I’ve had cable for nearly twenty years now. And in all that time, as Windsor Cable became The Cable Corporation, and The Cable Corporation became Telewest, and Telewest became Virgin Media, one thing has remained constant: that the biggest argument against going with cable, and in favour of going with Sky (satellite), is that having cable requires you to suffer through the appalling customer service that seems intrinsic to the cable experience.

Last winter, we spent a month or so with no broadband or TV (we have no outside aerial, and we seem to be in a deadspot when it comes to transmissions, so when we lose the cable TV, we end up down to about two, very fuzzy channels) due to a fault with the equipment under the pavement outside. While I appreciate this was a technical problem, Virgin were slow and inflexible to react, and afterward appeared to be of the opinion that we were owed no refund whatsoever.

(We were told that we would only be entitled to a refund for the period after they made their first visit, which due to us being away over the three days between Christmas and New Year and me not being able to get additional time off outside that period was about three weeks into the downtime. And even then, we would have had to wait until after we’d been billed the full amount and then contact them to ask for a refund. Given that we’d been having some very difficult interactions with their call centre, we just didn’t have the energy or resolve to attempt this. That, and I didn’t appreciate having to beg to have money returned for a service we’d never received.)

Then this last autumn we decided to downgrade our TV package (we have phone, TV, and broadband), after realising we didn’t watch most of the obscure channels they were supplying us with. We called up, arranged the new package… and then the next month we were billed the previous amount, with the bill showing we were still on the higher package. When we called up again, the woman on the call centre said that there was no record of any call from us. I insisted that I had called (I had my notes from the call scrawled on the previous bill) and she looked again and again insisted that I had made no such call.

At this point it felt like I was being called a liar. I very politely insisted a third time that I had called, pointing out that I had the notes from the call written down in front of me. She said she would go away and check again. This time, she was away a little longer. Eventually, she returned and said something like:

“Yes. You called on xx of xxx and asked for your package to be downgraded from XL to L. That didn’t happen because of a technical fault.”

That was pretty much it. No apology that I recall, either for twice insisting that no such call had occurred, nor for the fact that they’d agreed to do something, and then simply hadn’t done it – and had billed us more money as a result. I asked if we could be refunded the amount that we’d paid extra on our last bill (i.e. the amount we would have saved had they downgraded our package as we’d asked them to), and was told that no, we couldn’t. Again, no apology that I recall.

(I say “that I recall”, because it’s possible that on these occasions they do say the word “sorry”, but that it’s said so robotically, in a tone so lacking in any emotional context, that I simply fail to register it).

But if I wrote all of these various incidents down, from eighteen years until now, starting with being left without a phone for four months when I moved into a new flat in 1995 because the then Cable Corporation kept on telling me (when I called them from work) to “…call back next week and we’ll be ready to arrange an installation of a phone. What’s your home phone number? What’s that? You don’t have a home phone?” we’d be here for ever. So I won’t.

(I eventually gave up and went with BT, by the way).

So given all of that, just how have Virgin Media managed to lower the bar even further? How have they managed to take a customer service experience that was already lying drunk in the gutter and somehow shove it down a drain and into the sewer?

Well last week I decided to upgrade our Internet package, from L (up to 10 MBit) to XL (up to 30 MBit). I hadn’t realised when I called that they would have to upgrade our cable modem (I, perhaps naively, thought they would just flick a switch), so I was rather taken on the hop when the call centre woman asked when I would like the delivery made. (To be fair to me, I would have been less taken by the surprise if she had begun her sentence with something like” “We have to send you a new cable modem to enable the faster connection, when would you…”

Of course, we then hit the old problem of them only being able to deliver Monday to Friday, office hours. But when I asked her if it would be one of those deals where if we were out they’d leave a card and we could arrange a redelivery or pick it up ourselves, she said it was, so I accepted the default delivery date of Monday (yesterday). I was hoping it would be getting delivered by ParcelForce, because I could then nip into the ParcelForce office on the way to the station the next morning and only be a little bit late getting to work.

Now perhaps I should at this point explain how I would expect this process to work.

1) Customer orders the faster connection.

2) New modem is dispatched.

3) Customer receives new modem.

4) Customer installs new modem and contacts cable company to have it activated, connection switched etc.

It is of course important to note that firstly, step three might not occur on the original specified date, and that step four might not occur on the same day as step three. The customer might want to put off installation for a few days until they have a spare evening, for example. Or perhaps the person who picks it up is not the “technical one” and installation will have to wait until the “technical one” is around.

But this is how (based on my experience at least) Virgin Media do it:

1) Customer orders the faster connection.

2) New modem is dispatched.

3) On the scheduled delivery day, the old modem is remotely bricked, regardless of whether the customer has even received the new modem.

So during the day, a little “Sorry you were out” card was delivered by some delivery company or other. They had a web address I could enter to arrange a redelivery, so I grabbed my laptop, entered the web address into the URL bar at the top of my browser, and…

…got bounced to the address “act2.virginmedia.com”, which displayed a webpage blank save for a link saying:

“Please click on this link to proceed with Broadband Activation…”

This page was displayed regardless of whatever address I entered. So my broadband was connected to Virgin, but they weren’t connecting me to the wider net. And when I tried clicking on the link, I got a page that said something like, “Oops, we’ve got a technical fault”. (I think because that page will only work with the new modem we don’t yet have).

It was pretty obvious what had happened, so I called the customer support line.

I should pause at this point to say that Virgin have both an English call centre and an Indian one and I’ve never quite figured out why sometimes I talk to one and sometimes to the other. Every time I find myself talking to the Indian call centre my heart sinks, and I hate that, because it makes me feel like some sort of racist. I don’t want to be that man that complains about Indian call centres. I don’t read the Daily Star. I don’t think England needs defending and if it did, the EDL are the last people I’d select to defend it.

