Rant: Why Is Mobile Phone Support So Hard To Get Right?

We've come a long way in terms of what you can do with a mobile phone, be it the apps that you run or the networks that you run it on. Why, then, are the support services that underpin them still so woefully bad?

Warning: I've got the extra-ranty trousers on again; the kind with industrial grade sandpaper and crushed glass on the inside.

It's a good time to be interested in mobile technology. 4G networks are coming along nicely in Australia, with the 700Mhz auction due later this year set to really shake things up. On the handset front, there's a massive range of high-end smartphones to pick from. Telco prices keep on tumbling down; the volumes of data that would have cost thousands only a couple of years ago now costs mere tens of dollars. Things have improved massively — except in one area.

The support services that underpin telco services suck. That applies to all of them, although I'm personally only cranky at one of them right now. I'm sure I'm not alone in this, however, which is why I figure it's worth writing about.

Right at the moment, I'm somewhat busy sorting out a dispute between a relative of mine and the nation's largest telecommunications carrier, AKA Telstra. Specifically, it's to do with mobile phone services, and in this case something as simple as voicemail.

Telstra won't (or can't) switch voicemail on for her phone service, something that wasn't a problem previously because she very rarely actually gets calls. She's busy lining up some new work possibilities right now, so having voicemail became something that was worth setting up.

No problem, she thought. I've just got to follow the prompts from the phone, record a message; the usual tedious thing.

Except that upon calling the requisite setup number, her phone informed her that it couldn't set up voicemail.

Which was, let's face it, a little odd. What it also meant was the one thing that far too many of us dread; it was time to call the support people to sort out the issue.

I should point out here that I got my start in the technology industry working as a support technician. It's a lousy job in many respects: people never call you when they're happy with the service, many of them are horribly unclear as to what the problem actually is, and it's the very definition of a stepping stone kind of job (you either move up the support ladder into more rewarding positions, or use it to move sideways into other work). Nobody wants to be a first-level technician for long.

The issue I've got is that it appears that nobody at Telstra's phone support wants to be there at all. This should have been a simple issue, and at first it appears it was, albeit a curious one. Telstra's support folks told her that her phone was set up for voicemail . . . but only video voicemail. Weird, but anyway, she was told that they'd reset the account, and she should just need to restart her phone.

Which involved hanging up.

It didn't work. So she called back, got told there was no record of her call, but they'd reset it again, but to wait four hours. No prizes for guessing what happened after four hours. And then again the next morning after being told twelve hours, then again with several claims that there were no records of the calls, no supervisors that could be talked to... and then she was told it had been escalated to a supervisor — who she couldn't actually talk to or contact, for whatever reason — and that she'd have to wait forty-eight hours because there'd been a problem with the resolution of her problem.

At that point, it's hard not to look at the customer service strategy being employed as one of passing the buck and hoping that somebody else gets to take the next call.

That forty-eight hour deadline expired this morning, and finally, it's started working. It's only taken most of a week to resolve a problem that should have taken minutes.

This isn't just an opportunity to kick Telstra; they all do it. A couple of years ago I had Optus representatives tell me that I was texting China too much, which was why my credit kept vanishing. Only two small problems with that: firstly, I wasn't doing so, and secondly, as they pointed out to me, I was apparently doing so while on a support call to them. I'm not entirely sure how that's even possible, but being told that I was "clearly lying" about it while on the call wasn't the best move.

At this stage, my own household has been through all three of the major telcos for mobile provision, and each of them has had the same basic underlying problem: they're not doing customer service over the phone very well at all.

I don't believe this is an outsourcing problem, by the way; it's not a question of language or accent or anything like that. After all, plenty of Giz readers indicated that they do a lot of shopping online, and clearly that's because it's less expensive. If big companies can do that as well, there's a part of me that figures they should — as long as they do it right. Is that an entitled view? Possibly — but then I figure if you're paying for the service, you're entitled to the service.

Equally, while all of the telcos use social media services to promote their messages and solve simple problems, there's only so far you can take a problem in 140 characters. Yes, there are "wacky" resolutions, like this one engineered by Vodafone

While that's cute marketing, and would have taken some time to create, it's not exactly a practical response to everybody's problems. It's apparently part of Telstra's strategy as well; David Thodey told Computerworld late last year:

"We’ve moved on to social media where we have people monitoring 24/7 what’s on Twitter and Facebook and we engage in the conversation so we can get ahead of concerns of commentary that’s going on in the online world."

Which sounds more like reputation management that problem solving to me, but then I'm possibly not in the best mood about this right now.

Equally, there's always the option of taking things to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO), but it's not like that's a magic bullet to fix every problem that you might have with a provider. Not only does the TIO have to review cases — which means more waiting time — but the more overloaded it becomes, the worse a resource it is for those who genuinely need it.

What's your worst telco horror story, and what should be done to make this rather vital aspect of the mobile market better?

Image: Mediaflex

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