This is a tale of appalling customer service, bad data management, a company culture that refuses to deal with complaints, bad HR strategy / practice and employee disempowerment / disengagement at the mobile phone company O2. It’s a long story which is still developing as I update this post. In business terms, it teaches us some great lessons about how to get these things right, as many good companies do. Yet I remain astonished at the catalogue of problems that this relatively small issue has thrown up within O2’s culture, structure, systems and HR strategy / practice. Read on …
March 02 2014
I still require some kind of therapy after a wasted weekend of mind-numbing conversation on the phone with my son Tom’s mobile phone providers O2, part of the Telefonica group. Tom took a contract with O2 just over a year ago on a special half price offer of around £16 a month provided to him as a former “Pay as you go” customer. Some months later he noticed that O2 had been charging him nearly £30 per month and he went to the shop to resolve this, but got fobbed off by the staff. As a young person, Tom is rather unwilling to have his time wasted on bureaucracy, so he decided that O2’s dishonesty should be repaid by him switching phone contracts at the end of the 12 months, which he did. He cancelled the direct debit and thought all was well … until O2 presented him with a bill for £61 for overdue bills after he left them. On inspection I uncovered that O2 owed him £137.77 due to their persistent overbilling on their part. I decided that it might be simple to have a friendly word with O2 about this … I was wrong …
So, what’s the big deal?
You might at first be wondering why any of this matters? Well, O2 recently put a debt collection agency onto the case. I had explained the situation to them and they agreed that it was not correct and they dropped the matter. I thought that this was the end of the matter. Not at all. I then received a letter from Messrs Buchanan, Clark and White, a firm of solicitors chasing the £61 debt (times must be hard – goodness knows what O2 are paying them to recover £61!! – perhaps it’s O2’s UK tax bill?). So, the big deal here relates to my son getting a bad credit score rating for O2’s overbilling which caused Tom to leave them. Such things are notoriously hard to remove in the age of computers, even if it can be proved that the data is incorrect. I have since found out that O2 have logged him on Experian et al as a result of their own error and I’m now about to take Experian to the cleaners for logging false information.
I asked O2 if they could call me to sort this out (Tom is a student and refuses to call them using an 0845 number, which would cost him a massive amount on his mobile, given the time needed to get through). To my astonishment, O2 pointed out that they are unable to arrange telephone callbacks. I thought to myself:
Er, did I just get hear that correctly?
A phone company unable to make a phone call?
Yes, you did Peter!
If O2 won’t call me, I’ll call them …
Eventually, I decided that a trip to see my son would be in order and a visit to the O2 shop, so I set off on a 60 mile jaunt to the O2 shop in Canterbury on Saturday. I explained the problem to the shop manager. He told me he could not help as his account is not active and therefore their computer “said no”, but they did let me call O2 on their customer phone. After 20 minutes, someone eventually answered, listened carefully for 15 minutes and then agreed to escalate the call. However, there was no one to escalate the call to, so I asked for a call back. Another 20 minutes later, this had been arranged with a password for me to use on my son’s behalf. The call was to come within 5 – 10 minutes but no call arrived. Thus my entire afternoon was wasted for no outcome whatsoever. I retired injured, having spent the whole afternoon on the telephone when I had gone to see my son for something far more important. Ho hum, shit happens, and shit seems to happen a lot when you phone O2 …
Lazy Sunday … not
Sunday is a new day so I thought I’d start over. Firstly online. In a moment of blind optimism, I thought that maybe I could ask O2 to start where we left off with a call back. Oh no, we’re right back to the beginning again! They refused to use the password we had set up on Saturday and also refused to honour the call they never made the previous day. Interestingly O2 are very keen to get me off Twitter to discuss the matter in private, so that they can continue the process of gradual erosion, sucking the energy, life and soul out of even the most passionate customer, like some kind of telephonic dementors:
Undeterred by about 50 repetitive mind-numbing e-mails from O2’s web team, I set off with renewed energy to the local O2 shop as it seems that the only way I can deal with this is by phone. An exceptional shop assistant greets me, tries to access the account online, but once again is blocked by O2 as the account is not active. This time we have a 90 minute phone call to O2, via three of their customer representatives including two senior managers. The first cannot help but is polite and refers me on again. The second listens carefully but also cannot help and refers to the third (Keeley) who decides to go on the attack. Here’s some of the arguments that Keeley makes:
- My son should have persisted with queuing for hours to sort the contract out. He is therefore a wimp for not putting up with O2’s appalling service and it’s his fault that he did not get his money back and now his fault that the solicitors are on his case. She herself points out that she checks everything she buys, as people cannot be trusted. This is not a way I wish to run my life, nor have I ever done so.
