Friday, July 10, 2009

This is obvious, really

With most mobile phone networks in Britain, when you call regular customer service the call is forwarded to someone in India. If the person on the other end of the call solves my problem efficiently, I am fine with this. When things don't work, the problem is ultimately caused by poor systems and poor management at the network, usually. For instance, I had a customer service issue with Vodafone (caused by a screw up at their end) in which it was impossible to be helped by the same person twice, and different people kept failing to understand things that I had already explained to one of their colleagues. Bad service. On the other hand, for a recent issue I had with Three (caused by a screw up by the Royal Mail) the first person who helped me took my number, and said he would escalate the problem and call me back when it was resolved, which he did. Good service.

However, there is one option in the phone menu that will always get you to someone in the UK, and that is selecting "I wish to cancel my phone". When you select this from just about any network, you get someone with a friendly Northern English or Scottish accent from the "customer retention" department, whose job it is to talk you out of leaving. These people will ask you why you are leaving, and have the power to offer you much better deals that people in, say, the network's retail shops. Such people walk a relatively delicate line, because if someone genuinely does wish to cancel they have a legal right to do so and the network must not refuse them, but it is their job to keep you on the line if there is some chance you will renew your contract.

If you genuinely do want to cancel your phone, there is a game to be played to get it over with quickly. Basically, you tell lies that are unanswerable by the person on the other end of the phone. "I am leaving the country" is a good one, but only works if you are doing a straight cancellation. If you are instead asking for a PAC code to port your number to another network, that doesn't hold up. Things like "This phone is in my name, but my ex-girlfriend used it. We have now broken up and she wants to keep her number" will usually work. Or one can just get confrontational and insist, but I don't like to do that.

Sometimes though, you say you want to cancel when you have absolutely no desire to cancel. This comes down to what I said earlier: the customer retentions department has the power to offer you a better deal than any other part of the organisation. Usually, though, they will not make their very best offer unless you seem sincere about leaving, and it turns into an experience akin to haggling in a market. It is very hard to know how low they are able to go, as the level of desperation to keep customers varies depending on how close to their monthly quotas they are, how badly they think the stockmarket will react to news that they have lost fifty thousand customers, and that kind of thing. Therefore, haggling exists here for the same reason it exists in markets - the seller does not want to reveal to the buyer how low he can go unless he absolutely has to, and he does so in the hope that the buyer will agree to pay more. I am reasonably good at this, but I suppose I should note that the cheapest deal I have ever obtained was received when I rang up genuinely intending to leave and they genuinely talked me out of it. (As a consequence of this, I generally carry two mobiles. That said, having a second number that is only known to my close friends has something to be said for it to).

In any event, the cheapest mobile deals to be had in the UK generally come from taking out a contract, letting it come to its end, and then calling the customer retentions department and threatening to leave.

Yesterday, however, I did something different. I have had a mobile broadband contract with Three for the last 12 months, for which I pay £10 a month for 1Gb of data. This isn't a huge allowance, but is generally plenty for those occasions I am away from home and where there is no free WiFi. However, I bought that original contract at a bad time. Three have at various times had 25% off or 50% off deals on this contract. In fact, I obtained a £5 a month deal for one of my friends during one of these offers. (Hi Brian). Therefore, I yesterday simply rang up the customer retentions department, and asked if they could give me the same deal. The response from the nice Scottish woman was "Let me check. Yes, sure, I can offer you that. It's nice to get someone who knows exactly what he wants".

Somehow, this seems deeply wrong, as the game of elaborate lies was missing. I suppose, though, that it was akin to knowing a fair price for something in a market, offering it, saying "take it or leave it", turning around to walk out, and seeing if the stallholder stops you. The woman at the other end of the phone seemed pleased. I suppose there is a fair chance she is paid on commission, and gets commission for a contract renewal, and someone who does a deal immediately without 15 minutes of lying and/or threatening to hang up is quite an efficient use of her time.

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