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The broken Kafkaesque world of BT.

BT scream.png
This is a personal post by Chris Barraclough based on recent interactions with BT.

I worry for BT, I really do.

I am usually sceptical of tales of woe about a company that you hear at dinner party tables. A single data-point is never going to reflect a company’s performance - especially if the story is recounted over an alcohol-fuelled meal where there is a strong danger of ‘embellishment’. However, recently I have had so many conversations with staff at all levels of BT - strategy, customer service, orders, faults, executive complaints - that I feel I have a reasonable understanding of the processes and culture at BT. And pretty it ain’t.

I have not been a BT customer for around a decade. However, having sold my house and moved into a rental property in Cambridgeshire, I decided it was easiest to use BT as the previous tenant had done so. They had deactivated the phone line and stopped broadband and reactivating everything should be a simple. How wrong I was.

1. I placed the order relatively easy and received a text in around 24 hours saying the phone line was live. However, I had no dial tone - just a crackling line as if it was open but no calls could be made.

2. I spent over 2 hours on the phone to customer services, then orders, then faults trying to get this resolved. Nobody could answer my question about what was preventing me from getting a dial tone. When transferring my calls between departments, 3 times they were dropped internally and I had to go back to square 1 and wait in the queue. Things are not helped in that BT has customer-facing operations in the UK, India and the Philippines and calls are routed between them.
        a. On one occasion, the customer service rep said that they could not actually get a line to transfer the call. It seems astonishing that a major international telecommunications provider cannot guarantee lines between its various call centres.
        b. Every single time a call was transferred to a new person, I had to wait for 10-20 minutes and then go through the same process of giving my name, address, postcode, etc. Again, it seems extraordinary that a major telecommunications and IT player cannot manage the transfer of customer details with a call.

3. Finally, the phone line just started working - I had a dial tone!

4. I then spent 1.5 hours trying to set up broadband and BT TV and was finally told that I couldn’t have BT TV as BT couldn’t give me enough bandwidth. However, I was told I could get BT Sport via an app at £5/month or via Sky at £6/month. It was a delicious irony that I had to pay a premium because BT couldn’t provide the normal TV service owing to their own broadband limitations.

5. I plumped to receive BT via Sky, so off I went to Sky to set up the TV Service. It took 15 mins to sort it out. In the end, I said I might as well get them to do the phone and broadband as they were (a) more efficient and (b) much cheaper than BT.

6. I phoned BT to cancel my orders. The customer service rep said that since I had been such a loyal customer he would drop my phone and broadband charges from £40 to £30. This despite the fact that I had had the phone working for a few hours and the broadband order had only been placed 2 hours before! Why not just offer a fair price in the first place? Just reading a script I suppose…

7. I then received an email from the head of customer care at BT (a ‘no reply’ one so I couldn’t get back to her) saying I would be charged £157 for Sky to take over the phone line as the take-over date was outside my ‘cooling off period’. I called customer service and told them this was not fair. They should allow me to pass to Sky for free as I had had so many problems with BT. They refused and said I would have to cancel the line and then ask Sky to set a new one up. Crazy since both BT and Sky have to use the BT company Openreach to supply lines anyway. So I asked customer services to cancel the line. They said they couldn’t because Sky already had a request in! They said I had to get Sky to drop their transfer request, then come back to BT to cancel my line, then go back to Sky to order a new one.
        a.I escalated this up to Gavin Patterson, the Group CEO at BT to see whether they would move on it. In fairness, he responded very quickly and passed it to the executive complaints team….
        b. …who repeated what the customer services rep said - I had to cancel my order with Sky, cancel my line with BT, and re-order with Sky. Sigh.

8. So, to the bemusement of Sky, I followed the strange convoluted process outlined by BT. “Er, why don’t they just leave our line take-over request in place and allow you to keep using the line up until we take it over and then swallow the £157 charge?” the customer services rep at Sky asked. It was a good question. I couldn’t answer it. Nobody at BT seemed to be able to answer it either. But follow the broken BT process we did and I hope that Sky will provide me with a phone line and broadband in the next 3 days. Sky are not perfect - the company’s cancellation process, which requires the user to call them to cancel rather than email or write, is a disgrace - but they have been a joy on this by comparison to BT.

I know that things go wrong at companies - I run a small research and consulting firm alongside two colleagues and we, and the firm, makes mistakes. What is so disappointing at BT is that so many basic systems and processes are broken. And, worse than this, I get no sense of anyone trying to help the customer (beyond one Irish man who wanted to resolve the line fault). Nobody I spoke to was able to make a decision. Nobody wanted to really understand or help me at any stage. Too often I was made to feel that I was ‘being difficult’. Was I angry and sarcastic at times? Yes, guilty. But I had spent hours and hours trying to resolve things and been frustrated at every turn. But for BT staff to get resentful and terse with me - as happened more than once - gives me little sense that the customer comes first. BT has to learn to listen and learn.

Which leads me finally to my call with a senior strategy executive at BT. This occurred separately to anything above and was on a ‘professional basis’. He had been invited by some colleagues to join a call where STL Partners was outlining a vision of growth for the industry and BT and how new processes and technology could enable this. He described our thinking as showing ‘cognitive dissonance’ and ‘religious fervour’ and lacking ‘evidence’. When we cited several examples of operators pursuing similar thinking and strategies and outlined examples of success, these were dismissed as not being relevant. In essence, each example was deemed unrepresentative of BT. In other words, he framed things only in BT’s current situation - there was a sense that nothing could be learned from anything outside BT’s own frame of reference. There was nothing he or BT could learn. He didn’t listen. This worries me most. Strategy guys should be the most outward-looking and ambitious parts of the organisation. Sure, they must be rationale and evidence-based but they should seek to apply thinking from outside their organisation - they must listen, learn and apply lessons within their organisations. That is the essence of Telco 2.0. To not do so is surely the ultimate sign of cognitive dissonance and suggests an inability to learn and grow - something borne out by my experiences in ordering services from BT. So I say again…

…I worry for BT, I really do.


Despite assurances that I had now cancelled all services within the 10-day cooling off period and would therefore incur no penalties from BT, I today received the text below with a warning that a £157 charge was on its way. So back to the executive complaints team I go. More time wasted. Thanks BT.


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