I’ve been with Three as a mobile phone network provider for several years. I’ve had a couple of handsets and chosen to stay with them as I upgraded.  I’ve also taken out another contract for a phone for my son.

I’ve rarely had to deal with their customer service. I’ve been a happy customer. Those last two statements, I’ve come to realise, are linked in a significant cause / effect relationship.

Earlier this year I was getting fed up of HTC Hero which was starting to struggle. I enquired at local Three retail outlet in Aberdeen’s St Nicholas Centre when I would be entitled to an upgrade – and established that it wasn’t due until October.

By the end of July I’d had enough. The HTC was locking up frequently, apps closing unexpectedly etc so I decided to treat myself to a new handset. I use the phone for work contacts and have SMS alerts for server monitoring sent to it 24/7, so continuity of use of my present number was key. I imagined that taking out a new contract and staying with the Three network would be the most straightforward – rather than trying to move my number between networks (been there and have the scars still).

How wrong I was.  Despite the assurances of the sales assistant who sold me the new contract it has been as pain-free as home dentistry.

The process as it was described to me was:

  1. Postpone activation of the new contract / SIM for 30 days
  2. Phone Customer Services and have the existing contract changed to minimum tariff (£12.10 /month), change the phone to Pay as you go (PAYG), pay off the balance due on the contract, and have the number transferred.

So, how did it go?

As soon as I got home I phoned customer services and asked to reduce the contract to a minimum. “Why”, they asked – so had to explain the whole story – “as they told me in the shop.” The person I spoke to was very polite and pleasant but I got the sense that as soon as I wondered off script he struggled badly to understand what I was trying to do – ie only trying to get my number onto my new handset.

I was told that the reduced amount would kick in on my next billing cyclced – and noted 12th August and I’d have to phone again then to do the next steps. I’d also have to bring forward the activation of the new SIM – from 29th Aug to the 12th August.

So I phoned on 12th and asked for the new SIM to be activated – and was told that it would be live within 24 hours. Actually it was live in about 3 hours. I then went through again what I was trying to do – ie this time convert to PAYG etc. “Why….” So I explained patiently again that this was the shop’s advice.  The it was explained that the reduction in tariff would happen on 14th not 12th. Maybe I’d got the date wrong.

I phoned back on 14th (this morning) and spoke to a customer services rep – and went through the whole story again and at the end was told I’d have to be passed to an accounts termination team.  I was put on hold. I then spoke to a chap to whom I had to tell the whole story to AGAIN (and go through the “Why” script. He then broke the news to me that changing the phone to PAYG takes 30 days – the first mention of that in all the conversations to date – and that I’d not be able to do the next steps until after that had happened.  He was able to say how much I’d have to pay as the balance of the contract but couldn’t do that now.

I pointed out the stupidity of that – ie that I was happy to pay it off today so that I could get the number transferred to the new handset. Apparently that can’t happen. Each step has to be gone through and notice periods served.

I pointed out that this means that I need to carry two handsets for at least the next 30 days. He was apologetic but said that there was nothing else to be done. There was an ‘escalations’ team that I could speak to (although their role and powers to sort it out were unclear) but hey only work Mon – Fri.  I could either phone back on Monday and ask to speak to them (and presumably go through the same tale for the fourth or fifth time) or he could put a work request in for them to call me within the target of 72 hours.

Having been on this conversation for over 20 minutes I was so taken aback that I said to leave it and I’d call them tomorrow.

Later on I thought I’d go back to the shop where I took out the contract – and see if they could straighten things out. This meant driving into town specifically to go there. The girl who I’d dealt with wasn’t there nor was the manager who’d had to leave early. The chap I spoke to was very helpful (after I’d told him the whole story for a sixth time) and apologetic – “sorry about the customer service – they’re in Mumbai”. I pointed out that it wasn’t a linguistic problem but a question of their being empowered to sort things out for the customer.  I also told him that I considered that I’d  been mis-sold the phone as the convoluted process to have my number transferred to my new handset had been understated in the extreme and was considering contacting customer services. He was apologetic and said that they didn’t deal with “retentions” in the shop. I think this is the transfer of my number to a new handset but I may be wrong. I think he’d have left it there, but I asked him to take my number and get the manager to phone me.

I couldn’t remember my new handset number so gave him my original one as I’ll have to have it on for the foreseeable future anyway.

So now I’ll have to go through it all for the manager of the shop for a 7th time and likely the escalations department in Mumbai for an 8th time tomorrow. Then the hopefully final steps will demand a further contact in 30 days time and the same conversation for a 9th time.

Wish me luck – I have no confidence that this will go smoothly.  I will update this piece each time I have an interaction with Three so you can keep up with the sorry saga.

But reflect meantime on what the problems here are:

  • lack of empowerment (why couldn’t the shop sort it all out when I took out the new contract?)
  • repeat work / failure demand (why couldn’t I sort it out with a single phone call if indeed I did need to phone at all?)
  • a process-driven, rather than customer satisfaction-driven culture
  • an ignorance of the cost of this (repeated calls, reputation damage through dissatisfied customers telling of their poor experiences, customers leaving rather than renewing contacts – this is my last and I’ll move my sons when it is up).

No wonder Three is the most complained about network provider.

Now does anyone have any experience of using Ofcom / Trading standards to challenge mis-selling?

Thinking of a new mobile – why you should avoid Three like the plague
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