Monday, November 23, 2009

A typical Telstra experience

I too have got this sort of "service". One overseas helpline operator could not understand what I was saying at all so just hung up on me. Sheer arrogance. I should have been referred to someone higher up, preferably back in Australia

Like most horror stories, this one begins with an everyday setting where the familiar gradually gives way to the sinister. The first harbinger of the pain to come, not recognised at the time, was a letter sent out to me and millions of other Australians on July 20 by Ramon Gregory, "Executive Director, Customer Sales and Service", at Telstra, Australia's largest service company. This places Gregory at the centre of an enormous commercial machine, with huge databases, thousands of operators in call centres, and billions of customer inquiries recorded with Orwellian efficiency.

A study of the conditions in call centres conducted by Ruth Barton of RMIT University, released last week, found high stress levels and oppressive management control, as call centres field an average of 16 million calls a day.

Ramon Gregory's letter was also oppressive. It announced that people who paid their Telstra bill by return mail, or in person, or by credit card, would in future be charged a $2.20 "payment administration fee". He suggested various ways to avoid the fee, which actually did not avoid the fee at all. The letter was so infuriating and so poorly drafted that Telstra customers made their displeasure known in an outbreak of spontaneous combustion. Telstra rescinded the fee earlier this month.

But the company's latent aggression remains. Last Wednesday, my internet service was cut off by Telstra even though I have paid my bills on time, year-in, year-out, with a Telstra home phone account, and a Telstra cable account, and a Foxtel account. My bank statement shows Telstra banked my latest cheque on October 19. I had assumed I would be treated as a valued customer and notified before any drastic, summary action took place. How naive.

Telstra has shown, repeatedly, that it does not grasp the concept of political and consumer blowback. That's why the Rudd Government is destroying Telstra's market value, and why I have the Telstra support number, 133 933, programmed into my mobile phone, because losing service is part of the Telstra experience.

When I called Telstra's inquiry number at 9am last Wednesday, I got a "consultant" called Craig. When he turned out to be a drama queen, I began taking notes. When I suggested that Telstra should have contacted me before taking such draconian action, given my long history of reliability, Craig threw a tantrum. "You can't expect us to send out 50,000 notices to people," he said. Yes, I do. It's part of the service.

"You have to step up to the plate!" Craig replied. "It's your responsibility!" I asked him why he was treating me like a retard. He directed me to "credit management". I called credit management and got a message: "All our operators are busy. You have been placed in a queue." I was not surprised.

A heavily-accented young man came on the line and gave his name as "Matt". I realised I had been directed to a call centre in India when Matt insisted my name was not Sheehan. After he had called me "Mr Goodhope" three times I hung up.

The next operator was "Beau". He, too, was Indian, and simply not coherent. I politely abandoned the call and tried again. Next on the line was "Chari", another Indian. He was the first person I could describe as pleasant and competent that day. He set up a direct debit payment system for future bills, took care of the small outstanding amount, and thanked me for the call, the first of the five Telstra operators to do so. He said my service would be quickly restored.

It was not. It was still blocked the next day. And so the merry-go-round resumed. I was directed to technical support, because the billing department said there was no problem. A technician told me to switch off my modem and then try again. That did not work.

I called the original number again. Another heavily accented operator eventually responded. Her name was "Marie". "Are you in Australia?" I asked. "No," she replied. She told me I could not have my service restored because my account had not been paid. "You need to speak to the billing department." I told her I had spoken to the billing department at great length. She was adamant.

I called the billing department and Kirsty came on the line. She was working from a call centre on the Gold Coast. When I explained that she was the eighth person I had spoken to in two days, and my account was fully paid, she put me on hold and got someone further up the food chain. When she came back, she said the problem was a "shadow" payment system, which was showing my account to be inoperative. Kirsty was a pleasure to deal with, and restored my service.

The real problem was not the shadow payment system. It was the incompetent Indian call centre operators, and it was Telstra's attitude towards its customers. Nothing of my experience will show up on Telstra's key performance indicators.

And Ramon Gregory, it turns out, is yet another American brought in to run Australia's service giant. That explains his tin ear. I received another letter from him on Friday: "Telstra is reinventing the home phone," he proclaimed. He was selling an upgrade called the Telstra T-Hub. I'm interested in going in exactly the opposite direction - getting rid of the Telstra fixed line altogether. And that's just the start.

By the standards of global telco giants, Telstra is an efficient, productive enterprise, but you have to ask at what cost to us, the people who used to own the company, and are now the company's serfs?


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