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 Telstra rescinded the fee earlier this month.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?


Thursday, November 5, 2009

Bungled computerization worsens service

TELSTRA chief David Thodey admitted at the company's annual general meeting today that the telco's multi-billion dollar IT transformation project had stymied its ability to change prices on its products.

The admission came as one angry shareholder lambasted the board for having broadband prices that were way out of whack with the market.

The shareholder said he was no longer a Telstra customer because of the high prices and the company’s policy of allowing excess data charges on some plans to be unlimited, rather than sharply cutting or ‘shaping’ data transmission rates when a customer exceeded their plan’s allowance.

Mr Thodey reiterated a statement made last week at the company's update for investors that broadband price cuts were imminent and said the company’s ability to chop and change price plans had been constrained by its transformation project that began back in 2005 under former CEO Sol Trujillo. “For 12 months we have been unable to put new prices in the market due to the transformation," said Mr Thodey.

The pricing problems have hurt the company’s ability to grow market share. Fixed-line internet sales growth dropped from 20.5 per cent last year to 13.3 per cent this year.

Broadband shoppers don’t have to do much digging to find broadband deals far cheaper than Telstra.

A broadband customer after a fast ADSL2+ link with a data allowance geared to heavy use would pay $99.95 a month under current Telstra pricing for a 25GB per month data allowance, shaped to 64K once the cap was broken. Competitors have been offering far sharper pricing. As an example, ISP TPG advertises an ADSL2+ link with a 90GB allowance for $89.99 a month, shaped to 256K if exceeded.


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Marathon gripe heading for Telstra AGM

A NSW man, tired of waiting more than eight years for a refund from Telstra, will confront the telco's annual general meeting in Sydney tomorrow to demand the issue be resolved.

Alastair Marshall has had little luck over the years but with a new Telstra boss onboard, he is feeling confident David Thodey could go where Sol Trujillo and Ziggy Switkowski would not.

More than two months ago Mr Marshall decided to air his grievances directly to Mr Thodey, who since taking the hot seat has pledged to focus on customer satisfaction.

Mr Thodey says he reads every customer complaint that lands on his desk.

Lengthy email correspondence between Mr Marshall and Mr Thodey, obtained by The Australian, reveals that the chief executive has personally intervened in the matter.

Since they both first communicated, however, discussions have reached a stalemate and Mr Marshall is frustrated that Mr Thodey has not been able to settle the matter.

The story began in January 2001 when Mr Marshall was trying to obtain a residential internet service to his home in the suburb of Hall, on the NSW-ACT border.

He was advised he would need a separate telephone line to connect to the internet.

After waiting and complaining to Telstra for more than 29 months, the company finally came to the conclusion that Mr Marshall did not require the extra line but still billed him for the service.

Subsequently, on August 6, 2003, Mr Marshall was offered a full refund of $1208, but there was a catch.

"We accepted the refund offer and agreed to Telstra's promise of our ISDN internet installation within 10 days," he said.

"However, Telstra said the amount would be given to us as credit. We paid them hard cash, so this was not acceptable."

It took nearly three years before the ISDN service was finally installed as "technical issues with the phone line and exchange" complicated matters, he said.

Mr Marshall then continued to push Telstra for a settlement and was offered $3560, but was told it also would be in the form of credit.

In 2006, when Mr Trujillo was at the helm, Telstra made an offer of $5000 to settle the matter, but the cheque never arrived, Mr Marshall said.

"After David Thodey became the new chief executive in June, he announced a new high priority for resolving customer problems. I thought this was a departure from the old mob," Mr Marshall said.

In mid-August, he raised his problems directly with Mr Thodey, who he described as "quite pleasant, humble and even apologetic" in their initial phone conversation.

By the end of August, Mr Thodey had made an offer of $8000 but that was rejected as inadequate.

"If you miss paying your Telstra account, within a week it's a $30 late fee plus a $20 administration fee and 22 per cent interest daily," Mr Marshall said, choosing to not to comment on an acceptable amount.

Mr Marshall has compiled copious amounts of documentation with Telstra and feels the offer is not fair, although Telstra begs to differ. "We have made a genuine effort to reach a fair outcome with Mr Marshall including offering him what most people would consider a very generous goodwill gesture back in August when David became personally involved," a Telstra spokesman said.

"We aim to resolve customer concerns as quickly as possible, but not all cases are black and white and in Mr Marshall's situation we feel we've exhausted all reasonable options."

Mr Marshall said he had been left with no choice but to pursue the matter at the AGM.

He continues to be a Telstra internet subscriber.