I've been a Telstra cable customer for almost 4 years now, not really by choice, but for lack of any realistic alternatives. We're over 3.5km from our closest telephone exchange and prior experience has shown that ADSL on the available lines is both slow (3 Mbps) and unreliable (frequent dropouts). We're fortunate to have both Telstra and Optus cable available but I hear quite horrible stories about Optus' congestion so I am reluctant to try them except as a last resort. Hence I preface all of the following with "if I could use anyone other than Telstra, I would".

This isn't intended as a whinge though. Despite a week of customer service shenanigans I am more amused than I am annoyed and I hope you will also find my stories entertaining. Perhaps if you are in a management or operations role these stories may even be instructive.

It begins on Wednesday 16 April. With a week left on my billing month it's apparent that I will exceed my 200GB limit this month, and having investigated the alternatives I decide that I would like to upgrade to their 500GB plan. I call Telstra to see what offers they might offer.

A slight digression here -- it's well known that telcos often have special discounts that are only offered if the stars align and you happen to speak to a willing service rep. There's a dedicated thread on Whirlpool for getting discounted rates from Telstra. The practice of repeatedly calling to see if you might hit on a gold mine is known as "rep shopping"; surprisingly there is no Wikipedia article for this term.

I tried my hand at this, failed miserably, and decided to go for Telstra's Pinnacle bundle. Right now there is a $20 discount for new customers (advertised on their web site) so I figured that this should be available to existing customers as well, I just had to speak to the right person. Sure enough on my first call I got a sales guy who happily agreed to give me the $20 discount. Problem solved!

Except that said sales guy was unable to process orders due to a seemingly botched system upgrade that began on Saturday 12 April. He thought that the system should be fixed pretty soon and offered to call me back the next day. As you might guess, that call back never happened.

But it turns out it probably wasn't his fault. After several conversations with other Telstra staff it turns out their systems had gone fully bonkers. By Tuesday 22 April they were in the even worse position of being unable to access any customer account details, on top of being unable to place orders. The system that they use to register requested call backs was also down. This systems failure isn't the point of this post though, even if a 10 day outage is quite impressive in its own right, especially when it blocks new sales.

What I found fascinating over my many interactions with Telstra is the apparent problem of internal communications and trust, and how it manifests in the way they interact with customers.

As an example, on 14 April Telstra announced on their CrowdSupport site that fixed line Internet customers have the option of requesting data "top ups". But having attempted to claim this 4 times, exactly one of the staff I spoke to actually knew of this offer before I told them of it, and none of them could actually apply it to my service.

Another example: one of the reasons rep shopping is possible is that you frequently find that staff members aren't up to date on current product offerings and it's therefore possible to bully them into building custom bundles that aren't actually for sale, often at prices below what they should be.

A follow on problem is that because rep shopping is possible, devious customers use it to fool other Telstra employees into giving them their desired discounts. How?

The problem is this -- imagine you, as Telstra, have N thousand call centre folks, and any one of them could promise anything to the customer, for whatever reasons (ignorance, misinformation, sleepiness). You want your brand to have integrity so you try to honour any promises made by company representatives. The devious customer therefore tells one staff member that another Telstra employee promised him a bundle B with a discount of $D/mo, despite no such promises ever having been made.

How does Telstra combat this problem?

They use interaction tickets. You may have heard of the term "Customer Relationship Management" (CRM).

When an offer is made to a customer it should be recorded into that customer's account so that any representative should be able to consult that customer's records and see the truth. Two problems still remain however. Non-customers don't have such a record, and not all staff are diligent with their record keeping so the customer's record is not a reliable source of truth.

A related issue that I've encountered several times is where a staff member says they will do X but never followed through and, in later conversations, it becomes apparent that they never submitted the necessary paperwork for X to occur. A real world example: a Telstra staffer tells me they're going to send a technician for example but doesn't book it in, and therefore the technician never arrives. I call to find out what happened to the technician, and am told there was never one scheduled. Cool story bro.

Interaction tickets solve this one as well... kind of.

Whenever a Telstra customer interacts with a staff member they are apparently entitled to request a receipt which is provided in the form of an opaque string, read out over the phone. e.g. D-123456789. In theory this gives the customer proof that the representative has recorded the interaction, and makes it easier for them to refer to this issue if they need to contact Telstra again.

In practice the lazy or incompetent representative can make up any string they like, making the process useless to both Telstra and the customer. When the customer eventually complains, there is no record of the fictitious ticket, making it difficult for Telstra to figure out which staff member was responsible, and annoying the customer further to learn that s/he has been lied to. This isn't unique to Telstra BTW, many ISPs and companies in general have similar systems.

