Wednesday, July 30, 2008

More BT

I thought about just adding a comment on the bottom of my last post to update the situation but then I thought I might just keep typing and it would probably justify a new post... let's find out... cover me, I'm going in...

[EDITED TO ADD: this did indeed turn out to be a huge long ramble of a post. The short version is that the fault was fixed after 5 days but only because I managed to e-mail the CEO of BT who - to his credit - took action and got a top trouble-shooter on the job. I believe the system that's in place at the call centres should have resolved the issue in a day or two but that the staff are ridiculously ill-trained. Managers at the call-centre were no more competent than the front line and they blatantly ignored company-policy on several occasions... the long version is below... enter if you dare...]

Tunnel, originally uploaded by Dave Gorman.

So... the first thing to say is that I'm now back with my broadband connection. I don't know what the problem was exactly but I do know that it should have been fixed sooner. I spent two days with no connection and three days with a next to useless dial-up connection... that's two days standing besides the information superhighway with my thumb out and then three days sitting in the passenger seat of the beaten up milk float that came to my aid. It wasn't nice. I don't want to go back.

Here are a few snippets of information.
I kept hearing the following phrase:
"Your case has been escalated to the complex faults team but due to a system error the task has failed."

I kept asking the helpdesk staff to explain what this ridiculous sentence meant. On every single occasion, they just repeated the phrase as if repeated listening would make its meaning transparent. Then, when locked in a two-hour+ conversation with one of them and having long reached a state of tetherlessness I started trying to break it down.
"What is the system? What is the error? What is the task and how has it failed?" I asked.
"Due to a system error the task has failed."
"Yes. But I don't know what that means. I need you to explain the words to me. What task has failed?"

Guess what? What it meant was: we've sent a message to the engineers but due to a cock up, the message hasn't got through.

In short, their department was doing nothing because they thought the engineers were dealing with it and the engineers were doing nothing about it because nobody had told them about the problem in the first place. Apparently this was the situation for the first twelve hours... so the first half day was wasted doing nothing.

Of course if they'd had to say, "we failed to pass the message on" it would be like admitting they'd cocked up which, um, they had... and that would involve having to apologise and stuff and it's probably far easier to make it sound like some diagnostic test has let them down by saying, "due to a system error the task has failed"... isn't it?

My other highlight/lowlight is as follows. Each time I spoke to someone on the help desk they would start by scanning through the notes on their system and then say something like:
"I see you have an intermittent loss of service, Mr Gorman...?"
"No," would say I, "I have no service at all..."
"Really? It says here that it's an intermittent fault..."
"Well it isn't... it's a complete loss of connection. Just like I told the last person. And the person before that... and now you."

Then they'd make me perform the same tests as the last person and then they'd conclude that there was indeed no connection and then they'd tell me that the engineers were aware of the fault. Or not. Depending on whether the task had failed or not at that time.

On the fourth day I was speaking to one of the help desk managers and he suddenly said:
"Oh no... what's happened here is that someone's entered the wrong code for your case..."
"What do you mean?"
"It says here you have an intermittent fault..."
"I know... I keep telling you that it isn't..."
"Someone should have changed the code... the engineers won't be able to fix this because they're looking for the wrong thing..."

Four days. Four sodding days. At this point I was thinking about buying a car just so I could hunt Kris Marshall down. At least I would have done if it hadn't been for the assistance of one of you...

In the comments left on my last post someone (perhaps wisely remaining anonymous) said that they worked for BT and then provided me with e-mail addresses for Steve Robertson, the boss of OpenReach (the part of BT that deals with their infrastructure) and Ian Livingston, the Chief Executive Officer of BT... he's been in the job for about two months.

I wrote an e-mail to Steve Robertson. I tried to keep it concise and polite. I tried not to rant about the small details - I'm sure they hear about helpdesk incompetence all the time - so instead I tried to focus on constructive suggestions (why not offer dial-up as a matter of course? how about usb-dongle-modems for longer cases?) while also detailing a couple of specific failings - not of the helpdesk staff but of the helpdesk system.

I didn't think there was much chance of a reply but for the hell of it I cc'd the top dog, Ian Livingston as well.

The e-mail to Steve Robertson bounced back telling me that the domain didn't exist. So I tried instead. That bounced back telling me there was no such user. Oh well. But - and I'm genuinely surprised by this - Ian Livingston did write back. Or at least someone using his e-mail address did. I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume it was him. I don't think it's fair to directly quote any correspondence but the gist of it was that most of their broadband issues are sorted quickly, that the suggestion regarding dial-up would be passed on but that the usb-modem suggestion was probably too costly.

