Sinatra and what not (this is what they play in background when you hold with that lady saying every 5 – 10 minutes please hold, your call is important to us) for ample times.

However, I called up thinking this was important and let’s get it sorted. After an hour worth being on phone I was told that my house move request has not gone through and I wasn’t provided any clear reasons for the same. I was shell shocked. So, I decided to use the live chat service again and there came the shock of the month. service agent said that…

“I’ve checked it and I do apologise as the house move hasn’t gone through and unfortunately we cannot place the house move again at the moment as we are currently unable to place a house move due to a system problem here I’m afraid.” (by the way this is when I started saving all the chat sessions with them.)

Apologise, what apologise. So, I asked him why was I given a confirmation twice (once via email on 18th and later on 26th by one of the service agents)? The answer was…
“I do apologise that you were told you could connect as that isn’t the case… The only option we have is to place the house move again when our system issue is resolved. I would advise to call back in 4 – 7 days for an update…”

Here I was, frustrated to say the least and stuck. I went to the AOL website after an hour using my dial up and you know what, that time itself I put a house move request and got confirmation on email saying they have accepted my house move request.

On 5th March, 2008 I decided to contact AOL again for checking if that request I had placed had gone through and hoorraaaah… it had gone through. However, when I asked what has gone wrong I was told…

“There seems to have been a problem with your line at your new address. When the broadband was requested to be placed on your new line I see that the request was repeatedly placed for the new line and after four attempts to place the order the system finally cancelled to order placement.”

Obviously I asked why this was the case and the answer…

“As to what the problem with your line was exactly I’m afraid that would not show in our system and you would have to contact BT to enquire.”

I now thought, BT was the culprit and I was discussing this with some of my students who also agreed with that. However, when I contacted BT about this, they said, the agent should not have asked me to contact BT about it as BT wholesale deals with this request and ISPs have a direct contact with them not an individual customer. I pressed my case though and the BT service agent actually told me that there was no problem with the line and it was working perfectly well. This got me further frustrated.

So on 7th of March, 2008 I went on live chat again to talk to AOL agent about there being no problem on the telephone line and what has happened to my request. The service agent then told me the news stating that…

“Broadband is live on the number _________ and the postal code _____.”

I said that was not the case and that’s why I am talking to you however suddenly she left without giving any answer. I was now connected to another team member to whom I had to go through the same security checks and explaining the phenomenon again. And here came another Shock, much bigger than I could absorb.

“I have checked your account & we have no received any house move request from you.”

I was angry to the core now. I felt the system was toying with me. I was told to call AOL via telephone and get the exact details of why this was happening. However, as I knew from my earlier experience nobody had exact details at their end. Still, I called and the result was the same. No real result. I was furious.

Not much of trust was left and so I decided to use live chat again to check what was happening with the house move request. This time the service agent told me that…

“Ok – when I check that number with BT, they say broadband is currently active on it. Have you tried connecting?”

I told her I have tried connection more than a few times to no avail and she transferred me to the technical support team. The service agent told me that…

“According to the system here your broadband is active, you seem not to be getting a DSL signal on the modem itself and is not working from there. The best thing which I would suggest would be to phone AOL on contact number 08444 99 5555 and from there we can test your line and see is the Broadband signal leaving the AOL server and making it to your front door as it doesn’t seem to be at the moment.”

So I asked why he can’t do it right at that point in time and he stated…

“This cannot be complete from Live Help as the line cannot be in use with broadband or Telephone service, so this is why we would not have access to the tool and contacting AOL on the number above is the fastest and best way to get your connection back online.”

What a fantastic system integration, isn’t it? I was further told by the agent that if you don’t have another phone line at home…

“The team which do have access to test your line will check your modem, then disconnect the call and run the line test and they will phone you back with results from there.” (Which will not even happen in your dreams).

Following the agent’s advice I called up AOL within 10 minutes and after nearly a 2 hour long call and having heard the songs (while on hold for about 75% of that call) more than ample times I was told by a 2nd level agent that I had a ‘BT wholesale Line error code 2012’ on my phone line. What a perfect sense this words make to a consumer, don’t they? When asked for explanation, I was told that I should wait for minimum 24 hours before they run full diagnostics and let me know what the situation exactly was. I fail to understand what did they do since 26th February then?

Obviously, after 24 hours I decided to contact live chat again. This time I was given some more information.

“I would like to inform you that the issue is still with BT, they are working on it…. the problem occurred due to some technical fault at the exchange… I would advise you get in touch with us in another 48 hours and we’ll have an update on it.”

I could feel light at the end of the tunnel. So, on 11th March after 48 hours had passed, I religiously went on to live chat to see what had happened to my house move request. I was told…

“At the moment there is currently a cease been processed on the line and this is due to occur by the 14th, after the 14th we will be able to order broadband on the line for you… Once the cease has been processed for you, we will have to order the broadband for you, and this would occur within the next 7-10 working days.”

I was also told by the agent…

“I will keep an eye on the order for you. I will email you with an update, would that be okay for you?”

However as you can imagine like Crocodile’s tears, that never happened. So on 14th March I went online again to see the status of my order. This time I directly contacted the technical support team as last time I connected the house move team and they transferred me to them but to my surprise I was told to contact house move team this time. When I put forward my query, the answer given to me was…

“I can see the system error that has been preventing us from ordering your broadband. I will try to overcome this error now.” “I can work around the problem from here. Can I take your new address, postcode, and telephone number please?”

I felt a feeling of WOW that at last the broadband will work soon however to my surprise that was not the case. This is what I got from that agent…

“The best package that we could offer in your new area would be the following: AOL Broadband Wireless up to 8Mb with WiFi Router 6 months £9.99 then £14.99 (18 Months Commitment)”

I was stunned. I stated that I have been a customer for so long and I am already happy with what connection bandwidth I had and the price I was paying for that. I also asked what exactly had happened to my house move request and the answer was shocking to the least…

“What has happened is as follows: There is a system error which prevented the house move request from being completed. The latest update is that this error cannot be rectified. Therefore, my only option is to place you onto a new package, instead of carrying your old package to the new location.”

At this point in time, I really decided to cancel my AOL account. I called up AOL and asked them to cancel my account however, the service agent lulled me into false promises and told me that he can get this sorted and get me on the broadband quickly. I believe him and waited for another two days. Nothing worked out and so I called up AOL again (remember that minimum 20 minute waiting period every time) and cancelled my broadband however forgot to ask about my MAC code as I was unaware of the same.

Now this MAC code is something which you need to get your line transferred. I realised that in about 10 min of cancelling my contract and so called up AOL where I was told the cancellations happen immediately and so they can’t give me MAC code now. If I want MAC code they will have to reactivate the account and which shall take 4-7 working days.

I had two options:
1. To reactive the account, get the MAC code and transfer to another ISP (time taken 4-7 days + 15 days more for another ISP to get it going)
2. Leaving that MAC code and just wait for AOL to cancel the account on that line (10 – 20 working days) and then apply to another ISP for a new broadband connection (15 more days).

In the mean time I had to go to China for a week (last week of March) so I needed to get this working soon so my family and I can keep in touch. Looking at the options I decided the option 1 and what a colossal mistake that was. After 4-5 working days I called up AOL again and was told that the problem was not resolved and so I cancelled my account after about again being 2 hours on phone.

This is how AOL became AO(HEL)L for me.

Service failure of a kind at so many levels that it is beyond my grasp. In the era of customer orientation this is what we are offered and we don’t speak about it for the simple reason being, we let go. My point is, for how long? and why?

Do share your experiences and let’s make our viewpoints heard…