Philip Hensher: A cautionary tale of today's customer service

One talks to sympathetic voices who can see how ridiculous the whole thing has become
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The Independent Online

Here is a story of the relationships between companies and their customers these days. I tell it not because it seems particularly bad; in fact, in lots of ways, I think everyone involved did their best at every point. I have no doubt that almost anyone who reads this will have a much worse story to tell, and in fact much worse things have happened to me at the hands of corporations. I'm telling this story in the full sense that this, in truth, is an absolutely average story of our lives these days.

About two months ago, a button fell off my mobile telephone. It just disappeared, and if I wanted to press the back button on my Ericsson phone, I had to poke at it with my little finger. Shortly afterwards, another button fell off, and then, the next day, a third. A friend commented in a jocular way on the ludicrous way I was poking at my phone. It occurred to me that I might as well ask Vodafone, my service provider, for a replacement, or, as they said, "an upgrade".

Now, I absolutely detest mobile telephones, and the way they've changed our lives. I detest the way one is constantly available; I detest the way in which they've allowed all of us to neglect the basic civility of social punctuality in exchange for the information that "I'm running a bit late". But there's nothing to be done about it. You just have to have one.

I called Vodafone, and they decently agreed that I'd been a customer for long enough to merit a new telephone. However, I couldn't just go to the nearest shop on the King's Road and collect one. I had to order one, and it would be delivered. Had I considered what sort of new telephone I would like? No; I would merely like one which fitted into my pocket and where the buttons didn't fall off. What about the Sony Ericsson K800i? Thank you, I said. It would be delivered the next day, between 8am and 6.30pm.

You know the rest of the story, I dare say. I stayed in, and waited. Lunch came, and tea, and I started to think about dinner, and nothing arrived. I called the company. They were most surprised; someone had tried to deliver it, but there was nobody there. I pointed out that this was not the case. They read out the address. Although Vodafone had no particular difficulty in delivering my monthly bill, for instance, to my address, they'd given the delivery company my next door neighbour's address.

They promised to deliver it, now, after Christmas. Could I stay in all day on the 28th, on the off-chance that the delivery would be made? I could, and stayed in all day on the 28th. Nothing appeared.

"You were supposed to deliver yesterday," I said, the next morning. "Not yesterday," the voice said. "But they've tried to deliver this morning and you weren't there. They've left a note." "It's now 10 o'clock," I said. "I've been here all this time." "You could go and pick it up from the depot in Southwark," they said. "No, I couldn't," I said.

In the end, they agreed to ask the driver to try again to deliver it the same day, if they could get in contact with him. I pointed out that they were now wasting the third full day of my time; they agreed, after a short but pointed discussion, to credit me with £30 on my account.

Later that day the company tried again to deliver the phone to my neighbour's house, and were only prevented from driving away merrily a third, or perhaps fourth time, by our taking shifts at the front window, poised like greyhounds in the slips, to leap out and intercept.

The hilarious coda to all of this - which, as I say, is by no means an exceptional story these days - is that the very next day, I had a solicitous call from Vodafone, asking me about my experiences. "Would you say," the gentleman asked, "that you were treated by staff very politely, quite helpfully, neither helpfully nor unhelpfully, unhelpfully, or rudely?" I tried to convey that everyone I spoke to had been very sympathetic, from beginning to end. But it seemed almost impossible to interfere with the machinery once set in motion, however patently absurd its results.

He quite understood, my interviewer; on the other hand, he could only ask the questions which were flashing up on the screen in front of him, and tick off one of five boxes. He couldn't do anything more; we had quite a small, sympathetic laugh about that one.

Over and over again, dealing with these bureaucratic machines, one talks to sympathetic and even thoughtful voices who can see how ridiculous the whole thing has become. Don't even get me started on my long-drawn-out attempts to explain to the BBC's collection agency that, no, I don't have a television licence because, actually, I don't have a television at one particular address. But the machinery has been set in motion, and nobody can do anything to interfere.

So we put up with threatening letters, and staying in for three useless days waiting for a delivery which, when it comes, is to the wrong address. It's bad enough for us as customers, or "customers" of these services. But imagine what it must be like to work for them, and never be able to ask a sensible question, or to query an obvious mistake, because there isn't a box for it.