I was about to write back to suggest that if the majority of their broadband issues were sorted out really quickly the cost of the usb-modems shouldn't be prohibitive because they'd only have be used in a tiny number of cases... but when I looked at the clock I realised I didn't have time to write that e-mail. Someone from the call centre had promised to call me about half an hour earlier and - as happened every time they promised to call - they'd failed to do so... so I picked up the phone, took a deep breath and launched myself once more into the abyss.

This phone call began with someone telling me that I had an intermittent fault. After ten minutes of pointless conversation I asked to be put through to a manager... who then told me that I had an intermittent fault before going back to square one and repeating the questions that I'd already heard from his colleague...
"Who do I complain to when your department fails to do its job?" I asked.
"I'm a complaints manager," said he.
"Well you're not trying to solve the problem," I said. "You're just giving me the same pointless answers as everyone else... can I please speak to your supervisor."
"I'm a complaints manager."
"Yes, but I don't think you're doing a very good job and I want to complain about you." This was met with silence so I continued. "You must have a boss, right?"
"Mr Gorman, I'm a complaints manager."
"Please just answer the question... do you have a boss?"
"Then can you please put me through to your boss...?"
"I'll just put you on hold." SILENCE. "Thank you for your patience, I'm afraid I am your last port of call."
"But I want to speak to your boss."
"There is no phone number for that. I can't put you through because there's no number."
"Then please ask your boss to come to your phone. That's who I want to speak to."
"I'm your last port of call."
"Please put me through to your supervisor."
"I'm your last port of call."
"Please put me through to your supervisor."
"I'm your last port of call."
"Please put me through to your supervisor."
"I'm your last port of call."
... and so on for a full two or three minutes (I kid you not) before I eventually gave in and put the phone down.

I had a cup of tea and then called again. I got through to a different man - another complaints manager. This conversation stretched to over two hours and it was this conversation that ended up revealing that vital four-day-wrong-code fact.

When this call ended (with the manager promising to call me back later... guess what... it didn't happen) I unplugged my phone and launched the slow, buzzy whirrs that set me limping on to the internet. And then I wrote my reply to the Chief Executive of British Telecom... replying to his points... and then adding the freshly minted information that his staff had spent four days not dealing with my problem at all because they'd failed to diagnose it in the first place.

I don't know if this last e-mail tipped things over the edge or whether the process was already in motion... what I do know is that about three hours later I received a call on my mobile from a man called Chris who told me he was one of BT's Business Improvement Specialists. Ian had called him and told him to fix things. I reckon that when the CEO wants something fixed he speaks to someone with a bit more clout than those I'd been dealing with... Chris was the first person I spoke to who appeared to know what he was talking about.

I don't understand the technical details but he told me that he'd had the engineers dismantle my account and then rebuild it from scratch and that it seemed to have sorted out the problems. It was now possible to log in remotely... but the real test would only come when I tried to log in at home... something I wasn't in a position to try until this evening... when it failed. But Chris had given me his mobile number and in less than ten minutes it was working. Hurrah.

Here's the thing though. I asked Chris if there was anything he'd done that couldn't have been done on day one... he paused... and then told me there wasn't. I think he was able to speak to more qualified engineers more quickly but he assured me that the tools he'd used were all available to the call-centre staff who should have known how to use them...

He wanted to know more about the problems I'd faced. I explained it all. Apparently the company policy is that every case that isn't solved within 48 hours should be automatically escalated. This obviously wasn't done in this case. Apparently it should always be possible to take a case to a higher authority... but no matter how hard I tried it simply wasn't. (Except of course by e-mailing the CEO... and I can't help thinking that everyone involved would prefer it if I could go just one stage higher instead of going straight to the top dog.)

Somewhere there's a team of experts who are meant to be called in whenever a case reaches 48 hours... but as not one of the less qualified staff I spoke to decided to escalate my case even after 96 hours (and I think that includes speaking to 4 managers) it's impossible to imagine this crack squad of engineers actually doing anything. They have their best people sitting on their thumbs while an army of less qualified people sit feeling harassed and exhibiting various blends of disruptive/incompetent and dishonest behaviour.

Apparently "due to a system error the task has failed" is the wording they see on their screen... but they know what it means and they aren't trained to just read the words like a script... or at least they're not supposed to be. And they should have just picked up the phone and passed the message on to the right people instead of just accepting that it hadn't got through and they should have...

Actually, there was a long list of 'they should have's and I genuinely believe that Chris wasn't just saying what he thought I wanted to hear. I'm left with the impression that if their staff followed the correct procedures my problem would have been fixed sooner. Possibly within a day and certainly within two. But I simply don't believe that I got unlucky and ended up speaking to the least able of their staff because I just spoke to too many people and there were too many managers amongst them for that. I didn't get a few rotten apples... the whole system is screwed up. It's obvious that the department isn't adequately trained and/or funded. The correct procedures have been worked out... but nobody's managed to make sure they're actually followed.