- I ask for a copy of the original contract as he never received one and Keeley disputes his honesty that he bought an offer. Keeley refuses to send a copy as this information is ‘confidential’ even though it’s HIS contract. She says that ‘the computer says’ that my son has not tried to contact O2 (actually it has no record of any contact) and this means that his contract is valid. I point out that he did visit the shop several times to no avail. She says that the computer does not record shop visits and implies that the visits did not therefore happen. When people mistake explicit data from tacit knowledge and information, we are into very dangerous territory. If it is not on the computer, it does not exist was the line taken by O2. I am reminded of Little Britain:
- Keeley likes to point out that it was my son (and not O2) who broke the contract by just leaving O2 at the end of the contract. She thinks he is stupid and that therefore he must pay the price for his stupidity. When I point out that O2 broke the contract in the first place by repeatedly overcharging, she fails to answer the point, simply using the ‘broken record’ technique in an attempt to break my will. I point out that Tom would probably never have left O2 if the contract had been made correctly in the first place, thus if blame is to be apportioned, then O2 are the root cause of his departure and therefore the breach of contract. She chooses to ignore this. I hope she sleeps well. Keeley’s views are in direct contrast with the views of Ronan Dunne, CEO of O2:
O2’s HR Director Ann Pickering seems also to have a different view of things than Keeley. She claims that O2 hire staff that go the extra mile and want to turn their customers into fans … she does not mention of which company though … She claims that they want to hire ‘disruptors’ who do things differently. This is a good illustration of the gap between HR strategy and practice. Someone up there has some kind of set of fantasies about what is going on at ground floor level and they never get to have that view disturbed until a customer shakes their paradigm. Well, Ann Pickering, consider your paradigm well and truly shaken. I wrote to her re this – she did not reply, which speaks volumes. As the old saying goes “The fish rots from the head”.
- Keeley cannot help anyway as the matter is in the hands of solicitors to claim the £61 back. Keeley claims to be a ‘senior manager’. But just what is she managing? How has her approach got anything to do with management? It appears that the computer could do her job as she tells me that her computer holds all the information she needs to make a resolution.
I still need to resolve the matter or my son gets a bad credit rating for £61, when it is O2 that owe him money. On principle it seems wrong now to just pay up, which is what they expect people to do. Here’s the account as it currently stands:
- My son allegedly owes O2 £61 for not actively cancelling his contract
- O2 owe my son £137.77 for overbilling, which caused him to leave O2 thus invalidating his contract with them
- O2 owe my son an order of correction to Experian et al to ensure that he does not become criminalised at the age of 19 for O2’s mistake in overbilling him
- O2 owe me £50 for petrol
- O2 owe me more than five day’s wasted time
- O2 owe Tom and myself something for the mind numbing experience and a wasted weekend
- O2 may be sued for inappropriate use of credit rating agencies to criminalise my son at the age of 19 for mistakes that THEY made on THEIR computer, following the recent case of this in respect of Richard Durkin
Lest you might be thinking that all call centres are bad, that’s simply not true as there is a huge differential between these places. I’ve had excellent service from First Direct, EE and The Carphone Warehouse of late.
So, what’s next? Well, I think we have moved no further forward than when this started and each time I contact O2, they put bureaucratic and petty quasi legal obstacles in the way of resolution. So it appears that my next steps must be to raise this formally with various people so that they do not get trapped in a similar way. I must thank Anne Tynan for her excellent article on Why brands must have big ears, which provides a catalogue of advice and examples in this area.
POSTSCRIPT 14.15 Monday 03 March
I have just had a call from O2’s Office of the Chief Executive – The issue appeared to be on the road to resolution but see below. Thanks to all that have shared the blog on social media – I somehow wish that we could have reached this point without the worst two days of my life this year and the consequent losses of business and money.
POSTSCRIPT 09.51 Wednesday 12 March
My optimism was in vain. I have had considerable amounts of my time wasted by O2’s Executive Customer Relations team over this, specifically Antony Gibson. Central to their argument is that they claim that we must have evidence that the contract was £16 per month, but O2 have admitted that they cannot find a copy of the contract themselves!! I find this astonishing, given that I can recover invoice 0001 from 1994 from my own business, but they appear to be unable to produce a copy of an order from just over a year ago. They also claim that they are unable and unwilling to stop the contagion of data sharing that has occurred to credit rating agencies in spite of the fact that it was their own computer systems that generated this error. As a result I have lodged a formal complaint to Ofcom and the Ombudsman – see below. Since O2 are unable to produce an order I have also referred them to the tax authorities as there must be a record of the purchase in the company for VAT and tax purposes.
To add insult to injury, my wife decided to cancel her contract with O2 and spent nearly 90 minutes on “Live Chat” sessions trying to get them to send an e-mail confirming that she had cancelled the contract, since O2 insist that “if it is not on a computer, it did not happen”. On every occasion, she was promised a confirmation e-mail. On every occasion it has not arrived … In the words of Timbaland “It’s too late to apologise”.
To cheer me up, time for some Blondie which explains the title of this blog and another telephone songs from ELO. I urge you to take good care when considering buying anything from O2. In their own words #Bemoredog and go elsewhere!
About the Author: Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock – Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics – Business and organisation development, training and coaching. Contact via firstname.lastname@example.org or +44 (0) 7725 927585 – it’s not an O2 number!!