What Telstra's system does is email the interaction ticket to the customer, whilst s/he is still on the phone. The nefarious operator could of course fake such an email but to do so s/he would need to first access the customer's account (to get her email) -- an action that should be auditable via other means. Overall the system is not bulletproof but still a great improvement.

So we learn that the CRM system solves two problems for Telstra.

Firstly, as an organisation wide "brain". Customers will interact with many Telstra staff over the life of their account but collectively they have to behave like a single person, "remembering" prior interactions. This is the promise of CRM systems.

The second is enforcing trustworthiness amongst its own staff -- providing a practical way for customers to hold Telstra, and therefore the individual staff, accountable. This helps to address the root cause of many of Telstra's issues -- internal communication.

When my service was eventually upgraded to the Pinnacle bundle they applied an incorrect speed profile to my cable service. It was obvious to me but I spoke with 3 different staff over the phone & LiveChat, and none of them would acknowledge the issue, palming me off between Tech Support -> Billing -> Tech Support. Frustrated, I posted to their CrowdSupport site, and lucked upon a fantastic employee who goes by the name "Ben_J" who not only fixed my service but importantly:

It was exactly as we suspected, someone has just selected the incorrect speed plan when they changed the Bundle. Sorry about that. I've already sent through feedback about the person who changed the Bundle as well as the agents you've spoken with today.

Without an auditable trail of every interaction the vitally important cycle of feedback -> improvement would not be possible.

Over the last few years there's been an increasing amount of noisediscussion about net neutrality, particularly in the US. This post is written from the perspective of an impartial (IMO) observer in Australia, distilling the core US problem, and considers the importance of this issue to Australians.

The TL;DR version of this saga is that there are essentially two sides battling out commercials.

On one side there is the content providers. These are services such as YouTube, Netflix, etc who host the content that typical Internet users wish to consume.

On the other side are the last-mile providers - aka ISPs. These are the companies that provide connectivity to end users.

Both parties need each other to satisfy their respective customers. The ISP provides connectivity to end users but doesn't directly host the vast majority of content users want. Content providers each have little pieces of what consumers want but need the ISP to deliver it to their end users.

So at various points around the globe content providers & ISPs come together -- physically -- to interconnect their networks. The issue in question right now is whether the two should simply pay their respective costs to meet, or should one party pay a further tariff to the other? This is a classic negotiation power scenario. Who has more to lose, or more to win?

Right now, in the US at least, the ISPs hold power. They're the ones demanding that content providers pay a tariff for the right to connect. We'll get to why in a second but first here are both sides' views.

If you take the content provider's POV then ISPs are double dipping because the ISP has already charged their end user (i.e. you and me) a monthly subscription fee to deliver Internet, and now they're also trying to charge the content providers another fee for delivering that same data.

If you take the ISP's POV then content providers like Netflix are simply trying to shift their own costs onto ISPs. As users use more data (because of services like Netflix) ISPs have to pay to upgrade their infrastructure and therefore Netflix should contribute towards these upgrades.

They both sound like reasonable arguments but the problem actually goes deeper.

The core problem is that US ISPs have a monopoly on the last-mile. In many areas your only choice for an ISP is an AT&T, a Comcast, or a Verizon. This leads to the situation where an ISP can extract interconnection tariffs from content providers such as Netflix because the end user has no other ISP to switch to.

Picture the average Netflix subscriber on Comcast who is having a sub-par streaming experience due to the interconnection between Netflix and Comcast being saturated. She complains to Netflix that the service is crap, Netflix goes to Comcast to increase capacity, and Comcast says "hey, you should pay us $X for that". Netflix says no, the subscriber can't leave Comcast as there is no other ISP in her area, so either she puts up with a crap Netflix experience, or she cancels her subscription with Netflix.

The second problem is that for various reasons US ISPs have typically sold their Internet to end users on an unlimited usage basis. This creates some rather questionable incentives as highlighted by Geoff Huston in his post RIP Network Neutrality:

... the internet access industry appears to have adopted a retail offering that achieves its greatest reward to the service provider when the consumer does not use the service at all [emphasis mine]. In this case increased use implies greater cost without any increase in revenue. To deter increased use of their service the service provider is, somewhat perversely, incented to decrease the quality of the service. How strange.