I think it's because the vast majority of calls to IT helpdesks probably start with user error. If 95% of calls come from people who've forgotten to plug their computers in then the very basic procedures that are laid out for the helpdesk staff will solve all those problems in minutes. If you were a statistician monitoring that department and you saw that they solved 95% of their problems in a matter of minutes you'd think they were doing a bloody good job.

But what about the 5% of calls from people who have a genuine complaint? Based on my experience they haven't got a hope of having their problems fixed. The call centre staff seem to be stuck in a rut where they will do anything except pass the problem on to an engineer. Of course they're stuck in a rut... they spend 95% of their time telling people to press the 'on' button... the poor souls must be bored out of their minds. How are they supposed to suddenly up their game for that 5% of calls where someone has an actual fault to deal with?

It might look like a really successful department that deals with 95% of problems really well... but in reality it's a woefully inadequate department that fails to deal with 100% of actual complaints.

I can't help thinking there should be a two-tier system in place. Let them have their call-centre and let them locate it wherever in the world they want. Let that call-centre be the first port-of-call for customers... but let that call centre deal only with those calls relating to user-error. The moment it becomes clear that it's not such a case and that the caller is reporting a real somethings-gone-wrong fault they should be put through to a new, more highly trained department. That way, skilled staff aren't wasting time telling idiots that they're monitor is facing the wall and the less technically gifted staff aren't wasting customer's time by telling them that system errors are responsible for tasks failing. Or something.

Anyway... it's a mixed bag of a result. I'm surprised and not a little impressed with Ian Livingston. Whether it was him who replied or not, the fact that someone is monitoring that e-mail account and responding so promptly and politely is to be applauded. Chris was fantastic, proactive and suitably embarrassed by the obviously systemic failure of the department to do what they're supposed to do... He assured me that lessons were being learned as a result. Perhaps I'm naive to believe him... but I don't think so.

Besides, what's the point in being cynical when someone does do and say the right thing? I'm not pretending that everything's now okay just because I've had my problems fixed (and my time and inconvenience sort of compensated for - I should have asked for more).

The helpdesk system that's in place is obviously still a crock. But I really do think that they intend to change things for the better. I wonder how long it will take? I wonder if it will happen at all? I wonder if the problem is caused by a lack of proper investment or management? Or a bit of both? I wonder if they'll be prepared to make the necessary changes. Especially if they cost money. I do believe the right people want the right things to happen... but that doesn't mean they will.

And I wonder if I'm in the wrong game... I should be in business consultancy and BT should be paying me a fortune to overhaul their call centres...

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

BT (Hello Geoff)

I am currently connected to the internet using a dial up connection. It's not very good. I'm not a violent man but right now I would cheerfully hurt someone from BT.

In fact my sense of proportion has diminished to the point where I can't work out if it would be in particularly bad taste to suggest that running Kris Marshall over again would be, well, satisfying. Probably.

Still, if he will advertise BT's services - and the latest ad does start with some line about how there's nothing more annoying than a bad internet connection - then bad taste or not, he's only got himself to blame for my disproportionate rage. He's lucky I gave up car ownership a while ago... mind you, if I see him when I'm cycling I might be tempted to give it a go.

Did I mention that my broadband access disappeared three days ago.

I was told it would take 2 days to fix. It didn't. I was told someone would call me with more information when they had it. They didn't. In the last three days, I have spent around 5 hours on the phone to various BT help-desk operatives. They all say the same thing. "The complex engineering team are still dealing with the task." (It's almost as if they're reading a script!!!1!)

Apparently it is going to take four days and not two. Who knows, when the four days are up they might tell me it's going to take another two days? Or another four. It's hard to know when they've already been wrong and nobody is able to describe the mysterious task that is being undertaken.

I have repeatedly asked if there is any way of getting internet access in the mean time. I have repeatedly been told that it can't be done. Which isn't true. You know those usb-modems...? They connect to the internet using a sim-card and a mobile phone line. No landline necessary. No landline = no faulty line-card at the exchange. Easy. I don't understand why BT can't provide me with one of those for a few days. Y'know, just until they've fixed the problem. That they've given me. But when I suggest this to someone on the help desk it seems to fry their brain.

