Sunday, 16 January 2011

Why do utility providers see customers as enemies to be crushed?

Our broadband slowed down about six weeks ago, after a period of several weeks where the service kept dropping out. It has remained slow ever since. On Thursday, after eventually losing patience, I did some speed tests and discovered that we’re achieving an upload speed of less than 1Mb.

That’s almost 75% less than we were getting six months ago, when I last did a speed-test. Under I Mb! In the middle of London! That’s less than we were getting five years ago. My brother, in the wilds of Dumfries & Galloway, averages 5.5Mb from the same ISP.

Girding my loins, I phoned BT, and spoke to some charming Indians, who finally admitted that my readings were correct, and that the speed did seem a bit low. But, they explained, the local exchange had probably lowering the bandwidth to maintain a continuous service: surely I could understand that? Yes, I could just about grasp the concept, I said, but what I would prefer to receive is the service I’m actually paying for – BT’s own website tells me I should be averaging 12 Mbs. After going through the usual requests to take my computer onto the roof and wrap the connecting cable round the external phone line, having made sure that every other electrical appliance in West London was switched off, they said they’d be sending an engineer round to “help increase my broadband speed”. I did try to tell them all they needed to do was to make some adjustments at the local exchange, as they’ve done on the three occasions this has happened in the past, but they insisted.

I’m sure anyone reading this will have had similar – and worse – experiences.

My question is this: why do we seem to be permanently trapped in an abusive relationship with so many companies which provide what I think we can all agree are now the necessities of modern life? Why do these organisations – many based on the nationalised behemoths that made life so horrible in the 1970s - seem to imagine that the best way to achieve long-term profitability is to try to get away with providing their customers with as little as possible? Why does any interaction with train companies, utility providers and financial institutions feel like you’re standing a Soho street corner, being rooked by a very large gang of incompetent crooks in a traditional three-card game? (The main difference being, of course, that it’s far easier to walk away from a three-card game.)

For instance, my bank (and yours) invariably lowers the interest on any variable rate deposit account you take out with them - without telling you. That’s exactly what BT has done to our bandwidth.  

Are they proud of themselves? Do the individuals who make up these organisations like to be treated in this fashion by other companies?

Why do these companies act as if we’re the enemy, and they’re at war with us. Their weapons are confusion, obfuscation, misdirection and concealment. Have you looked at a BT bill recently? I have a degree in Philosophy from a leading university, so I have had to read Hegel and Wittgenstein without bursting into tears, and my marbles appear to be largely intact – but I’m buggered if I can understand a broadband + phone bill from our country’s leading purveyor of telecommunication services.They must make them that way on purpose.

The main aim of these companies – their main war goal - is to deliver as little as possible for as much money as possible while, thanks solely to inertia, losing as few customers as possible. Their main strategy is to wear us down relentlessly, to make us lose the will to fight through boredom and confusion. Their tactics are to bombard us with useless information, while relevant information is treated as Top Secret: to move the battle onto the internet, where we’ll squander our energy hacking through thickets of  FAQs and “More information” links and menus that take you back to where you started and futile online “chats”: to set up a line of pleasant, patient foreigners to soak up the punishment in order to protect their elite forces: and to make the “changeover” process whereby we select a different - and possibly less autistic -  enemy to battle against as arduous and wearying and mystifying as possible.

The one thing I’m certain of is that, ultimately, we will lose, and they will win. Deep down, we know the alternatives will prove just as crappy – because, unlike America, we have no race memory of a Golden Age when it all just worked and the companies who underpinned our daily existence were on our side (except for banking - I can remember once being a valued customer rather than a “mark”).

I’m sure it doesn’t have to be this way, but given that the politicians and the regulators seem unwilling to make a difference, and given that these monstrous monopolists don’t seem to give a monkey’s, it’s difficult to see any reason for things to improve – unless we convince customer-focussed companies who understand the modern world and are untainted by a public sector past (e.g. Sky, Amazon and Apple) to take over. They’re not perfect, God knows – but they really could not be worse!


  1. 'And my dial-up screen has locked me
    Into a touch tone tune monotony
    Because some snot-nosed pube has blocked me out
    So I wait and I wait...'

    That's from Todd Rundgren's ' I Hate My Frickin' ISP'. If you were ever thinking of a post on songs that nail the frustrations of modern life and by doing so make you feel slightly less like topping yourself, then that would be my nomination. But as he says, you never get back the time that you waste.
    Monday, January 17, 2011 - 12:55 AM


    My main ISP is Virgin Media, a Richard Branson creation from two busted flushes, NTL and Telewest, not a hint of the public sector in their background, the broadband service is often down and the customer support is contemptuous and provocative, to say the least.

    It's not a public sector v. private sector thing.

    It's something to do with mass consumer services -- the scale gets too big to incorporate pride, dignity, esprit de corp, amour propre, ... It's something to do with the bilge spoken by business schools and management consultants -- "post-bureaucratic" actually means purely bureaucratic, people get cancelled out of the equation, the correct term should really be "post-human".

    And it's something to do with the new business model.

    Some things don't change. There's always a supplier and a customer/client. There's always a price, reconciling supply and demand.

    Some things do change, particularly when the product or service is "free", as with Google, say, or Facebook. The user isn't paying. So he or she isn't the client. But there must be a client. Otherwise Google isn't a business.

    The client is the advertiser/marketeer who write cheques to Google. So what is the user? Answer, the product. Google are selling its users to advertisers. The users are an annoyance, the "enemy" as you put it, "parasites in the eco-system", as Bruce Schneier puts it,

    Lots of words, lots of diagnoses, but no hope -- what do we do about it?

