A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about my customer experience at my doctor’s surgery. That article was all about a very good experience, with what, I believe is, a progressive GP practice. Its theme was about small improvements in the customer journey. In contrast, this week is about Vodafone, and it’s not a pretty read.

Telecoms, much like banking and other industries are dominated by a few players with high barriers to entry (known as Oligopolies, if my Economics A level serves me well). They also have high customer switching costs (it’s a pain to move either). They often suffer from complacency in customer service.

Until about two years ago, I felt Vodafone were one of the exceptions to that rule, as both a corporate customer (in my previous roles) and my wife as a personal customer had great service. In my area, they were also the network coverage kings, so it was an easy choice.

Vodafone – Getting Credit

My first big bust-up with them was when I started Yellow Brick Road (YBR). My number was held in a contract with my previous employer, that still had over a year to run. I simply needed to open up a new account in my company.

First, they insisted on a full 2-year term, even though the contract I came from had less than that to run. And of course, no handset upgrade. I could accept that.

But then, as YBR was a new company, they wouldn’t give us credit terms. That despite me being a chartered accountant and having an A1 credit rating. I was also the sole owner and director. After a lot of rhetoric, they insisted on seeing “Management Accounts”. “Errrr”, I explained, “How can a new startup have Managment accounts, I’ve only just started trading”. “Even if I did have accounts, it’s a startup – the numbers wouldn’t be pretty”.

After a lot of back and forth, they eventually explained that “Management Accounts mean Financial Projections and business plan. “Ohhhhh, I see, ” I said, “Of course, that exactly what that means.” What a shame a business telecom provider doesn’t understand simple business financial documents. After I sent the said documents they eventually opened up credit terms.

This is for £40 a month paid by direct debit, I mean really, it’s hardly going to topple Vodafone, Barings style is it? They had me over a barrel, go through the hoops or pay a massive cancellation fee. If it hadn’t been for the sterling work of my local Vodafone Partner, Onecom, I would have thrown in the towel.

Vodafone – My poor wife

So you’ve heard my story, that’s really just the starter. Sit down to enjoy the main course. Jo, my lovely wife likes to keep things just so. She’s been with Vodafone for 17 years and in that time diligently paid her monthly DD. She’s not even had that many upgrades. So it’s safe to say, she’s been a good earner. But then in March this year she started to get problems with her direct debit. As I said, she likes things just so, so also hasn’t changed banks for 20 years. Same account, same bank. But she started to get put on stops for non-payment, huh? I’m not going to go into the whole story, as this was supposed to be a short blog, but she’s been on stop more than she hasn’t. She has spoken to countless customer advisors both offshore and onshore. Each time she has been told, “It’s OK it’s sorted now, you will not have another issue”. 2 days later, she’s back on stop, and no doubt is having her credit score penalised. Despite being married to me for 11 years, she also reverted back to her maiden name in Vodafone’s records!

A month ago, in absolute frustration, she suggested I have a word with them. I escalated on the phone until I got as high as I possibly could. I explained that under UK contract law Vodafone, for 6 months had been in clear breach of contract as they had not provided the service for which Jo had been paying for.

I suggested the best thing all round was to annul the contract free of any early exit charges. Despite Jo only having a handful of upgrades, sadly one was relatively recently. The chap said he couldn’t as there was still over a year to run. He offered me £60. I declined, and he said, “Right, your last option is to go to Deadlock!” “Deadlock, this is not the X-factor” I replied.

He explained this would involve her case being escalated to “head office” for review. Then if she was still not happy we could go to the ombudsman. He said we had right to go to the ombudsman after 56 days. He explained that clock only started today because this is the first time his department was involved. What? We’ve been complaining since March?

The best (worst) piece of customer service yet, was last week, when once again Jo called to get taken off stop. The advisor explained that because deadlock was in place, she couldn’t help. She couldn’t take a card payment for the bill they hadn’t collected, you heard it right. She gave another number. Jo called, it was dead. She then dialed the main number, and a kind operator said. “Yeah, they know that lines dead, they just give it to deadlock status people to get you off the phone” Aaaarrrrrhhhhhh!

Yesterday we finally got the deadlock letter (see below), no explanation of any kind of investigation, just basically what the chap told us a month ago and “go to the Ombudsman”.

Vodafone, terrible customer service

Vodafone’s final response to my wife’s misery. DEADLOCK

 

As this case transpired we discovered, mostly due to it being widely publicised by Consumer rights activist, Martin Lewis, Vodafone, have upgraded their billing platform, badly. Lots of customer records have been corrupted and its a major issue for them.

A quick twitter search shows many others complaining to Vodafone about their service.

Why is Vodafone so bad?

At the time of writing, Vodafone’ UK’s Trustpilot “Trustscore” was 0.4 out of 10 and they were 333 out of 334 of phone and ISP’s. Interestingly, BT were 335. I will caveat that by saying the category is pretty broad and the ones at the top of the list are phone repair shops and alike.