It's impossible to speak to anyone who's actual job is to try and actually solve the actual problem. The poor souls aren't allowed to use their imagination; the rules have been laid out and the policy has been decided. The fact that it's technically possible to provide a temporary solution is beside the point because the customer is unable to speak to anyone who can actually make such a daring decision. But why? How often are they letting people down for more than a day? How much would it cost them to patch up the service in this way? How much profit are they making from each broadband customer in the first place? How much nicer would it be to work on the help desk if you were able to say, "Unfortunately, while our engineers will try to solve the problem as soon as possible, there's no way for us to know exactly how long it will take... but, we're going to try and get you a usb-modem for tomorrow morning which means you won't be without access for long..." Instead of being the frustrating wall that stands between the customer and the facts, you'd be the hero, saving the day as best you can. Their calls would be shorter, so they'd deal with more customers too...

Instead, I've ended up stubbornly locked in eternally looping conversations, both parties growing more frustrated by the second; me because they won't help and the help-desk fella because he can't.
Do you want to help me solve the problem?
You know those usb modems that provide mobile internet access?
One of those would solve the problem wouldn't it?
Wouldn't it?
... well...
It would wouldn't it?
So... can you, BT, provide me with one?
Why not?
Because that's not my department.
So whose department is it?
Could you put me through to the person who is able to make that decision?
I don't think anyone can?
Of course they can. It's possible. The things exist. Someone somewhere makes decisions.
I don't think that's how we deal with the problem...
I can see that. But so far you haven't dealt with the problem. Have you?
Have you?
It's still not fixed is it?
You know those usb modems that provide mobile internet access?
One of those would solve the problem wouldn't it?
Wouldn't it?
... well...
It would wouldn't it?

You can get a courtesy car when your motor is crocked so why not a courtesy internet connection? Especially when the bit that's broken down is at their end of things.

After two days of asking they relented inasmuch as they've provided me with this dial-up connection. Initially, I was told that even that wasn't possible... but it was wasn't it?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Latitude turned out to be great fun. I enjoyed camping. Mostly. I didn't mind the cold and the wet. Or the rough ground. But I could do without someone in the next-but-one tent starting a banjo sing-along for his mates at 5 in the morning.

I started to get paranoid that nobody would be attending my event. It was scheduled at the same time as Blondie, Interpol and The Tindersticks and I was convinced they'd mop up and leave nobody left for me. Blondie would have got my vote. As it was the audience spilled out way beyond the bounds of the Literature Tent and there was a great energy in the event from the start.

Thanks to everyone who came along... thanks to you, my already-hugely-enjoyable festival ended on a real personal high. Ta.

I was even more surprised by the size of the queue at the signing tent afterwards. The organisers had obviously underestimated the turn out too because they sold out of books long before the queue was even down to half its original size.

The journey home was a bit of an ordeal. Somehow a journey that should take less than three hours ended up taking nearer seven. There was a lot of queueing.

Question: If Beef Flavoured Hula Hoops are suitable for vegetarians... how can they advertise them as "containing no artificial flavours"?

Friday, July 18, 2008

Oh... I forgot to mention...

Bears: Born To Be Wild, originally uploaded by Dave Gorman.

... when I was on the way to Tewkesbury I passed these two motorcycling bears...

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Rome. Then Tewkesbury. Latitude next.

My three days in Rome were... a little strange. If you've never been to Rome but want to know what it's like, get a kazoo, then blow into it while watching this slideshow.

That's pretty much it.

It didn't start well. For various reasons (90% personal disorganisation, 10% HSBC being crap) I didn't finish packing for Rome until 3 in the morning. Which was always going to be tricky when I had a car booked to take me to Heathrow at 6.15. I set my alarm for 5.45 - gulp, less than 3 hours sleep - and went out like a light.

At times like this I always put my alarm clock somewhere that can't be reached without getting out of bed. It's a good job too. I don't think I'd have got up otherwise. As it was, I was up, dressed and clean and raring to go by 6.10. I was knackered obviously, but at least I'd done the hard part. I knew the driver would ring the doorbell so with my suitcase at my side I took a quick nap and rested my eyes to wait.

Cut to 7am. I woke up and looked at the time. A quick panic. Had the doorbell gone without me noticing it? Was there a driver sitting outside patiently waiting for me to show my face? Surely they'd have rung me if they'd got here and found nobody answering the door... wouldn't they?

I leaped up and took a look outside. Nobody waiting. I rifled through my hand luggage to find the number for the car company and gave them a call. I've since seen the e-mail that confirmed the booking, it was definitely meant to be a 6.15 pick up in order to get me to the airport for 7.15... but they were expecting to pick me up at 7.15. An hour late. Oops.

