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Since starting to write this morning’s blog (now a separate post), an external event has captured my attention. Where Olivia and I live in Canberra we have a 10 Mb download, 1 Mb upload business connection to the Internet. This last week it has been extremely unreliable, with dialup speeds one moment (i.e., extremely slow), and the full 10 Mb download the next. Calling the technical support people has been an exercise in futility as I seems to know more about the technology than the alleged technical expert on the other end of the line—does this ever happen to you?

For example, the last expert suggested that I needed to upgrade the modem that connects my system to the optical fibre network. I pointed out that the modem was supplied by their company as part of the service; and that it must be operating perfectly if it can supply 10 Mb one moment and 10 minutes later dialup speeds (< 0.5Mbps). It was quite clear he was in ‘salesman mode’ because he simply could not hear the logic of this assertion. A plumbing analogy is a decent one: if I have my kitchen tap turned on fully, and one minute there is full pressure and volume and then a minute later there’s only a dribble, it unlikely to be a tap problem. And if it was an internal modem (electrical) problem, this behaviour would not be exhibited either—in the computer world an electrical fault usually manifests as a complete shutdown.

In another post I mentioned that I use a microphone and Apple’s Siri to dictate most of what I write here. One of the downsides of this mode of working is the requirement for a stable and fast Internet connection. And I can report that needing to reset the modem three times within five minutes is immensely disrupting to any train of thought. I decided to call the customer service number once more.

The first thing I noticed with the customer service representative that I connected to was that I could not hear her, even though the volume is turned up on my phone. I asked her to adjust her microphone headset. As soon as she moved to the headset a loud crackling sound was heard over the line suggesting a loose cable somewhere. I asked whether she was in Canberra and she replied, “No, Auckland”.

So imagine: a customer in Canberra using a local Canberra service ends up with a technical service representative in another country and in a different time zone, and whose technology does not actually allow our conversation to ensue. Once the headset problem was overcome sufficiently that a conversation could proceed, this is how it went.

I relayed my experience with a previous customer service representative who was actually located in Canberra and with whom I had the long conversation last week I mentioned above. I noted that when we spoke on the Monday, he had agreed to call me back with a proposal for a new modem in two days time (so, Wednesday last week) and I was still waiting for the call back. Moreover, I mentioned that a system-generated feedback form had come to me from the parent company (iinet) via email as a result of our interaction, and which I had answered truthfully. As an aside, I mention it was one of those poorly designed questionnaires that offer five choices with qualitative points like “partially satisfied” or “very satisfied” as options. It might just be me, but one is either satisfied or dissatisfied, and that this state is not possible to modify (like pregnant, or unique).

It is now a day later and I can reflect on the whole process. When I tried to contact iinet technical support section in the afternoon I did not get a representative in Auckland—this time I connected to Cape Town, South Africa. So it turns out that customer support for this company is handled by two different companies (at least) and in different time zones. And after much conversation with a senior supervisor of the Cape Town division it turns out that the technical support staff there cannot actually operate the software and/or hardware switches that are necessary to do the full testing of any individual’s service. What’s more, and worse in my view, is that these first-line customer representatives are not able to log a fault on behalf of the customer, either. No, you have to get past the gatekeepers and they have to contact the local technical help for you in order that you can then be transferred (in this case from Cape Town SA, to Civic, Canberra, a local call that literally has gone around the world) to speak with the local person.

When I did get onto a lovely person who was based in Melbourne (a more local place than Cape Town, anyhow) she blithely informed me that yes, the servers had in fact been down all day. She also mentioned that she and her colleagues have been dealing with quite an “avalanche of customer complaints numbering over 7,000” to that point. I asked her why the company had not simply put an ‘outage notice’ on their websites, because everyone has an alternative way of connecting to the net these days via phone or an iPad. Her lockstep response was simply to apologise for the outage. I said, thank you, but I wasn’t asking for her apology and that what I was talking about was something that she could possibly pass up the line to a senior person for the next time this happens. It must have been the end of a long day for her because it wasn’t a suggestion she took happily.

For me, the whole exercise is an example of extraordinary institutional stupidity, on at least two fronts. We know that most big companies are reluctant to admit any fault for fear of being sued or some other such legal remedy. But as the Cape Town senior representative put it “it might have been better to take the first bullet than dodge the next hundred”; a mixed metaphor to be true, and a questionable one, but nonetheless it does get the idea across. Had TransACT/iinet put up a notice on their sites indicating that there were outages or server problems, and requesting that customers check back in a few hours, they would have reduced their telephone traffic immensely, both locally and internationally. And customers like myself who have an alternative way of connecting to the net would have done so and not worried about it at all.

But when the company’s front-line representatives tell you that the problem is likely to be at your end and then requiring you to engage in a lengthy testing process is egregious misdirection. Worse though: neither the Auckland customer service representatives nor the Cape Town customer service representatives who came online five hours later had any idea that there was in fact an outage at TransACT/iinet. When I asked the Canberra technical person (rep. #5, on this one day) why Cape Town has not been informed of the outages she simply was not able to answer. It was clear that no one in the customer representative local section had even considered the usefulness of this communication. Recall that all people being connected to the local representatives have to have gone through one of the overseas representatives first.

It’s a crazy world but luckily the internet service is perfectly fine today.