STOP PRESS: Since writing this, I was contacted by Virgin Media’s “Social Media Team” and by the company’s “Head of Customer Experience”, which is impressive. They all expressed disappointment with the situation and amazingly, everything was fixed within 24 hours. Credit where it’s due then, but why can’t customers get good service in the first place, without having to complain?

Dilbert.com

I love my TV and broadband, and I’m happy to pay whatever it takes to get the best service out there. A few years ago, after a long run of exclusively using Cambridge Cable and its successor ntl, I switched my TV service to Sky, simply because (at the time) it was so much better technologically. But I stayed with the wonderful broadband service from ntl (now Virgin Media), so for the past 5 years I’ve had both companies’ products. And I’ve been able to observe that while they compete with each other technologically, they’re at opposite ends of the scale when it comes to customer service.

In principle, because of its ownership and many other aspects of what it does, I don’t like Sky/BSkyB. However, it’s absolutely superb at what it does. Virgin Media’s customer service and administration is such a shambles that I can’t imagine there’s any chance of it ever bringing its service up to that sort of standard. Sadly for Virgin Media, it must be impossible in such a large organisation to “start again”, which appears to be what’s needed.

Now, normally customer service isn’t that important to me. After all, I watch TV and use the internet every day, and only need admin or tech support once or twice a year, if that. But when you have a choice of two organisations, one offering almost faultless customer service and the other making you want to scream, you do have to start factoring it into the equation.

Following a recent house move I had the chance to reassess what services I would have. The new house was pre-wired for Virgin Media, and it’s clear that with the new TiVo box, the TV service has comfortably caught up with Sky. With 100Mb broadband on the cards, there was no way I’d have been changing that service to any other provider. So I decided to switch the TV and go to the complete TV/broadband/telephone bundle from Virgin Media.

The result? Not unexpectedly, technologically fine, administratively disastrous. I arranged the transfer and upgrade of services a few weeks in advance. There were warning signs. The price I was quoted seemed ridiculously cheap, so I got the member of staff (some poor wage slave in an Indian call centre) to read back what I’d ordered, and “hmm, that’s odd sir, the system doesn’t seem to have registered everything we’ve just discussed, does it?” We eventually got it sorted. I also asked if I could take my telephone number with me, only to be told “I don’t know”. Well, it’s rather important. “Could you ring back just before the move and we’ll be able to confirm that?” Well, you’ve rather got me over a barrel, haven’t you?

Enter the Geordies
I rang back a few days before the move. I need to confirm that I can take my telephone number with me next week. “Hmm, I can’t really tell you sir”. Oh, I’m sure you can. How about finding someone who will? Ten minutes of listening to Tinie Tempah on hold, and a Geordie voice appears. This is clearly beyond the Indian Call Centre’s pay grade. “I’m just looking at your account Mr Rand”, says the very friendly voice, “and I don’t know what they’ve done, they’ve made a real hash of it, but you leave it with me, get on with your house move and your old number will be transferred with you. No problem!”

Four Days Later
So we’re in the new house, surrounded by boxes, and the installation crew turn up from Virgin Media. Nice guys. They love all the prewiring in the house; everything’s set up in a couple of hours. The TiVo boxes look a bit daunting, but I’m sure they’ll run me through the basics. “Sorry we can’t tell you anything about these new TiVo boxes sir, we don’t know anything about them, but if you need any help, you can call customer service”. We exchange glances. It’s quite obvious to both of us that it would be easier for me to just work it out myself. “By the way, the HD services don’t work on one of the boxes either, but I’m sure customer services can sort that out for you too.” He might well have added “(Good luck with that)”.

“And here’s your phone number”. It’s one I’d never seen before.

Stay calm.

I ring India, later that day. Very apologetic. “I don’t know what’s happened sir, but there’s no reason why you can’t have your old number. It’ll take 24 hours or so, but I’ve filled in the form and is there anything else I can help you with?” No, please, just make sure it’s done.