Oddly, having discovered that it wasn't my fault I felt kind of relaxed about things. If I'd slept through phone calls and doorbells it would have been my fault and I'd have been stressing about missing my flight. As it was, it was someone else's fault so I decided to be Zen about it. If I missed my flight - which seemed likely - it would be someone else's problem to solve.

The driver turned out to be waiting in a cafe about 5 minutes away so he rushed out and was with me before 7... and we began the hurried drive across London. One of the problems with London is the traffic. From my place to Heathrow might take an hour when there's no traffic - as you might find if you were setting off at 6.15 on a weekday morning for example - but as people start motoring into the city to get to their offices - as they do nearer 8 o'clock - it's always going to take a little longer. Several years ago I had a cab to Heathrow take me over 3 hours. It's an unpredictable beast.

The driver did his best and we were there in about 1hr 15 minutes. I leaped out of the car, (I did a lot of leaping that day) grabbed my bag and into the notorious Terminal 5 convinced that I was chasing a lost cause. It was nearly 8.30 and the gate was supposed to close at 8.50. I saw huge queues for every check in desk and thought I had no chance.

I don't quite know how it happened. Maybe Terminal 5 has teethed and started to function the way it's supposed to. It took me less than 15 minutes to get through check-in and security and get to the gate. I was worried that my bag wasn't going to get on the plane but I checked at the gate and they confirmed that it was there. Remarkable. I breathed a sigh of relief - the fact that I hadn't had time to eat anything, buy a newspaper or exchange any money was a minor niggle - but at least I was going to get my flight.

Ten minutes later they made an announcement. The flight was delayed. By over an hour. Harumph.

Rome itself was strange. I was there because the documentary, America Unchained, had been selected for the RomaFiction film festival. But as nice as the festival staff were I found the whole affair to be strangely unfathomable. I wouldn't really describe it as a film festival as it seemed to be mostly concerned with TV shows. I think C.S.I. New York is a very well made piece of television but I'm confused as to why a festival would choose to screen episodes 11 and 13 from Season 4... especially when it's already shown on Italian TV. Much as I enjoyed watching it, I was similarly confused by the inclusion of the first episode of The Six Million Dollar Man. Odd.

I was joined on day two by Andy - the film's producer and press-ganged, second-half director - and we trolled around a bit seeing some sights. I've heard spectacular things about Rome but I'm afraid I didn't like it all that much. It's like visiting Disneyland only with real history to look at. Wherever you go there are 500 other tourists in the way... and of course, you become one of the 500 tourists who are in someone else's way. Yes the Trevi Fountain is spectacular, but am I the only one who feels a bit deflated by the presence of a the Trevi Steakhouse a hundred yards away? Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed myself, the weather was spectacular and we dined extremely well, but it didn't have the relaxed charm that I've experienced in other big European cities. Berlin, Stockholm - even Paris - all attract huge numbers of tourists without feeling quite so compromised as Rome did. Oh well.

A Red Rose in a Coke Vase, originally uploaded by Dave Gorman.

Near the top of this week's to-do list were the words 'Buy A Tent.' Or at least they would have been if I was the kind of person to actually write out a to-do list. It was definitely something I needed to do in preparation for Latitude. I'm doing a book reading in the Literature Tent on Sunday night but will be camping at the festival for the weekend. Which obviously requires a tent. Or Rome-style weather. Which is unlikely. Certainly better to have a tent.

While I was in Rome a friend got in touch and invited me to come along to the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival on Saturday night. They're in a band - Circulus - who were performing and there was room in the tour bus if I wanted to tag along. It seemed like a fun idea. And it seemed like a good way of road-testing my camping ability. So while I only got back from Rome at about 10pm I was up early and straight out to buy a tent first thing on Saturday morning... and then on the road to Tewkesbury.

The festival takes place on part of the site of a battle dating back to 1471. They do a battle reenactment in the afternoon and then have lots of entertainment in the evening. We missed the reenactment (although, I think the Yorkists won. Again!...) but the gig that night was spectacularly good fun. When 70% of the audience are tanked up on mead and wearing medieval garb then medieval-folk-prog-rock is the order of the day and that makes Circulus ideal.

Doing something so different so soon after my trip to Rome made the Italian jaunt feel very distant. I didn't feel like I'd been drinking cocktails beside the Tiber the day before... it felt like a month had passed.

Still, my fears about camping were assuaged. It's been over 20 years since I spent a night under canvas. On that occasion my companions and I were eventually chased off the site by an angry farmer and his three slavering alsatians so it was nice to have a happier experience this time. I've made my peace with camping. Latitude here I come.

Monday, July 7, 2008


Exciting, originally uploaded by Dave Gorman.

I'm going to Rome tomorrow. I'll be there for three days. I'm excited.