The real problem is not Netflix or Comcast. Both are behaving as you would expect them to. It's that the market ended up in this position in the first place - with monopoly ISPs offering unlimited usage of finite resources for a fixed price. It's not clear how this will or should pan out in the US but Australians should be aware of these issues, especially in the context of the NBN.

Aussies may or may not be aware that without the intervention of legislation, competitive ISPs such as Optus, iiNet, Internode, TPG, and competitive infrastructure companies such as Nextgen, PIPE, Amcom and the like we would be looking at our own monopoly ISP situation with Telstra as your only choice. Despite all this effort, and although there is competition at the retail level, Telstra's copper phone lines are still the only way for any ISP to provide ADSL Internet to many users around the country. We've been lucky in some respects that access to these phone lines is "declared" by the ACCC which means access & pricing is somewhat controlled. But let's not harp on the past.

The NBN is building a new, national, monopoly last-mile infrastructure. That is, for many Australians the NBN will become the new, only choice of ISP. Currently owned by the Australian Government but intended to be privatised in future. Given the situation in the US we may want to consider the outcomes of privatising monopoly infrastructure. At the very least, if we do privatise the NBN, there needs to be appropriate legislation to control its market power.

Oh Malaysia

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Back in March I went to Malaysia for 2 weeks, ostensibly for my cousin's wedding but in actuality to eat ridiculous amounts of delicious Malaysian cuisine - Hokkien mee, Soo Kee's beef noodles, Soong Kee's beef noodles, roti canai, "spare parts" noodles, kuih, cendol, mangosteen, jackfruit and durian.

Catching up with relos from all over the world, particularly my cousins & their kids was great. Special thanks to Joo Khim and Hanson for taking us around :)

Every time I visit Malaysia I marvel at the industriousness of the hawkers. Most of them do one thing and do it well. The ecosystem for most hawkers revolves around either a corner lot coffee shop or markets. At the corner lot coffee shop the owner of the coffee shop sells drinks exclusively, and the hawkers will sell food exclusively - each hawker specialising in a small number of dishes.

I've been pondering how this compares to the Australian & American food courts. Essentially they are the same setup - many food vendors centred around shared tables & chairs. But somehow the quality of food found in Malaysian markets & coffee shops is far superior to that found in the typical Westfield food court.

You can feel a certain hunger or drive in Malaysia. Almost every hawker will make it a point to say hi to you, throw you a smile, and say goodbye as you leave. And it's not that plastic hi/goodbye of someone who has been told that it's part of their job description - it's that genuine friendliness you get from your local fruit shop owner, or your local cafe. I wonder if it's possible for an Australian food court to replicate that experience - vendors whose food is so good that people will drive all over town to eat a specific hawker's Hokkien mee or their "spare parts" porridge. Someone like Gamshara Ramen comes to mind.

There are numerous stories of hawkers becoming multimilionaires by solely selling porridge or chee cheong fun. The economics seem straightforward - sell a bowl of noodles for $5, sell 100 of them in a day, 6 days a week and you've got a $150k/year business. Mostly tax free.

We had a chat to one hawker who had been in the same spot for many years, and he mentioned that he now owns 3 houses and didn't need to work but that he would continue doing it as long as he was physically able. When asked why he didn't try to expand his business he stated that he was satisfied with what he had. It's pretty inspiring to see what one can achieve with a simple cart selling noodles.

In the local paper I discovered that Malaysia introduced a minimum wage only this year. RM900/month (Ringgit =~ 0.33 USD, roughly US$300/month). Crime is a big problem in Malaysia, at least in Kuala Lumpur. Many reports of arbitrary slashings and beatings; modus operandi is to chop your victim first, then take his/her wallet, phone, and jewellery. Locals blame this on the high number of immigrants but it's hard to imagine that this isn't at least partially related to the massive income inequality. That iPhone you're holding is 2 months worth of minimum wages.

Weak law enforcement is another issue. Evidently the police aren't paid very well so you see them doing things like waiting on highway exits for drivers to cross a double line prematurely as they emerge from the exit - easy bribes. A quick Google reveals this:

The biggest gainers will be new inspectors who will get a starting salary of RM2,060 compared to RM1,492 previously. Diploma and STPM holders will also be allowed to join the force directly as sergeants and they will start with a basic salary of RM1,500. A sergeant's basic salary previously was RM890.

Those are monthly salaries. RM1500 is about US$500...

It's made me think about what it takes to have a civil society. Could Australia be an equally dangerous place if we allow our wage and basic living standards to fall sufficiently far?

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