Monday, April 23, 2007


My reader may well imagine that, like some fly-by-night celebrity blogger, I have lost interest in keeping up the project and don’t give a tuppenny damn about her/his devotion. Not so. As that loyal reader will know, I have been plagued by the corporate indolence of British Telecom over a six-month period. Having already lost our broadband connection for a fortnight in early March (the third occasion that it had happened since October 2006), the link fell at a fourth fence on March 30th and was only restored on April 19th (at a time when I was in London trying to restore some of the damage to what I laughingly call my career caused by three further weeks without access to internet or email).

I am at last on-line again but not yet able to read, receive or send emails. This is because the reconfiguration of the BT connection has disturbed the POP account details but I cannot correct those until my mail server, Macunlimited (which now calls itself by the ghastly name of Breathe), is itself restored to full capacity after a security-oriented breakdown of its own from April 3rd to 16th. I am told that mail sent to me during that period will have been bounced back to the sender but such senders as I have identified so far report no bouncing back. This also doesn’t answer the question as to what happened to mail sent to me between March 30th and April 3rd and between April 16th and 21st, on which last date mail began again to stream into my in-box at Breathe but not onto my desktop mailer.

My reader will grow impatient if I rehearse the tedium of the latest agonizing hiatus in my access to the rest of the planet so I will confine myself to some wider thoughts about BT and public utilities generally. In an internet chat room that discussed my experiences on the previous occasion, a contributor who described himself as “an ex-telecoms manager and network designer” noted that “BT and other broadband suppliers provide a non-essential service to residential users. Under this, users can happily go without a service for a couple of weeks … If someone has an essential need, such as for work, then signing up for a more expensive business package will bring better service”. He’s using “happily” in an ironic sense.

I talked to someone in the BT chairman’s office – she had been in the organization woman and girl for 32 years, which means of course that the outfit she joined was called Post Office Telephones – and, when I put it to her that residential users got a service from BT inferior to that enjoyed by those who bought a business package, she readily concurred. I got to thinking about the two-tier services offered by BT, Royal Mail, the railway operators and others. You pay more for the supposed first class service but in practice there can be no guarantee that a Rolls Royce ride is what you will receive. Putting a first class stamp on a letter only improves its chance of arriving the next day, it does not clinch it.

The other week, I was briefly marooned by a points failure on Oxford railway station. By the time the train service was resumed, the crush on the platform for the short hop to Didcot was beyond anything you’d get at rush hour. Finding myself at the entrance to a first class compartment with empty seats, I boarded it and sat, tired as I was from a heavy day’s walking in Oxford. I was ready to argue with the ticket collector when he saw my standard class ticket but none came. I looked around the first class carriage. It was filthy. Every table was covered in abandoned food packaging. There was rubbish and newspaper on the floor. I could not have availed myself of those perks you are alleged to get with a first class ticket – a gratis cup of lousy tea, a free copy of the Telegraph – because the doorway was crammed with standing passengers. So what would have been the advantage of buying a first class ticket for the journey? Well, I would have had a better chance – though no guarantee – of a seat. Big deal.

With BT, as with Royal Mail and the trains, you may well pay extra and still get a sub-standard service. The only guarantee is that if you don't pay the first class rate you will get a sub-standard service. So the two-tier system is a smart way of providing a lesser service all round and making more money from those prepared to gamble on the faint possibility of the higher charge being justified.

During my trip to London last week, I went to Selfridge’s for the first time in many months. I used to hold an account there but since we moved out of London it has not seemed worth keeping it up. Boy, has it changed. Apart from a general makeover that includes renewing the lighting and the sound system so that it no longer feels like a shop for the over-50s like me, the whole nature of the store has shifted. Now every department is franchised. For instance, it’s no longer Selfridge’s book department but an in-house branch of Foyle’s. The CD department is an HMV. The menswear department is no longer on the ground floor and it is divided into branded cells. Instead of the sales staff wearing similar suits, they dress casually as determined by each franchise so it’s impossible to know who is a salesman and who a customer unless the former is on the qui vive for those who need assistance.

This breaking up of large institutions and outsourcing of their functions is the prevailing mode. Lord Birt destroyed the BBC, in the opinion of most of those who have valued it over any period of time, by dismantling its collegiate structure and turning each segment into a freestanding, discrete unit with a brief to thrive or fail in competition with outside suppliers of similar services and functions. BT has followed the same path – its present chairman, former Tory politician Sir Christopher Bland, has also chaired the BBC – and its various departments are now separate entities with no privileged access to each other. Thus BT Wholesale, which owns the phone lines much as Network Rail owns the rail tracks, is an enterprise unrelated to BT Retail, BT Broadband, BT Talk Together, BT Open Reach or BT Fusion.