But still, pretty terrible reading for Vodafone. Sadly all the other main operators were languishing towards the bottom of the league too. O2, EE and T-mobile were all on the last page. Virgin scraped up to the foot of page 16 of 17. New entrant giffgaff did OK, still on page 16 but a score of 3.8, a whopping 9.5 times Vodafone’s score. So I’m going to use them as a comparison.

Getting back to the learning

So here’s three things I think are different between our experience at Vodafone and what you get with giffgaff.

Firstly Customer Values

I searched for “Vodafone UK company values”, the only thing I came up with was a CSR document from 2009, third return on google and a boring company history page with a “code of practice” and other dull uninspiring documents.

giffgaff, on the other hand, say this:

The giffgaff manifesto, written Summer 2009

Typical – Just as the caring, sharing attitude of the 90s exited the swing-doors of the millennium, in came the mass-market mobile phone network on the other side. So we never really got to see how the two of them would hit it off together. (You’re probably anticipating an ‘Until now…’ line. Here it is.)
Until now…

We’re giffgaff, a David amongst Goliaths in Mobile-land. We may be sort-of-small but we’re big on that caring, sharing thing. We believe in community; in people; In the person but specifically, that the power should rest with them.

Now, if that makes you think we’re a bunch of do-gooders… good. It beats the opposite, doesn’t it? In fact, we’re the opposite in many respects. It’s a stubborn trait that all revolutionaries have. You can be sure that if all the huge corporate mobile networks teamed up and started an anti-spongecake movement, we’d be hoisting that pro-spongecake flag quicker than you could say ‘Just a thin slice, please’.

Anyway, we veered off topic. Cakes do that to a person. giffgaff is an ancient Scottish word that means ‘mutual giving’. That pretty much sums us up. We believe in listening to our members. Involving them. Being run by them. Rewarding them with money. The idea is that if we all work together, we can really go places, not least to that Utopian place called Cheapersimplerfairercommunicating. (Hey, don’t stamp on our dream: there is such a place.)

giffgaffers can help each other by answering one another’s questions. They can recruit new people to the cause. They can come up with new ideas that improve the way we’re run. They can suggest worthy causes for us to plough our money into.

Our time has come, no? Haven’t the big networks become a little too faceless with their massive call centres, their glossy TV ads, their high street shops full of shiny-suited salesmen, their endless phone “deals” and their long contracts so indecipherable you sense the penmanship of Dan Brown?

Now, don’t get us wrong. We’re not necessarily anti-them. We wouldn’t all be texting each other a squillion times a day if it wasn’t for them. It’s just that, surely there’s room for a small one on top? One that’s less, er, big… and more, er, people-y.

Come along and find out what our members think of us. Get the warts’n’all account on our website. You’ll find the occasional grumble amongst the glowing tributes. And we’re fine with that. It gives us clear direction on where our members think we have to make improvements.

We think we might be onto something. If you think we might be too, then please give us a trial run (and unlike Hotel California, if we aren’t being true to our word, you can always leave) and join the community that believes there is a better way to do mobile.

I must say I’m kind of buying that. In fact, I’ve already got one of their sim cards ready to drop Vodafone. I must say, it was an enjoyable experience.

Secondly, the Customer Service Training

Now I cannot fully evidence this point, as I am not privy to Vodafone’s or giffgaff’s customer service training, but I suspect, the latter is far more fun and interesting. They are probably based on values and empowering agents to resolve issues.  I suspect Vodafone’s are still very procedural around what to say and use many scripts, and give agents little discretion. My googling, does support my view:

Check out giffgaff’s forum

But at least Vodafone are trying – investing £15m in their Customer Service Training. 

Here’s what their CEO said in May 2016. 

Thirdly, putting the customer at the centre

giffgaff.’s forum above included an innovative scheme to reward its members to answer the questions that Vodafone leave to its advisors. I’m sure it’s not without its issues, but it shows a clear policy of putting the customer in control of the direction of travel, and at the same time keeping costs lower.

There’s probably a fourth point here about harnessing technology better, but I will leave it there. 

The point

So my point is (I told you I would get there in the end!), values and beliefs drive behaviour, not procedures. Vodafone, with all their procedures and charters, just could not adapt the catastrophic event of their own making, the migration. I’m not saying you should not have procedures, but make sure if you do they are supported with passion, values and maybe even a bit of love. giffgaff, I salute you. Vodafone, please try harder.

Thanks, it’s helped me!

As I am building a Customer Values and Advocacy Programme for a fab client of mine, I will use this blog as a case study. The very worst service and how it could have been so much better. If someone really high up in Vodafone gets to read this and wants to chat about it, please do get in touch.

Ian Hacon, Founder, Yellow Brick Road, Co-founder Bite the Cherry and Associates Partner of ACS Consulting 

(All opinions are my own and do not represent the opinion of any of the above, but Vodafone, you have the tapes, so you know it’s all true).