Leo D'Angelo Fisher Columnist

Leo covers management and leadership issues, business trends and corporate strategy. He is a former senior business writer at The Bulletin and a former host of The Business Hour on 3AW.

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Crossed wires

Published 09 March 2012 15:45, Updated 12 March 2012 07:53

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My recent columns about run-ins with telco leviathan Telstra has struck some raw nerves with BRW and brw.com.au readers. Several have shared their own customer service war stories, while others have just sent notes of sympathy.

There’s a TV ad for cockroach spray currently screening in which the presenter says something along the lines of, “if you see one cockroach, chances are there are many more in your house”. It’s the same with the cockroach that is bad customer service: it’s unlikely that a bad customer experience is a freak occurrence. It’s more likely to point to systemic problems.

One Sydney reader was moved by my account of my disastrous foray into a Telstra shop (a franchisee) at my local shopping centre. “Your story is so common it brings a tear to my eye,” he wrote.

To recap, this was when I attempted to update my mobile phone plan, only to be told that, despite having the phone for 12 years, the Telstra computer decided that the phone was my wife’s and that I would need her permission to upgrade the plan. The Telstra assistant would not listen to reason and 90 minutes later, broken, I relented: Telstra rang my wife, the absurd situation was explained and she gave her “permission”.

But wait, there was more. The computer then displayed a warning that the transaction was not to proceed until the Telstra shop conferred with its credit agency, which it could not do because it was a Sunday. Telstra eventually rang to say I could pick up my new phone – i.e., I was not a bad credit risk after all. That was two or three weeks ago and I have been disinclined to do so.

Back to my teary correspondent who wrote that my story brought back painful memories. My problem was familiar, he explained, but it was a problem he had experienced from the other side of the counter.

“I used to work in a chain that did sign-ups for Telstra. Even the franchisee had absolutely no power in the inevitable hiccups that the Telstra contract-producing software would provide,” he wrote.

“It was bad during the week but on the weekend everyone in the store would avoid the mobile phone section. If you happened to go near it and someone had the desire to get a phone, you just knew that you were going to lose an hour of your time and the customer had only a 50 per cent chance of getting a phone anyway.

“That was four years ago, so I had assumed that the experience had become more fluid and painless but reading your offering it seems not.”

Among the war stories I received, a Brisbane reader’s “Telstra moment” is one I particularly want to share.

He explained that his mother had dementia and had been in decline to the point where it was decided she needed to be moved from her unit into a nursing home. The reader, who had enduring power of attorney (EPOA) over his mother’s affairs, was responsible for packing up his mother’s possessions and getting services disconnected.

Disconnecting the electricity and gas went smoothly – he had simply to email the utilities a copy of the EPOA. The matter was not so simple when it was time to call Telstra.

The Telstra customer service officer (pardon the oxymoron) asked our hero to fax the EPOA but he explained that he did not have a fax machine but could email the document. Without hint of irony, the Telstra officer explained that “sorry, we don’t have email”. The obvious protests were made but the Telstra officer insisted that email was not an option, “but you can go to your nearest Telstra store”.

Customer: “I don’t want to spend an hour doing that – driving, parking, finding the store and explaining this all over again; I’ve just done the gas and electricity over the phone, so I want this to be as simple.”

Telstra: “Well that’s your only option.”

Customer: “No it’s not. We’ll just not pay the bill and eventually you’ll disconnect the phone anyway.”

Telstra: “But that would eventually end up going to debt collectors.”

Customer: “She’s an 85-year old woman with dementia – good luck with taking her to court.”

At this point, the matter was referred to a supervisor. After several minutes on hold, during which time the supervisor was brought up to speed, the discussion resumed.

Telstra supervisor: “I understand that you can’t get to a Telstra store.”

Customer: “No, that’s not correct, it’s just that I want this to be simple and I don’t want to spend an hour doing something that should be easily done electronically. As I said to your colleague, the simplest thing now for me is to end this phone call and not pay the bill and eventually you’ll disconnect the phone.”

The Telstra supervisor repeated the warning that this would affect the elderly women’s credit rating and the customer again pointed out that his mother was 85, had dementia and was now living in a nursing home.

The customer continued: “You’re talking as if I want something from you but I don’t. You might want to make a note on her records of this conversation to save Telstra time and money down the track when the bill isn’t paid.”

The Telstra supervisor eventually relented and – surprise, surprise – an email address was found.

My correspondent concluded his note to me: “It was all resolved in the end and, to his credit, the supervisor acknowledged the silliness of the situation but said his hands were tied by, you guessed it, ‘the law’, and Telstra’s procedures.”

Meanwhile, in my case, Telstra has promised to get to the bottom of my poor customer service experience. And my correspondent has hit the nail on the head with those two words: “Telstra’s procedures”. He might also have added: “Telstra’s training”. And how about, for good measure, “common sense”, “empathy” and “initiative”?

Do you agree? Write and tell me your views.

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