British Telecom: The Enemy of a Successful Business

[See updates at the bottom of this post]

This feels like groundhog day. British Telecom has managed to screw up yet again. Last time, they pissed me off to about a 4 on a scale of 1-10. But this time, I’m not sure the scale even stops at 10.

BT has somehow managed to get itself in enough of a muddle to close our account and disconnect our phone line without prior notification. And what’s reliant on a phone line? Why yes, it’s our ADSL home internet connection. Which is where we run a business and develop Alfred. See where I’m going? This isn’t good news when trying to develop a new product!

Below is the letter I sent to BT last night. The only positive here is that a nice Scottish advisor from the BTCare Twitter team called me this afternoon – but couldn’t help much, unfortunately.

All I can do now is hope that by some miracle, our issue gets fast-tracked and resolved. If anyone at BT can help, please let me know.

Letter to BT on 25th March

To whom this may concern,

We called BT last night after being notified by a friend that our phone line appeared to be inactive. According to your call centre rep, our phone line was disconnected on 22nd March after being restricted on 6th March. As we only have a landline with BT for the purposes of our internet connection (provided by for business use), we were unaware of this apparent restriction until today.

After over 45 minutes waiting on a never-ending ringing line, we finally got through to an advisor. According to the advisor, we were sent letters on 1st February and a final reminder in early March – I can categorically confirm that none of these letters were received. When I asked the advisor to confirm the address on file, she read out our old address [redacted], from which we moved back in March 2008. She sounded flustered when I said that this address was wrong, and that we’d received letters from BT to this new address [redacted] since. She backtracked her story and assured us that recent bills had gone to the new address.

At this stage, and prior to closing a customer’s account, why does BT not attempt to contact customers by phone? It baffles me that no direct attempt at contacting us was attempted other than by the notoriously unreliable British postal system.

The advisor requested on 25th March for the line to be reactivated, but this cannot be done until Tuesday 30th March. At this point in time, it seemed to surprise your advisor that our Internet connection was still functional. As we run a business from home, it is critical that our phone line remains functional, so my only hope is that the incompetence of your team at disconnecting a line will work in our favour this time and mean that our internet can remain functional until reactivation on Tuesday. We have been given a temporary number of [number redacted], which I hope will not affect our Internet connection.

I’ll make it clear at this point that, should our Internet stop working between now and Tuesday or be affected following the reconnection on Tuesday, I will absolutely be seeking damages compensation from BT.

I’m furious with BT’s incapability to answer any questions last night, and implore you to review your shambolic processes so that mistakes like this one are avoided in the future. We have been BT customers for many years, paying faithfully as soon as a bill is received, so the lack of attempts at resolving this issue on BT’s part is truly disappointing.

As a word of note, we pay every other bill we receive by Direct Debit. However, there’s a very good reason we were no longer paying by Direct Debit for BT services. In late 2007, BT took £223 from our account without our permission following an engineer visit for which we should not have been charged. We received no apology and spent hours on the phone before we were refunded the amount.

You may want to read the past exchanges I’ve had with your colleagues and familiarise yourself with some of the comments left anonymously by some of your own staff on the 20th December ’07 blog post:

The original post:
And the follow-up posts:

I have faith that the recipients of this letter will have more power to act upon this issue than call centre advisors have, and trust that you will resolve this matter in a prompt and efficient manner. I would like a BT representative to contact me ASAP to provide more information on resolving this.

Please find all of our contact and account details below.

Vero Pepperrell

Anyone? Help?

[Update at 10:20am, 27th March: Last night, following my post, I was approached by BT’s MD of Customer Service, Warren Buckley. This morning, a member of his team called me, having reactivated our line with the temporary number, assuring us that our old number would be back in place this afternoon or Monday. Fingers crossed, the Internet might not go off. A huge thank you to JP Rangaswami, Warren and Alison for their speedy response.]

[Update 28th March: Phone number reinstated by yesterday afternoon, ISP made aware of the account number change. In theory, this ordeal is over and our Internet shouldn’t drop at all. Will hold off celebrating until about Tuesday, but it’s promising. Thanks again to those who got involved.]

