Why and When Should I Start a Community Forum?

lovely cookies

A week ago, we launched a community forum for Alfred and I couldn’t be happier to have done so.

This series of post covers why we chose to start a forum, as well as some tips for setting up and running your own successful community forum.

Part I: Why and when should I start my own community forum?
Part II: Setting up your forum: Top tips for using Get Satisfaction
Part III: Making the most of user feedback

Don’t forget to sign up to the RSS feed if you don’t want to miss the rest of the series!

Why choose a forum

When we launched Alfred, our main means of support for users was Twitter. When we needed more than 140 characters, we’d swap over to email.

As our community grew, once we found ourselves with a few thousand users reading our tweets (gasp!), yet many asked the same question frequently (eg. Will you be adding x feature?) because they hadn’t seen the older answer to it.

Let’s face it: Twitter is today’s news but tomorrow’s virtual chip paper. It was time to look for a new way to provide answers. That isn’t to say we’ve entirely dropped email; on the contrary, we’re now able to focus email responses on those who really need one-on-one answers.

We chose a forum because it allowed us to answer publicly, leaving longer-lasting, more valuable answers which could be revisited the product evolved. So is a forum right for everyone?
Read More

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 Fast.co.uk 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!]

Ford Marshall Service: Don't let them wash your car

I’m really miffed with Ford in Cambridge. This week, I took my fab little red Ford Ka, which is about to turn one year old (7,000 miles on the clock, running like a dream) for its first yearly service.

I bought it last year, got a great deal (literally, 25% off the original showroom price) on a brand new 5-miles-on-the-clock Ka, just weeks before I passed my driving test. We’ve taken great care of it, Andrew’s been the only person cleaning it – both because I’m a lazy cow and because he puts such love and care into it. He uses these fancy shmancy cleaning products acquired through a friend who’s a professional detailer (really high class valeting) and it always looks amazingly shiny.

As a rule of thumb, when he gets his car serviced at BMW, he always asks them not to wash it. I didn’t do the same when I went to Ford, which was a stupid move, because they cleaned it. The paint finish now looks like a bunch of children cleaned it with dish soap and gritty sponges. In the space of 3 hours, my car went from looking brand new to looking pretty averagely scratched.

Trying to discuss with the car valeting service manager, Brian, at Ford was pretty pointless. He wasn’t having any of it, “my boys didn’t do this. We clean 200 cars a day and they don’t do it that way.” Well… if you clean 200 cars a day, you probably don’t give each one much attention or carefully rinse your washing mitts in between, do you? He offered to polish it “as a good will gesture”, but still didn’t admit he was in the wrong.

Andrew’s taking on the job of polishing as much of it out as possible, and I’m in two minds about getting his detailing friend to come and machine polish it properly. But one thing that’s for sure is that I’ll get Ford Marshall in Cambridge to annotate my file to say never to wash it when it goes in for a service, thank you very much, we’ll do it ourselves.

I know a lot of people will roll their eyes at this and say “well, your car still runs, doesn’t it? What’s the big fuss?” but I care. I like my belongings to still look good over the years, especially when it doesn’t require huge amounts of extra time and it means it lasts that much longer without needing to be replaced. My iPod is scratched to high heavens after living in my handbag, and that’s fine, it’s so disposable. But my iPhone has a nice red case to avoid it getting damaged. And my car doesn’t go through Tesco carwash.

So if you’re in the Cambridge area and get your car serviced at Ford, think twice before letting them give it a clean while you’re there. And if you’re that Nissan 350Z owner who also complained about scratched paintwork a few weeks ago, I’m sorry, we still haven’t got through to them.

Now, I hope this post gets right up there in search engines when someone looks for Ford Marshall. Not because the rest of the service is poor, it’s great in fact! But it’ll be a word of warning for those who like their paintwork scratch-free!

CragHoppers Customer Service: A shock to the system

Today, I’m getting out of the way and giving the blog limelight to my old work colleague and fantastic friend Tom Crinson. He’s the nicest guy I could have ever worked with, but he’s also completely bonkers and going on a life-changing trek up the Kilimanjaro in a few days. Here’s his interesting customer care story…

I am going on a walk. A very big frickin’ walk, up a very big frickin’ hill (Kilimanjaro). I am scared. However, I am about as well prepared as I can possibly be, I have decent kit which has cost a small fortune, I have been training a lot, which has hurt. However the biggest shock of it all so far has come from a customer services experience. This is what happened:

The trek is only a few days away and I am getting my kit together to run through final checklists etc. and I suddenly remember that after the trek I am going on a safari as well! As girly as it sounds, I have nothing to wear! I have been so focussed on the trek I had forgotten about it. Literally nothing I have would be good enough for the African savannah, and I start to panic. Mainly as I don’t have a day free to go shopping on to get kit, and it’s the middle of winter here, no shops are going to be pimping their summer wares just yet!

So panic sets in, I reach for the magical box which contains the internet (it is shiny and silver and has an apple on the front) and type in “Safari clothing”, up pop lots of results. Clicking about I find some shirts that look like they are up to scratch for 40 or so of your english pounds. £40! For a frickin beige shirt?? Holy jesus mary mother of poo no way am I paying that. Remembering that some of my walking trousers are from a company called CragHoppers I thought I would give them a go. Perfect. Good quality shirts with UV(blah) protection and stuff. £15. Now were talking. Ordered two of those and two pairs of walking trousers that zip off to form shorts for a measly £70. A-mazing. Value and quality I know I can trust.

Confirmation email time. Oh yes, this gem: “Please note: We are currently experiencing some delay in the dispatch of orders. Therefore your order may take slightly longer to arrive. Please be patient and bear with us at this busy time.” Appears in it! Not a single mention of this on the site, only after my money has been taken do they mention this. So I call them up….“Err.. WTF?” to hear an amazingly friendly voice which belongs to a nice lady called Dawn at the other end of CragHoppers’ customer services line.

