When automated customer service goes very bad – a BT case study

I am usually wary of reputation management case studies borne out of a PR practitioners’ personal experience because they are (necessarily) anecdotal and, typically, anger masquerading as advice.

And this example, hypocritically, is no different – but independent of how livid I may be with the terrible service received from BT when moving house, it’s still a fine example of avoidable and expensive customer service failure.

On 15 May we moved six doors down the road, from a small cottage that we had outgrown. BT were due to reconnect the telephone line on 27 May but the deadline passed and the line was dead. There was, we were told after being diverted to a call centre somewhere in India, a fault.

A week later and the line is still dead. BT, it emerges, have been sending engineers to the wrong address (our old house) to find and fix faults that don’t exist. Quite why is a mystery as we have only ever registered the new address with them. So far I’ve spent over 130 minutes either on hold – regularly to be cut off – or talking to call centre representatives who assure me, by rote, that everything will be fine.

At 2pm yesterday, as another deadline passes for fixing the fault, I walk outside to see if I can spot a BT van. There it is, parked outside my old house.

“Are you Ben?” says the engineer as he steps down from behind the wheel.

“Yes. I was told you were coming between 8am and 1pm.”

“Don’t blame me. I was only booked at 1pm.”

I am reminded of the works of Franz Kafka.

“You’ve not been booked for Number 32 have you?” I ask.

“Yes.”

“Well I live at number 20.”

There is nothing the engineer can do to help me, even though he is standing on my street, a few metres from my house. “We can only visit properties that we’ve been booked for.” He drives away. A sound, like the death rattle of a thousand small beetles, leaves my mouth.

This morning another engineer calls. His name is Pete and he is chirpy.

“We appear to have the wrong address for you. To book a visit by an engineer for the right address you need to call customer services.”

“Can you do it?”

“No, we’re not BT.”

“But you’re called BT Openreach.”

“We’re a BT company, but we’re not BT.”

“Do you have any idea how silly that sounds?”

“Erm….yes.”

What’s the lesson here (beyond ‘avoid BT’) for anyone involved in customer services and reputation management?

It could be the failure to integrate standard checks into sales. At no point in the three weeks prior to the deadline for transferring the line did BT check it for faults, and yet it took only a couple of minutes for a man in another continent to determine that the line was, indeed, faulty. One simple check and none of this would have happened.

It could be the failure to tailor the customer service journey to the customer. Instead, it is designed for the company’s benefit in order to maximise the efficiency of UK call centres. As a result, anyone wanting to talk to the faults department has to spend a long time on hold while someone in the north of England explains their predicament to someone in India. Calls are often cut off.

It could be the failure to integrate the domestic and international operation. Every time I speak to a UK operator I repeat my address as part of the security procedure. Yet the faults team spent a week sending engineers to the wrong address. They also made promises in relation to compensation and timings that their UK colleagues told me were simply not true.

It could be the muddling of brand between BT and Openreach that, through buck-passing, inevitably exacerbates customer services issues like mine.

It could be the operating costs that are far higher than the required investment to fix these issues. Engineers sent to the wrong addresses, fixing faults that don’t exist. Call centres tied up in hours of checks and explanations to one customer alone. Every one of the company’s representatives has tried their best at all points, but none of them is empowered to fix the problem.

No, what makes this a classic case study of failure to manage reputation is that, as all of this has played out, I have received the following emails and texts:

6436412/05/14 11:54 AM

Hello, BT here. Just to confirm you’ve set up online billing with BT. If you didn’t, please let us know at bt.com/letusknow.

6436422/05/14 8:50 AM

6436427/05/14 9:15 AM

BT here. Your broadband service is ready for you. If you’re expecting new kit, it should be with you by now, so just follow its user guide to set it up.  If it hasn’t arrived yet, find out where it is atbt.com/ordertracking. Thanks for choosing BT.

6436427/05/14 9:29 AM

BT here. Your phone service is ready for you. You can find out a phone’s number by calling 17070 from it. Thanks for choosing BT.

6436402/06/14 2:16 PM

Hello, BT here.

Sorry about your fault. Your phone should be back to normal now. If you set up Call Diversion, you can cancel it by dialling #21# from your landline. If you’ve got broadband, you might need to restart your hub and wait up to three days for your broadband speed to get back to normal. If you need any more help, go to bt.com/help

6436402/06/14 3:09 PM

Hello, BT here.

Sorry about your fault. Your phone should be back to normal now. If you set up Call Diversion, you can cancel it by dialling #21# from your landline. If you’ve got broadband, you might need to restart your hub and wait up to three days for your broadband speed to get back to normal. If you need any more help, go to bt.com/help

6436403/06/14 8:53 AM

Hello, BT here.

Sorry about your fault. Your phone should be back to normal now. If you set up Call Diversion, you can cancel it by dialling #21# from your landline. If you’ve got broadband, you might need to restart your hub and wait up to three days for your broadband speed to get back to normal. If you need any more help, go to bt.com/help

Of course, the phone service was never ready. And the fault never tested, let alone fixed. It will be another 48 hours before an engineer is sent to the right address.

Problems like mine are, apparently, common. Yet at no point has anyone thought to introduce a check which turns off automated emails when a fault is reported.

Reputation is often described as the difference between expectation and delivery. When customer service fails, automated communications that do not take this into account stretch the gulf between these even further. They gall, so smartly, because they are untrue. An automatic lie, if you will. And nothing corrodes trust quicker than an inability or failure to tell the truth.

Given the monopolistic position of BT Openreach I very much doubt any number of blog posts would change these behaviours. But if you work in customer services or reputation management and are now feeling smug (or chastened), then at least something came of this shambles.

 

 

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