A quick aside. Virgin Media’s automated answering system. You know, the one where they say: “we’re now going to give you five options…”. None of them usually seem to apply to what I want, and there’s no “any other queries” option, so I’ve just taken to selecting something vaguely close. After a couple of banks of these, you’re then asked: “please key in characters from your password”. But I have no idea what my password is. Why should I? There’s no way of saying “I don’t know”. At this point, some people would just give up in despair. Maybe that’s the idea. Maybe it saves on the number of callers they get. It turns out – according to one customer service person I spoke to – that it’s irrelevant, you can just key in anything. So what’s the point? Or at least, why don’t they tell you it doesn’t matter if you don’t know your password?

Two Days Later
You guessed it. I dial my home phone number from my mobile, and still nothing. “We’re really sorry about this sir, I know the form has been filled in. You’ll have your number in 24 hours. Certainly if you don’t have it working in 48 hours, call us.” Well of course I will. But can you be sure it’ll work this time? After all, it’s the fourth time I’ve requested my number is transferred. “Absolutely sir! The form has been filled in!”. Blimey, this form must be magic.

One more aside. I called about the HD channels not appearing on one of my TiVo boxes. I explained it to the first person I got through to. They put me through to someone else. I’m beginning to get bored of Tinie Tempah, none of these transfers take less than two or three minutes on hold. The next person listens carefully to my problem (and don’t forget, every new person I speak to is asking for my customer reference, or password, or something). They say: “Ah, you’ll need TiVo support for that, I’ll pass you on”. Why couldn’t I have just hit a button at the beginning to choose TiVo support in the first place? But now I’m going “up a level” and I know what that means – India have declared. A pleasant Scots chap sorts me out (it takes 45 minutes of playing with the box, something the installers shouldn’t have left not working in the first place, but hey-ho). The Scots chap is clearly unhappy that I didn’t get a proper working system, or a proper demonstration of how the TiVo worked. You and me both, mate.

It reminds me of ten years ago when Virgin Media was still ntl, at a time when they didn’t acknowledge the existence of Apple Macs, but I had a problem with my Mac’s broadband connection. After being passed around, I was eventually put on to a specialist Mac support guy in Wales, who was just brilliant. What’s more, he acknowledged how hopeless ntl’s support was and said: “listen, here’s my direct line. Any problems, just come straight through”. Wow.

Three Days Later
Oh come on, you didn’t think it’d end happily, did you? If it had, maybe I wouldn’t be needing the therapy of writing this. Still no home phone number. Back on to India. Very apologetic. “The form has been filled in”. Ah, the magic form again. Look, a whole series of people have assured me it would happen the next day, can I speak to someone who can actually get something done? I’m transferred eventually to a supervisor called ‘Neil’. I’m sure some Indian people have English names, but I’m dubious that’s his real one, somehow. Anyway, he sounds confident enough to be a genuine supervisor. I never lose my temper with bottom-rung operatives, it’s rarely their fault. But I feel I can be a little more forthright here. “All I can say is that the transfer of your number is in progress”, he says, “I can’t really offer any more than that. And it’ll be done in ten working days”.

Oh you’ve got to be kidding me.

Ten. TEN? But it was going to be done when I moved in. The third time I asked, it was going to be done “within 24 hours” of that. A few days later, the fourth time I asked, it was going to be done “within 48 hours” of that. Several days further on, it’s now going to be done “in 10 days”. I tell Neil that this is just not acceptable. He has a ponder, and says: “I tell you what, I can get that reduced to 5 days”. I think I’m supposed to be grateful. But I’m powerless. And that’s the most frustrating thing of all.

Now, I appreciate that not having people being able to ring you for a few weeks isn’t the worst thing in the world. It’s just that somehow, I knew this was going to happen. At almost every level, when you speak to Virgin Media customer support they’re apologetic. The operation clearly doesn’t work, from top to bottom. The foot soldiers in India are clearly hamstrung by the systems in front of them, and (being an overseas call centre) the problems they have in relating to their customers. When you get up a level, there are just constant sighs of exasperation with what’s going on elsewhere. It must be an awful place to work. But it’s just as bad for us as users. And it doesn’t have to be this way.

