Vodafone’s faulty data services
I spent most of last week in Goa. The days when ‘Activate roaming’ was an important item on the list of things to do while travelling, are long past. Rates have come down and mobile phone companies have succeeded in making phone connectivity a taken-for-granted 24/7 service. And for the urban dweller (the prime target audience of Vodafone), internet access has also become an urban amenity that we need to have constant, easy access to.
However, when I connected up on my first evening there, I found that there just wasn’t any ‘internet juice’ (as I like to call it) flowing through my phone. The app market wouldn’t load, the browser timed out and my Twitter client hung. I tried all the standard operations that one gets used to, when a phone doesn’t work fully – walk around, move phone away and back, activate 3G, restart phone, manually select operator. Nothing worked. It was most aggravating that my friend (on Airtel) was able to log in, check email and surf while I struggled to get a single page to load. In utter frustration, I keyed out a tweet and put the phone aside.
The tweet did go through at some point of time, but over an hour later, when I’d stopped waiting. No other site or app managed to open.
Not-so-smart phone services
This morning, after I returned to Mumbai, I received a call from the Vodafone call center. The operator told me that this was in response to the complaint I had registered. I couldn’t imagine what she was talking about till she told me that I had ‘twittered a complaint’.
She proceeded to ask me for details about my issue. I told her that the data services had persistently not worked in Goa. I mentioned that I had tried in different locations and also that my friend who was on Airtel had had consistent network.
When she found that I was not in Goa anymore, she started to wrap up the call. Her exact suggestions was ‘the next time you are in Goa, Twitter a complaint to Vodafone’. I tried to explain that if my data services did not work, I would not be able to tweet. She continued to repeat that I should ‘twitter a complaint if that happened’. At some point of time I managed to convey the fact that Twitter runs on the internet and without data services, I would not be able to ‘twitter the complaint’. Her solution? Use my friend’s Airtel connection to tweet the complaint.
I asked her how that made any sense. Immediately she told me to visit a Vodafone store to check my settings and began saying her goodbyes. I flatly refused to do so, pointing out that this was a network issue and not a problem with my phone. She wrapped up the call, saying that she would ‘pass on my email to the concerned department’.
Evolving complaint handling systems
It looks like Vodafone has began using Twitter as an extension of its call center services. I’m going to highlight a few salient points of this case:
Vodafone evidently follows tweets closely for complaints & issues. In the past, I have found tweeting about a problem has gotten a faster (and more effective) response than contacting the call center or visiting the Vodafone store has. In keeping with this, my tweet got an immediate response.
In the past, the onus of finding a solution lay with the customer. One had to go through the process of identifying a problem, contacting the service provider (through call center or the store), verifying one’s own credentials, explaining the issue, registering the complaint and tracking its status later. In contrast, the service provider becomes an active part of the complaint identification & resolution process. I can see why this would be a good business move. Customers whose issues have been resolved are unlikely to talk about it but they are quite likely to tweet about it, especially if the resolution has happened on that medium. It’s complaint resolution and conversion of a negative sentiment both in one.
What is also interesting is that Vodafone had my number mapped to my twitter id, from the earlier complaint case. It took only one step from complaint to conversation, bypassing the calling, IVR process, verification and issue explanation. I would really hope that I’ve seen the last of half-hour hold times to get through to a human operator.
Here’s where the first gap in this process occurred. The operator either did not have the entire details of my case or did not understand it. She initiated the conversation by referring to a complaint that I had registered. Since ‘complaint registration’ is a phrase that the call center/helpline industry uses to denote the formal process of entering the case into their system and giving it a unique, trackable number, this was a misnomer. If this is a registered complaint, does that mean that all I need to do is tweet about an issue to have it registered in the system? Do I need to tag them or tweet directly to them? How then will I be able to track the status of my complaint and its solution within the Vodafone system? By calling this a registered complaint, Vodafone takes on the responsibility of tracking everything that its users say on the social media and registering issues that are spoken of, in the public space. That’s hardly practical, even with the most advanced social media tools and telephony services.
It was clear that the operator had no understanding about Twitter and its use. I do not object to her using the word ‘twittering’ instead of ‘tweeting’ which is the correct usage. That’s just language and I see that as the same as a car mechanic who does not speak fluent English. As long as my problem is solved, I don’t care how correct the syntax is.
However, the fact that she continued to press me to tweet a complaint about faulty data services is a big problem. The most obvious explanation is that she did not know that you need internet access to be able to tweet. But having an operator who doesn’t understand how the internet works address an internet issue, is like asking someone who has never seen a car to service it.
The second explanation is that she knew. Her asking me to use a rival network’s services to register a complaint strikes me as thoroughly ridiculous. That is unless her attitude (reflective of Vodafone’s) is complacent enough about their users to know that they will not switch on the basis of faulty data services (admittedly a secondary service on the phone networks). If that’s the case, being so blatant about it has to hurt their brand image.
The biggest irritant in my call center conversations with Vodafone has to be their directive to visit the Vodafone stores. I’ve heard this on problems in various aspects, ranging from roaming services to billing errors to email address change. What does it say about a voice & data service provider if they need in-person visits to resolve basic problems? In this particular case, I had not registered a complaint. The issue I was facing was with their network and not with my instrument or incorrect use of it. Why would it become my responsibility to make a trip to the Vodafone store? What’s more, when a message about the data service has reached them via the internet and they have reached out to the sender, what would the sender’s incentive be to make that effort to visit the store? This seems to be a case of taking a step forward and two steps back.
Vodafone has tapped into a key business insight provided by social media. However their follow-through action is yet to impress. The trouble is that this could actually backfire and make their earlier system (never that great) even more burdened with problems.
How can they could avoid this?
There is a definite need to upgrade their complaint handling mechanisms to keep up with new services and evolving usage. Tacking on a Twitter account to their existing call center caused the goof-ups in my case. Vodafone’s call operators definitely need to understand the nuances of data services if they are to handle queries & complaints on them. It’s a serious faux pas if the face (or the voice) of a brand of The Blackberry Boys doesn’t know how the internet works.
It would also be a good idea to create a process to track online gripes-identify problems with solutions-convert to registered complaints-communicate to complainant.
Considering how prompt the players in this industry have been, to jump onto the social media bandwagon and even define its usage, we can expect these to iron out fairly soon.