BT agreed to a ruling by Ofcom, the telecommunications regulator, that BT Wholesale cannot move faster on behalf of BT Broadband or BT Retail customers than it does for those of rival ISPs and broadband suppliers such as Orange, Tiscali, Sky, AOL and so on. It should never have agreed such a nonsense. The ruling discriminates against BT itself. Customers of BT Broadband – like me – rage against BT Wholesale because it delays a token five days before attending to any line problem. This delay is meant to reflect any laggardliness that might obtain if BT Wholesale found itself asked to fix a line on behalf of a customer of, say, Virgin. But the Virgin customer would of course be encouraged by Virgin to blame BT (rather than Virgin) for such a delay. So we all curse BT and, because BT owns the lines, we cannot usefully vote with our feet (unless we are lucky enough to have access to a satellite connection) because any rival supplier of broadband would be just as dependent upon BT Wholesale’s husbandry of the phone lines.

Franchising and outsourcing means that the organization handing out the contracts loses a degree of control over the service that its customers receive. Moreover, the loyalty to the central brand does not survive in the servicing companies. Generally, the only wholly truthful remarks you ever hear about BT Wholesale, BT Retail and BT Broadband are those made by the engineers and line managers of BT Open Reach (an independent entity, as I have indicated). Their assessments are characterized by a heavy application of scorn. These guys don’t feel the need to apply the spin that is built into the scripts from which you are read to by the BT representatives at Customer Services, Higher Complaints, Technical Support and other call centres.

The public utilities are in very bad odour just now. British Gas is caught up in a billing nightmare, finding itself responsible for asking small-scale power consumers to pay absurd four figure bills, threatening to cut off customers who pay their bills not to British Gas but to Powergen. Thames Water (which bizarrely is based in Swindon and is the operator of water and sewerage services in parts of Scotland as well as in London) has accidentally pumped millions of gallons of untreated sewage into the Firth of Forth. The outsourced task of household garbage collection is widely dwindling from a weekly to a fortnightly service ahead of a summer that all indications suggest will be a scorcher: nice timing. The railway companies have finally admitted that they can never provide enough seating accommodation for the passengers who need to travel during the twice-daily rush hour, provoking a series of campaigns of disobedience by those revolutionary trouble-makers, the commuting classes. And the Post Office is in the process of selling much of its over-the-counter business to WH Smith, a high street brand that is anyway in deep trouble of its own.

Meanwhile, the everyday courtesies that used to be taken as read in the great public utilities as in the better class of retail establishment are going hang. On four occasions over the last six months, we have been informed that a BT Open Reach engineer would be coming to the house and that we would need to be at home. On the most recent occasion – April 19th – we were enjoined to set aside the whole day until 6 pm and, as I was in London, my partner was obliged to abandon any plans to shop or run errands that day. On each one of the four occasions, no engineer materialized, no BT representative telephoned to inform us that no engineer would be coming and no BT representative telephoned to apologize for the non-appearance of the respective engineers. They treat the customer with utter contempt.

In a similar vein, countless BT operatives have assured me that they will call back “in ten minutes”, “within two hours”, “in the next 24 hours” and almost none has actually made good on the promise. An operative in the Higher Complaints Office (so-called) swore to me last Friday that he would call me at 11.00 am today, Monday 23rd, to ascertain that the BT connection was successfully operating again. I called his office at 11.30 to ask why I had not been called and was told that his shift was not due to begin until 1.00. I left a message for him. He finally called shortly before 5.00, reckoning that he hadn’t got to the office until 1.00 because of traffic jams on the M1 and that the man I had spoken to had copied down my number incorrectly. These people lie to you without blushing. Also on Friday, a man in the BT chairman’s office had called me to discuss my on-going complaint about BT’s efficiency and lack of customer care and we had agreed that I would call him today (Monday) when I was back up to speed after my trip to London and had more time to talk. When I called today, the operator took almost five minutes to ascertain that he wasn’t due in to work all day.

That I could phone these two unreliable representatives at all is not common. Very few BT employees have their own direct line; most work in large open-plan offices with dozens of fellow spokespeople so you can rarely trace back someone who has called you. Although, in a case like mine, an extensive file is built up tracking the course of my complaint and (conceivably also BT’s failure to resolve the problems it is imposing on me), one has to start from scratch every time one calls BT and speaks to another operative who begins happy to assist and is soon disabused.

I take no pleasure in grumbling and shouting at call centre staff who are themselves not responsible for the failings of their employers, nor in pursuing long-winded complaints about inefficiency and lack of service and searches for some form of compensation. But I do it doggedly because I don’t think the bastards should get away with it. Senior managers in these enterprises are very handsomely remunerated. Major shareholders dip deep into the profits that might otherwise be ploughed back to improve the service. Unfortunately, shareholders no longer concern themselves with the efficient running of businesses, only with maximized dividends. That’s modern capitalism for you.