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.