[Update 26th May: As of today, I’m closing the comments on this post as this isn’t an official BT support channel. Get in touch with them on Twitter @btcare if you need a hand with resolving your issue!]

Complaint Letter follow-up: British Telecom (sort of) sees sense

A week ago, I shared my complaint letter to British Telecom with readers, and it seemed to have had an impact! Many of you seem to have had issues with either BT as well (some sound far worse off than me!) and others with Direct Debit in general.

On Tuesday morning, I turned my phone on to find a voicemail asking me to call back Linda Duggan at British Telecom. Speaking to Linda, she assured me the refund for the full engineer visit charge would be refunded today. (As an aside, no, the money isn’t in my account yet, so whoever said “they promised you’d have it in your account by Christmas… but Christmas of what year?” will probably turn out to be right.)

So the outcome is as follows: I got my money back after a bit of whinging, I got an explanation on how to change my direct debit from “Full bill” to “Monthly bill” but nothing resembling an apology for taking the money in the first place.

The first lesson we all get out of this is that we need to keep a very close eye on our finances because companies will unapologetically take excessive funds out of our accounts without so much as a notification. I discovered there was a difference between Full bill and Monthly bill payment, and will ensure, from now on, that only the authorised amount gets debited.

The other lesson is that you shouldn’t be afraid to be forward and take your complaint straight to the top. Faffing with call centres won’t get you anywhere, they are not interested in your problem. Go to the chairman, the press office, the customer relations officer, and follow-up on it regularly. Don’t let it slip, be prompt in dealing with it when you discover the problem and you’ll get resolution.

BT Complaint Letter: A few words of advice

On December 11th, it was flagged up to me that our account had been debited by British Telecom for an unusually high amount. The cheeky bastards had helped themselves to £233 my money via Direct Debit, when the monthly amount I expected to be taken every month was a measly £10.49. The reason behind it was some unwarranted billing for work done outside our property some time ago.

I promptly wrote to the BT Chairman, their press room, Ofcom, Otelo and blogged my letter. Whether the knowledge that the issue was public made any difference to the pace at which BT dealt with it, I’ll never know. What I know is that the money is, two weeks later, back in my account after I was informally told over the phone that it would be back last week. Still not too bad.

What grates me is that there’s been no apology. I fought the charge and got a refund, but BT still seemed unapologetic about having taken the funds over an issue for which I wasn’t supposed to be charged.

This leaves me with a few words of advice to everyone who may not be keeping a close eye on their finances:

  • Speak to your bank about setting a limit on direct debits when you expect monthly payments to be regular. It’ll avoid random high charges like this.
  • Check your online banking once a week and sanity-check any spending that looks unexpected.
  • Setup “monthly bill” payment rather than “full bill” with each service where your cost may vary and where maintenance work may be slipped onto the bill.
  • Get everything you can in writing, or record phone conversations. I’m seriously considering recording conversations with customer service agents from now on to avoid “he said, she said” arguments where it’s my word against theirs. Anyone got suggestions on the best way to record all calls to/from a house line?

Complaint letter: BT stole my Christmas shopping money

[Updates at the bottom…]

Today, I’m pissed off. I’m really pissed off. British Telecom, lovingly known as BT, is the largest provider of all things fixed phone line in the UK. Like a bully nicking your lunch money, BT has gone into my bank account, using our Direct Debit authorisation as an excuse to debit £233 instead of £10 this month.

Below is my letter, addressed to the BT Chairman. I expect that copying the Telecoms Ombudsman, Ofcom and BT’s own press room will get them off their butts, but if you know anyone in a position to help (since the BT call centre had no interest in our problem whatsoever), please feel free to do so. I’d really like to sort this out before Christmas.

BT, you’re messing with the wrong girl!