    Well, for one thing, beware David Cameron's so-called post-bureaucratic age which is actually a post-human age.

    Take a look, for example, at Norway, where the banks issue BankIDs to everyone,, where almost no private sector transaction is now possible, I am told, without a BankID, and where interaction with the state, public sector transactions, are more and more dependent on BankIDs, which is, I am told, exactly what the state wants, it's so much easier governing electronic IDs, than people.

    Can you, Scott, use your Norwegian agents to check how much of this is true, and how much it is misinformation I have been fed?

    If it's mostly true, then the winds of change could be blowing our way from the north and our only protection, but a reliable one, will be the spectacular incompetence of Whitehall.
    Monday, January 17, 2011 - 12:46 PM

  3. Ex-KCS – bandwidth still screwed (some internal fault, apparently: could be wiring) and BT are sending another engineer (top-notch, I’m told) later this week, at their expense! So my attitude to my frickin’ ISP will depend on the outcome of that visit. Luckily, I haven’t had to deal with any teenage pubes so far. (Apparently a machine figures out your phone has a problem and automatically limits your bandwidth as a result – but doesn’t alert a human being so they can arrange to come and fix the fault: The Age of the Terminator is evidently well and truly upon us).

    DM, thank you for the warning re Virgin Cable: there’s a grey box against the wall of the house opposite which is always being visited by their engineers, so I presume this is what’s called a local head-end (I have sat through many presentations about this sort of stuff, but could never be arsed to concentrate). This made me visit their website and wonder if it would be worth switching – but the one thing I have heard about their broadband service from several people (and now you) is that it frequently goes down, and that their customer service is lousy. (Other ISPs sound even worse). I must say, BT’s Indians are always respectful (as I am to them), and the one thing they have never done in seven years is cut me off from the outside world for more than a few minutes at a time.

    I’m afraid I haven’t been in touch with my relatives for quite a well, and, as they have stuff going on in their lives, I don’t think they’d be much help. I can tell you that Norway is, basically, a socialist country (whoever is in power). The population is so thinly spread that it seems to have made them very amenable to state interference (unlike, say, thinly-spread Americans), and their oil and gas wealth and hydroelectric riches seem to have made them happy to pay eye-watering amounts of tax to fund a derangedly generous welfare system (although I’ve heard a lot of moans about the amount of subsidy given to the Sami). I don’t think your average Norwegian would mind about having to use bank cards as ID (they tend to be much less distrustful of their government). And, of course, Britain’s ruling elite long ago stopped giving a toss about this country’s cultural traditions, so the idea probably is on its way here.
    Monday, January 17, 2011 - 06:46 PM

  4. Scott, I'm sorry that the Norwegian agent network has been disbanded.

    Just remembered a peculiar customer service experience I had the other day.

    I had to ring the Pensions Regulator. Phoned up. Got through.

    Lovely female voice. Told me her name. "Delectable", I think. Kept calling me David. What could she do for me, she wanted to know. Can I amend my small self-administered pension scheme trust deed to reduce the minimum number of trustees from three to two, I ask. I know all the best chat-up lines. David, she tells me, she's sure i can, David, voice getting lower, silkier, but I'll need to check, can i have your number -- now we're getting somewhere -- and I'll call you back, David. We play it cool. No kisses. Hang up.

    Three minutes later, the phone goes. David, is that you, it's Delectable. Yes, I croak. David, I've done what you asked. God, I thought, I didn't even say it out loud. You can change the minimum number of trustees from three to two. Thank you, I say. It was no trouble, David, and if there's anything else i can do for you, anything at all, David, don't think twice, just ring.

    Very little of that is made up. What a fantastic service, I thought, and all on an 0845 number. The Pensions Regulator is staffed by angels. I couldn't get it out of my mind. I kept playing the whole of the first phone call back in my head until I remembered the automated announcement before i pressed button 2 for Delectable. "The Pensions Regulator have hired a marketing company called Armpit and groin Strain to assess the quality of customer service. You may be contacted by Armpit and Groin Strain after your call unless you tell the support technician specifically that you don't want to be". Suddenly, I was the same ugly mug I'd seen in the mirror that morning.

    You want good service, make sure you only need support while the support staff are being audited.
    Monday, January 17, 2011 - 11:46 PM

  5. In Roger Scruton’s excellent “The Uses of Pessimism”, which I’ve just started, he highlights the absolute inability of progressivists to learn from past mistakes: they get especially angry when anyone with a grasp of reality points out that the latest wheeze they’re championing has been tried before, and didn’t work, and then, when the “new” wheeze crashes and burns, they make sure that absolutely no blame attaches to anyone in the decision-making or implementation process that led to billions of pounds of our money being pissed away – but somehow manage to blame the people who warned against it! I was reminded of Ed Milliband’s proud boast upon becoming Labour leader that he was much more “optimistic” than Cameron – as if the mindless and utterly unjustified optimism of the government this twat had been a prominent member of hadn’t almost destroyed the country!

    There’s something about technology which exacerbates this tendency – I’ve spent much of my time as a consultant telling people not to waste money doing things that have already failed, or have absolutely no hope of succeeding: these ideas have always been planted in clients’ minds by highly-paid 12 year olds in cool suits who talk trendy pseudo-technical gobbleydegook and have never actually built anything that works.

    The advertising sounds fun, though – imagine how much sleazy tax-accountants would pay to have their ads served to high-earners!
    Wednesday, January 19, 2011 - 06:36 PM