More staff, fewer apologies: After red-carpet treatment from BT, Robert Clarke would still prefer it to spend more on engineers

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Indy Lifestyle Online
WHO SAID complaining never pays? British Telecom is bending over backwards to appease angry customers, even when it doesn't admit being in the wrong.

My phone in Cranleigh, Surrey, went dead just before the Easter weekend. On Tuesday evening, I noticed it was out of order, but remembered a note from BT, something about work on the local exchange that day, with lines being cut for a short while. On Wednesday, the line was still dead, but I just assumed there had been problems with the work, so let it pass.

Come Thursday, I was getting worried. I organise a school exchange, and had given my home number as an emergency contact. My neighbour let me dial 150to report the fault.

Very polite. 'Oh, yes, sir. I'm sorry, sir. We'll fix it as soon as we can.' Friday comes, and no one's mended the fault. Saturday - dead as a dodo still. Sunday? Jesus might have been resurrected on Easter Sunday, but not my phone. I call again.

'Sorry, sir, but our engineers don't work over the weekend.'

'What]' I cry, 'You should have someone available]'

'No,' replies Mr 150, deadpan, in an I've-

got-a-nutter-on-the-line sort of voice. 'If you read the small print of your contract, you'll see that . . .'

Monday's another Bank Holiday, so on Tuesday morning off I go to the BT 'shop' in Guildford, and my phone is working within a few hours. I send a letter of complaint to Oftel, and three weeks later get a reply from BT. Its engineers promise to repair faults within 24 hours, but I only notified them on the Thursday before Easter, so they weren't obliged to fix it until Tuesday, the next working day.

But then this nice man offered me a pounds 50 credit 'as a gesture of goodwill for the frustration and annoyance' I had been caused. I read the letter I subsequently received carefully: first he exonerates BT from blame, then he gives me 50 quid. Why?

Could it be because I wrote that it was scandalous for thousands of engineers to be made redundant and then not have any around to look after customers for a week, or that I said I was sending a copy of the letter to my MP? I begin to suspect there is a sliding scale of response that depends on how articulate a complainant is, or how sensitive the complaint might be.

Whatever the answer, two weeks later I was given the red-carpet treatment after BT's next blunder. I had a phone bill to pay, so I deducted the pounds 50 when I sent it off. Back came a final threat: pay up the outstanding pounds 50 or we cut you off. I went to the BT shop again. Details were taken, and the mistake rectified. Later on I received a call from a Senior Customer Relations Officer, posh lady, plummy voice. It was 'an unpardonable error . . . I really do apologise . . . on behalf of BT . . . please accept 500 free units.'

'That's very nice of you,' I say, 'But I only wanted to make sure you didn't cut me off.'

I check, and discover that 500 units is more than we used in our last quarterly bill. My wife doesn't know whether to laugh or cry, but celebrates by spending an hour on the phone to her family in South America. Can't wait for the next cock-up: we might get a holiday at Disneyworld, a seat on the board]

I just shrug my shoulders. I don't own shares in BT or have a political axe to grind. It appears that commercially it is more cost effective to compensate complainants in this way than pay for back-up engineers to be on duty.

For the first time, I understand why it is possible to make so many engineers redundant, and why profits are so high. BT's munificence to me is no more than a second's profit for the company, but, given the choice, I'd rather have the fuller service. I'm sure people whose lives depend on the phone would, too.