Later on, the phone rings, for the first time in days. Maybe a miracle has happened? Unfortunately not. “Hello, this is Virgin Media. If you join our mobile phone service, we can offer you a free Blackberry Curve…”

Most of this article was written while on hold to Virgin Media Customer Service. You still can’t call me on the number which I’ve had with them for years.

POSTSCRIPT
As mentioned in the update at the top, after writing this, I was contacted by the Virgin Media “Social Media Team” (via Twitter and email) and by the company’s “Head of Customer Experience” (see comment below). Impressively, the telephone number situation was sorted in 24 hours, and I’m very grateful for this. It seems slightly churlish to raise the following question – but I must – which is “Why couldn’t normal customer service make this happen?” Clearly the capabilities are in place to expedite matters. Ten days to transfer a phone number indeed.

THE NEXT DAY
“Dad”, comes the cry from downstairs, “Why is the telly not working?” I look at the screen. It says: “You have not subscribed to this channel”. Or indeed any channel, by the looks of things. Oh hang on, the broadband’s down too. Time for technical support. That’s one of the numbers I haven’t pressed on the menu over the past fortnight. “No problems reported in your area sir”, says Luke. “But it says here that you’ve been disconnected for non-payment of bills”.

I’m not sure how to explain speechlessness in print. They have my direct debit details. They’ve been taking money from me for years. Luke puts me through to a nice lady in accounts. “There’s nothing outstanding here”, she says. Indeed, that description could probably apply to most of your organisation, but thanks anyway. So what should I do? The nice lady offers to take the matter up with something called “Collections”. But we have to wait ten minutes to get put through to them. Mid-80s David Bowie to listen to today.

Apparently “Collections” says there was £3 outstanding, but couldn’t explain why it wasn’t “collected”. Clearly it’s easier to just switch customers off when there’s a glitch in the system. That always gets things moving. The nice lady says that it’ll all be sorted in a moment, “but it might take 24 hours to restore all of your services”. I refrain from losing my temper, reminding myself as always that it’s not her fault, it’s down to the lack of investment in systems which work, from people at board level. The trouble is, I’ll never have the chance to talk to one of them. I wish I could. It’d make me feel so much better.

So as I write, everything’s working. My advice to anyone using Virgin Media services, and whose systems are fine, is don’t move house. Indeed, don’t move a muscle. You might just get the service you want (as long as accounts doesn’t get involved).

AND THERE’S MORE
Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water. A letter arrives, telling me that my services have been restricted (whatever that means) because of the unusual account expenditure taking place. I’m a bit concerned: many years ago, with ntl, I was sent a 10-page bill amounting to hundreds of pounds which was nothing to do with me – they actually had to send out an engineer to look at my set-top box to confirm it wasn’t. So I was worried that something like this had happened again, and immediately got on to accounts to find out what the unusual account expenditure was. “It’s only a standard letter”, I was informed, “and won’t affect your services; it’s just to let you know that we’ve noticed something out of the ordinary’s being charged to your account”. Sure, but I haven’t been spending anything unusual, so why the warning letter? The accounts lady peers into her screen (I have a nice mental image of Virgin Media’s call centres by now). “Well, there’s a couple of hundred pounds been spent from your account, which isn’t normal.”

I have a think. £200? We tried out an “On Demand” movie. That doesn’t account for the other £197 though. Oh hang on…

Is the “unusual expenditure” anything to do with the two TiVo boxes I’ve just had installed? “Ah yes, that’ll be it. Not sure why they sent you a letter in that case”. You don’t say. Does everyone upgrading their service get a letter warning them that they’ve been spending too much money, I wonder? Right, so that’s sorted. Are my services still “restricted” (whatever that means) then? “Would you like to talk to Collections about it?” No I blummin’ well wouldn’t. It’s been nice talking to you. Get your house in order (I add, silently).

UPDATE: I’ve closed comments on this article because I don’t want to become a clearing house for people with bad experiences of Virgin Media customer service, such as the examples below. Who knows, maybe by the time you read this, Virgin Media will have got the staff and system resources they need, and may be a paragon of customer service virtue.