How not to do it

Along with colds, tummy problems, a teething toddler and a big girl bed my Easter break also featured more than a little angst about, of all things, phone lines. What follows is a long rant with some observations at the end…

Back at the beginning of March I started to notice that our broadband kept dropping out, usually just for a few minutes at a time, but up to several times an hour.

The future's bright. The future's... dial-up?

The future’s bright. The future’s… dial-up?

I idly tweeted about this while I did the things you have to do with phoneline issues (unplug everything, master socket, quiet line test etc. etc. etc.) and waited for my ISP (BE) to respond to the ticket I put in about it – and was surprised to get a tweet back from BT.

While I still waited to hear back from BE, I was pointed towards an Openreach fault reporting webpage by the BT Twitter account, had an email reply to that within 3 hours and an engineer visited the next day. Fantastic, I thought, as I listened to the engineer on the phone explaining that he’d been up the wall, fixed the little brown box that looked broken and even went the extra mile and pinned a loose cable to the wall again. Isn’t Twitter great – proactive support from BT and an engineer within 24 hours! The broadband monitoring graph from the next day onwards looked much better:

No more red

No more red

But obviously all was not well… The evening after the engineer visit I spotted that our broadband connection was running at just 2Mb (rather than the usual 14Mb), something that no number of router-reboots fixed. On a whim, I picked up the phone. No dial tone!

Unfortunately I was off to the UCISA conference the next day, so all I was able to do was use BT’s fault testing/reporting web pages. You log in, provide some details of the fault and it goes off and runs whatever tests it can to try spot the fault. This looks and sounds great, but obviously has its limitations – it got as far as it could, but even automated testing is limited.


I’d hoped for the same next-day service we’d had the day before, so I was disappointed that the site informed me that the expected fix date was over a week later. I wasn’t terribly surprised to get home 3 days later and find there had been no engineer and no fix. And it seemed no word from BT – until I discovered that they still had an old email contact and were using that (not the one I had used on the form). It was lucky I checked.

I eventually got a call-back and was told that something unspecified would happen at an unspecified time in the future. It really was that vague. The main thing that came up was the repeated warning that, if the problem was with our domestic phone cabling, we would be charged £99. I’d gone from feeling quite good about the support experience to scratching my head at how ineffective it all seemed.

21st March, the fix date the website still claimed, came and went and we still had no working phone and awful broadband.

Back to Twitter, I thought, as that approach worked well last time. The Ireland based customer service folk got back to me and directed me to yet another form and a few hours later I had another call-back, although the experience was the same as the last call-back, very vague about what would happen and when. A new fault report appeared on the website (the original one is still there today, unresolved) promising a fix within another 9 days.

We had to wait another 5 days for an engineer to call (I’d had a text that morning saying someone would call between 1-3, there was no call and the engineer turned up at 5) and sure enough the fault was exactly where I’d tried to explain in both the previous phone calls. But he couldn’t get up there to fix it because his ladder would be leaning on the guttering – begging the question of how the first guy got up there at all. But we weren’t to be concerned; he’d be back the next day with a “hoist” (one of those lifty-craney things they have mounted on the back of their vans).

He didn’t come back.

But it was okay, because that morning I got an email from Warren Buckley, BT’s Managing Director (not really, it was an automatic message from a no-reply address), apologising for the problems and explaining it would take a bit longer to fix our fault. Though not how much longer.


We had to wait until Tuesday before hearing anything else – again the day started with a text saying someone would phone me between 3pm and 5pm, followed by an engineer turning up at about 2pm, followed shortly by a colleague with a hoist and within about 10 minutes the phone was at last working and the broadband back up at normal speeds.

I did get a call at about 3.30 that afternoon, though (predictably) I missed it. Later that day I spotted two follow up emails, one with a “discussion thread” featuring messages I hadn’t seen (no idea where they were sent to) from Customer Support which ended with the line “Thank you for allowing us to be of service to you”. This one wasn’t from Warren Buckley – that message came 10 minutes later apologising for the fact we’d had problems, but that it should now be fine.

This is more than just a rant about poor service; I wanted to pick out some particular lessons and observations.

  1. Communication Quality: The communication was rubbish. While the initial communication was okay – the proactive Twitter stuff was great to see and the automated responses to the forms was what I would expect – but once those initial bits were done I was left in the dark.One of the request management principles I’ve introduced here is that we don’t leave a request 4 days without communication with a  user (unless there is a timetable set for getting in touch again, for example if we’re waiting for something to be delivered). People like to know what’s going on.
  2. Expectation Management: On a similar theme, throughout this saga the only point at which I knew when things would happen was at the start when dealing directly with Openreach. After that, the best I got was “fix by” dates, the first of which was missed with no explanation, the second was met (just!). Add to that promised phone calls which didn’t happen and engineers appearing unannounced… I was left with no idea of when things would happen, even when I spoke to an actual human being. Combine this with #1 above and it’s not a recipe for a happy customer.This is basic expectation management. I wouldn’t have minded so much about having to wait over a week for the line to be fixed (we hardly used it) if I’d been confident about when it was going to happen and been kept up to date.
  3. Communication Style: Automated emails which you can’t reply to are frustrating, especially when they’re not helpful and you want more information. And pretending those emails are from a company’s MD (particularly at 8am on a Saturday) is just silly. I can’t imagine my world or my users’ experience would be any better if all our email communication claimed to come from our IT Director, let alone the VC.
  4. Slooooowwww: I don’t know how we coped when broadband was just 512kb – we struggled at 2mb!


I suppose the most obvious question throughout this is why wasn’t I jumping up and down after the first “fix” actually made it worse? I think it comes from having worked both 1st and 2nd line support earlier in my career. I know what it’s like to get it in the neck for something that’s not your fault. I also persist with the notion that people actually want to help if they can – maybe that’s naive.


Not my fault, guv.

It’s worth pointing out that my ISP aren’t exactly covered with glory in this either. I’d passed on the results of my own tests before I even got a response from them about my problems and their eventual guidance was that it was BT’s problem and I would have to speak to them (but don’t mention the B word!). The irony here is that it was the broadband that wasn’t working properly, the phone line was working fine. But I saw this coming, hence the day before this all started, I tweeted this:

Maybe it’s time to give Virgin Media a go…


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