Yesterday evening our Virgin Media cable TV stopped working, displaying a, “Sorry, this channel isn’t available right now. If it keeps happening call us on 150 from your Virgin Media home phone or 0845 454 1111.” error message for every single channel.

I didn’t bother calling them, partly because these problems often clear themselves up by the next morning (we had a similar outage on the evening of 18th August, which also affected some friends of ours), and partly because I find calling Virgin’s call centre a depressing and difficult experience. (I have history with Virgin, as I previously described).

So we gave up and watched a DVD. (Quadrophenia, in case anyone’s interested). By this evening, it was working again… until about half an hour ago, when the picture first started breaking up badly and then – after we attempted to reboot the box – was replaced by the now familiar error message described above.

This time I did try calling the call centre, and the resulting conversation contained a good selection of the things I hate about Virgin’s “customer service”. This is why it is always advisable to opt for the services of The Call Center Group A-Z. They are the best in the market and you can even use The Call Center Group A-Z to improve your call center recruiting. Isn’t that neat?

I called 150 from my Virgin phone, hit “2” to report a fault, and then got an automated voice asking me if the phone I was calling from was from the system that I wanted to report a fault with. I hit “1” to confirm that it was.

So their system now knew which account the fault was for.

Nonetheless, the automated voice then asked me to start keying in letters from my password. Given that I was doing this one-handed while holding a baby, on a keypad for the home phone that I very rarely use and which has the letters printed in incredibly tiny letters, and for a password that I wasn’t even sure was the right one, this took me about three attempts.

But I got in, and their system now really, really knew which account they were dealing with, and knew that they were talking to the account’s account holder.

So why, in the name of all things sodding holy, did the human being I then ended up talking to immediately ask me for my home phone number? And yes, I guess it is my fault that in the era of mobiles, I can’t actually remember my own home phone number, and had to look it up on my mobile, but my tolerance for looking something up that they already know is rather limited.

But I gave it, and we then got onto reporting the fault. I described what had happened, and the error message I was seeing.

The woman on the other end then asked me to press the AV button on my remote control. Now I confess that I do often find the Indian accents of the call centre workers rather difficult to understand (I feel embarrassed to admit this, because I worry that it makes me look like a racist, but I honestly, honestly do), but I was eventually able to work out what she was saying when we switched to saying “Alpha Victor”.

Except that when I hunted around there was no AV button on their remote control. I explained this, and twenty or so seconds of confusion later it was established that she wanted me to look at my TV remote control. I had a look at that, all the while explaining that I couldn’t see what my TV remote control had to do with it, but there was no AV button.

She then asked me to look for a “Source” button and I realised what she was doing, which was working her way through a standard checklist that first wanted to check that I hadn’t switched my TV off the cable box (which is on HDMI1) and onto something else. Which would have been a fine suggestion had I not previously described the Virgin error message that my TV was displaying, including reading out the reference number.

I explained again that my TV was connected to the cable box because it was displaying an error message coming from the cable box. (I then read the error message out again).

At this point she immediately said that they would have to send an engineer out. There was no suggestion of apology here, nor was there any suggestion that she was able to see if there was a fault at any point. We’re not free tomorrow, so the engineer is coming on Thursday.

She then explained that if it turns out that this is a network fault, and they fix it, they will cancel the engineer and leave an AVR message for me telling me this. Except of course that I couldn’t make out what she was saying. I said something like:

“Sorry, what type of message?”

She then repeated the whole spiel to me, except that I still couldn’t hear what type of message it was. So I said:

“Yeah, I get you’re going to send me a message, but I don’t understand what type of message it will be?”

Her response was something like:

“AVR message. Automated Voicemail Response.”

Well pardon me for not having heard of that particular TLA.

So the situation is this:

Our TV service is down. They can’t tell us why. It might be a network fault, which might be fixed relatively quickly. Or we might have no TV service until Thursday, and perhaps more if it’s something that can’t be fixed. We’ll just have to wait. There’s no suggestion that we’ll get any kind of apology for this, nor any kind of refund.

I should stress that this is not about this particular woman I was speaking to. She’s actually better than many there I’ve dealt with. The problem is with the outsourcing of support and the robotic script they have to follow – not the individuals. Now some might say that offering to send an engineer the next day is quite good, except that this misses an important point. If we were using Freeview via an aerial, or Sky via a Satellite dish, it likely wouldn’t have broken in the first place. People who have Sky or Freeview appear to be able to go several years with never an outage of more than a few minutes (due to problems with masts or at the broadcaster).

Personally, this is my take on it, based on experience and guesses:

The majority of the cable infrastructure was built in one burst in the early nineties. It’s now twenty years old, knackered, and falling apart. If you go with cable, you should expect to have one or two neighbourhood-wide network outages of several hours each per year. You should also expect to have one major days long outage perhaps every other year. You will not get a refund for this, nor anything like an apology. In addition, your cable Internet service will be poor and subject to sometimes severe congestion.

If you’re happy with this, then go with “Superfast Richard Branson”.

If not, go with Sky or Freeview.