But I just find my interactions with the Indian call centre to be really difficult. Often, I literally do find it difficult to understand what they’re saying, with them finding it equally difficult to understand what I’m saying. And when I can understand what they’re saying, I still often find that while we might be understanding the words each other are saying, we’re still nonetheless engaged in different, parallel conversations, like two trains passing on opposite tracks. I’ve had conversations so difficult that I’ve handed the phone to my wife who, finding herself equally unable to communicate has ended the conversation by saying, “No, it’s okay, we’re fine, no don’t worry, no we’ll call back some other time, no it’s okay, bye!”

I try to tell myself that it must be an awful horrible job for them. Working in a call centre’s probably not the easiest of jobs at the best of time, but when you’re doing it in the middle of the night in a foreign language, it must be particularly difficult. Put me on a phone like at 2 am in the morning and tell me to talk to a German bloke from Berlin whose broadband is down and I doubt he’d end the conversation with a positive impression of the experience. But the fact that both parties in the conversation are suffering isn’t really much consolation.

So anyhow, I call up, from my cable supplied home phone. And although that means they know who I am, they still make me go through a procedure where I have to enter three separate letters from a password I can’t remember giving them into the keypad before they let me get into the menu system. This is a new and unpleasant innovation to an already depressing level of customer service, and as you can imagine, it didn’t help my already fragile demeanour. But a couple of minutes of furious button pressing and much swearing later, I managed to get in, and after a minute or so on hold my call was answered.

By an Indian voice.

I explained what had happened, as politely and clearly as I could, and then the conversation went something like this:

Her: So would you like to arrange redelivery of the modem?

Me: No. I’m happy to arrange the redelivery myself. I want you to get my broadband back working.

The thing is that at this point my main concern was getting my broadband back up. My wife needs it, and Tuesday (tonight) was supposed to be a gaming session, via Skype. (I’ve now had to cancel it). And I really wanted to arrange the redelivery myself, because I wanted to be able to go to their webpage and see what options were available. Could we pick it up ourselves? Or get it redelivered to my work address?

But she seemed adamant that we had to deal with this first.

Her: Do you want me to arrange a redelivery?

Me: No. I’ll do that myself. I want you to get my broadband working.

Her: [Sounding a little pissed off now] I can arrange a redelivery. Do you want me to arrange a redelivery?

This was delivered in very much a yes or no, last chance only tone. As it happens, since I called last week I’ve ended up taking Thursday off as annual leave for other reasons, so I caved and asked her to redeliver it this coming Thursday. I’m a bit hazy at this point, so I can’t recall exactly what she said next, but I think it was sort of, in tone if not in content, something like, “Was there anything else you wanted me to do?”

I should stress at this point that I recall getting no apology whatsoever for what had happened to us. Not even any indication as to whether it was what they always do (which I doubt) or some kind of unfortunate cock-up (which I’m hoping it is).

I doubt this is the fault of the poor girl in the call centre. I suspect that they have neither the training nor the authority to fully interact with the customers. I suspect they’re forced to operate to a script that doesn’t allow for apologising. But it’s very frustrating when all you really want is a: “Sorry, what can we do to make you feel better?”

So I explain that I would like my old cable modem re-enabled, so that we could have broadband until the new one arrived. She went away and did something and then asked me to try it. Still the same problem. She then did something else and asked me to do a full power-down modem, router and computer and then power them back on sequence. I already done a modem reboot before I called, and I couldn’t see why I had to reboot my laptop but I did this.

And found that I now had no Internet connection at all.

She did a bit more fiddling around, and we got back to where we had been when I started, with every address getting bounced to the activation page. At this point she said something like:

“We cannot get the old modem out of registration setup.”

It was said pretty matter-of-factly, with an air of this being the end of the process. There might well have been a sorry in there, but as I’ve said before, if there was, it was of such a scripted nature that it didn’t register as an actual apology. I quizzed her a bit further and was told that basically, this was it. We were just going to have no broadband until we received and installed the new modem and that was that. I asked if I could have the modem delivered to a different location (my work) and was told that no, it couldn’t be delivered to any other location. So Thursday it is.

I then, trying very hard to be polite, said something like:

Me: Now I know now of this is your fault. I know there’s nothing you can do about it. But we are very, very upset about this.

Her: [silence]

Me: I’d be very grateful if you could note down how upset we are, somewhere, and perhaps pass it on, so that procedures can be amended to stop this happening to someone else.

Her: [silence]

Me: Anyhow, I guess we’re done now.

Her: [silence]

Me: Okay, erm, bye.

It was a very strange end to the phone call. I suppose that maybe I should have done the old “can I talk to your supervisor?” thing, but I shouldn’t have to. Even if working to scripts, if the script ends at a point where the customer’s issue simply hasn’t been resolved and the customer is actually stating that they are very unhappy, surely the script should automatically lead to the customer being passed onto a higher level customer representative?

But apparently not.

So no broadband at all until Thursday, and that’s assuming I’m in when the delivery driver comes, or that the delivery doesn’t just cock up in some other way. And with no suggestion that we might perhaps be due a refund, for the three days of broadband that we will be paying for but not receiving because they bricked our modem. (Let alone anything for general hassle and inconvenience).

We were in Starbucks on the weekend, and I ordered two coffees, one decaf, one non-decaf. They both came back decaf due to a mix-up. They offered to remake them, but I insisted that it was fine, wasn’t bothered etc. etc. and went away to the table where my wife was waiting.

A few minutes later the server appeared and insisted, again over my protestations that I really wasn’t worried, on giving me a voucher for a free coffee, at any Starbucks, to make up for the mistake.

Virgin Media: that’s how you’re supposed to do customer service.