FAO Sir Michael Rake, Chairman
British Telecom Head Office
BT Group plc
BT Centre
81 Newgate Street
London EC1A 7AJ

12 December, 2007

Dear Sir Michael Rake,

REFERENCE: XX012345678 – Unauthorised Direct Debit from Customer

I’m writing to get resolution on an issue that was brought to our attention by our bank yesterday. On 20th November, BT took, without our permission, £233.59 by direct debit from our account instead of the usual £10.49.

The explanation given by BT customer service is that the funds were taken following OpenReach engineer visits to our property. This goes against any previous discussion we had with the Faults department and the engineers themselves.

Before each visit, we spoke to the Faults department and took very careful steps to ensure that it wasn’t our equipment that was at fault, to get confirmation that the problem was on BT’s side and avoid charges, should an engineer come by. Unplugging all equipment and removing the faceplate, we then asked BT to run the line test. Each time we did this, the Faults team ensured that we were not going to be charged because the system was flagging a fault on their network, “near our property”.

This required a total of three engineer visits, and as many days off work on my part or my husband’s which, needless to say, inconvenienced us immensely. The first engineer replaced the connections outside, making the line quality and our Internet connection abruptly get worse, introducing heavy static onto the line. The second engineer attempted to fix the heavy static by replacing the faceplate inside the property, to no avail. He claimed that the capacitor in the faceplate was faulty, but this turned out to be false.

Finally, the third engineer worked out that the crackling on the line was caused by the cable connections outside being corroded and could reproduce the crackling by simply moving the cable. He found water damage on the outside connections and stated that he was amazed the previous two engineers had not found that problem earlier.

He changed the connection outside to heavy duty silicon based connections and said that, as a precaution, he changed the cable from outside to the back of the faceplate. This significantly improved the line quality for both voice and internet connection quality.

Based on conversations with the Faults department, they reassured me every time that there would be no charge and that the line tests had proved as much. However, on November 20th, the direct debit of £233.59 was taken from our account, without warning, taking our account into overdraft. On investigation with your thoroughly uninterested customer service team, we discovered that the charge was for the engineer visits above.

We should not be covering the costs incurred by engineers’ incompetence and repeated attempts, especially when the work to rectify the problem was done outside of our property on the BT network.

I feel that BT has behaved unethically by charging us after guaranteeing over the phone that we would not be charged, and furthermore charging us without even notifying us! The £223 taken above our usual monthly bill should NOT have been added to the Direct Debit, as the agreed Direct Debit is for £10, not for BT to have a free for all at my expense.

According to the Direct Debit Guarantee provided by HSBC, “if the amounts to be paid or the payment dates change, HSBC Bank plc will notify you 10 working days in advance of your account being debited or otherwise agreed”, and BT did not follow this legally binding guarantee.

BT Customer service has our mailing address, home phone number, both mobile numbers, and email addresses and unquestionably should have notified us ahead of time to allow us to flag up that no charge should be taken.

I expect the full amount for engineer visits to be refunded immediately, as you’ve taken my shopping fund for family and friends this Christmas. For my faith in BT to be restored in any way, I need a confirmation that I will be able to limit the amount which can be debited without prior notification.

Please respond promptly, sending a copy of all communications via email, to ensure I hear back from you as soon as possible and receive confirmation that the funds are returned to our account.

Best regards,

Vero Pepperrell

CC: BT Newsroom
Otelo, Telecoms Ombudsman

[Update 13 Dec @ 10:50am: The Ofcom Watch blog has already picked up on my complaint letter. I’m sure that BT’s press room will be thrilled to see that the letter is reaching beyond my 26,000 monthly readers and onto other blogs within half an hour of being posted.

13 Dec @ 10:58am: The BT Newsroom has promptly responded to my email and said that the complaints department would be in touch soon. Must admit, impressed by speed of reply.

14 Dec: Less than surprised… I’ve not heard a peep from BT today. Is that going to stop me? Oh no it won’t! “Oh yes it will!” Oh no it won’t… Oh wait, I’m getting into panto mode here.

20 Dec: We hopefully have resolution. I’ve been promised yesterday that the funds would be in my account today and the full amount would be refunded. I’ll believe it when I see it but here is my follow-up post.]