She explains to me how their system went down over Christmas and that they are going mental trying to get the back orders through. “But I’m off on friday!” I say, “Fear not” says she, and about an hour and a half later, the wonderful wonderful woman has somehow managed to get their warehouse to dispatch my order that day. Literally ordered Sunday night, panicked Monday, goods arrived Tuesday. Brilliant.

I don’t think I have been so amazed by a customer services department before. She could have just told me to go away there was nothing she could do, but she went out of her way to help me and for that I am unbelievably grateful.

Thank you thank you thank you! I am now a teeny bit less stressed!

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 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.

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.]

Your call is important to us: Seven tips to use when dealing with customer service

We’ve all had situations where we’ve needed to call the customer service number for a product or service where either something’s gone wrong, Angry call centre workeror we’re dissatisfied with what’s happening. It’s normal for that to happen considering the amount of goods and services we consume in a year. Some products are bound to be duds sometimes.

What’s not normal or acceptable is to have to fight uncooperative call centre monkeys, who have no notion of service and no interest in helping you.

To help ease the pain of this process, here are a few tips to expedite the process and get to a resolution to your problem as quickly as possible.

  1. Always document your interactions: Even if you’re sure you’ll remember, write down the name of the person you spoke to, the time/date at which you spoke, and the status of the issue when you hung up. It’ll quite likely help you resolve your dispute quicker.
  2. Keep the phone number handy: The first time you use a new service, add their customer service phone number to your address book. If they “streamline” their website and remove all trace of their customer service number, you’ll still have a copy of it. Doubly good if you sync your address book with your phone.
  3. Letters still work: Sometimes, nothing will get the message across better than a firm, well-written, snail mail letter to customer relations. Clearly state the context in which the problem occurred, give detailed accounts of communications to date and end with a statement of what resolution you expect. The clearer your letter, the more likely they’ll answer it promptly.
  4. Send your letters by registered mail: Don’t allow them to pretend the letter was never received by ensuring it’s signed at the other end.
  5. Send a copy of your letter to Public Relations: Whether by email or post, copy the Public Relations department. They have to deal with public flare-ups all the time, and if yours looks like it might cause them hassle, they’ll try to nip it in the bud and might even beat Customer Services by responding first.
  6. Most importantly, be patient, polite and have a sense of humour: You’re talking to someone who’s most likely doing an 8 hour shift in a bleak, crowded pigpen of a call centre. If you shout at them or act aggressively, they’ll tune you out and maybe even mislead you to get you off the phone. Being nice pays off in situations like this one.
  7. Bonus tip – Do not swear: Ever. Even if you’re the sweetest, nicest office manager around, don’t say “f*cking weather today, eh?” followed by a couple more expletives, because they will respond with “I’m sorry mam, but you used foul language three times, I’ll now have to end this call. Good evening mam.”

[Credit to Dan Says, in Merlin’s Flickr comments, for striking some ideas that led me to finally scrapping this post together after talking about it many times.]
[Image borrowed from Think Geek]

Cracked MacBook problem solved

I’m an Apple addict, there’s no denying it. Twenty years of using Macs and still going strong. And usually, I couldn’t be happier with what I buy and have rarely had any problems.

Cracked MacBook closeupBut on Tuesday, when you looked at me, all you could see was a sad Mac face, because my white MacBook was cracked where my right wrist sits on the top deck and clearly needed to be fixed. I read about others with the same problem, thinking my laptop was over a year old and no longer under warranty, I started to think of how expensive or lengthy the replacement process might get.

Thankfully, Andrew snapped me back into reality by saying our laptops still were under warranty. So I promptly called Apple Customer Care to arrange a repair under warranty. The first call didn’t sound too promising – I went through to an Indian (?) call centre where the quality of the phone line was so poor and crackly, I had to shout my MacBook’s serial number six times, with Andrew giggling increasingly with every “E for Echo, L for Lima!”

I ended up calling it quits and calling the Bluewater shopping centre’s Apple store directly to ask whether they’d have the part in stock if I came by on Saturday. No promises were made regarding stock, but by Thursday morning 9:01am, I had a Genius Bar appointment booked for this morning.

Showed up at the store before opening, spoke to a really nice guy who took my laptop in, saying it could be a few days, even up to 10 days, if they didn’t have the part in stock. Feeling slightly distressed and anxious, I left the store.

We shopped a little, we watched Yo Sushi chefs work like ants on preparing for lunchtime, and then we ate a few plates of sushi each. Still feeling bummed out about leaving my laptop behind, we popped by Virgin Megastore, thinking we might find a suitable movie for the evening. (Random trivia: I nearly bought Breakfast at Tiffany’s for a fiver, I’ve yet to see that movie, you know… Celia would kill me if she knew!)

While in the store, my phone rang, but I didn’t recognise the number and let it go to answerphone. Promptly checked the voicemail – while thinking I really need SpinVox voicemail-to-SMS – and nearly choked. It was the girl from Apple telling me my laptop was ready!! We nearly ran back to the store to get it, then went home feeling wholly satisfied with our day.

One morning is all it took for my MacBook to get sorted out! They not only replaced the plastic trim around the keyboard, but also replaced the entire keyboard and trackpad, as it comes out as one piece. Andrew reckons they’ve also changed the screen surround but I’m less convinced.

It cost us a morning’s trip to Bluewater, but would have been £142 out of warranty. You know what, I think I’m going to get extended warranty for it. My laptop’s far too important to be allowed to go wrong ever.

So thanks Bluewater Apple store, your speedy, quality work is appreciated!