Is BT the worst large brand in the UK?

September 2009

I think I may have found something which the vast majority of SMEs in the UK have in common and regardless of business sector: Most have a horror story to tell about BT.

The words from my wife when we sold our house and secured a new one some four months ago, are still ringing in my ears: “The one part of the move I’m absolutely dreading is dealing with BT.” Even at that stage it seemed inconceivable that BT would give us an easy ride, but nothing prepared us for the nightmare they managed to put us through.

The detail of the nightmare is not worthy of this website – complex, boring and, anyway, would describe a level of incompetence from BT which any sane person may reasonably decide to disbelieve – so I’ll spare you the detail and give the briefest of summaries:

Ordered phone line connection three weeks before moving into new house and for day after we moved in (new house had phone cable installed but was not connected at road or house)

On scheduled day of installation waited for BT engineer but they didn’t arrive

Called BT who said order had been cancelled by them but couldn’t explain why

Spent best part of afternoon on mobile phone to them and spoke to numerous people, had promises of calls back broken, others couldn’t even find our order on the system, but eventually got agreement that the line would be connected the following Friday

Following Friday came and nobody, again, turned up. Phoned BT who said connection would now be in two weeks time

Following Friday evening got text message from BT to say connection was cancelled and would now be in three weeks time

Got pretty grumpy about the whole thing and contacted local MP, had meeting with him, he put pressure on BT and end of following week line connected

Broadband followed and Hughes Consultancy finally fully back up and running nearly six weeks after moving home
Believe me this really is the briefest of summaries, and some of the phone calls we had – in particular with BT’s Indian call centre – were simply ridiculous, not to mention infuriating and frustrating. That BT is an utter shambles seems undeniable, but actually the apparent reasons they are so need some explanation:

I’m no expert on these things, but when someone at a call centre tells you they can’t solve your problem
because they can’t see the reason for the problem on their screen, you know something is seriously wrong. So what’s this all about? Well, and apparently (a helpful chap in BT complaints told me this…), since BT broke up into different operating businesses and specifically set up a separate arm called Open Reach, the people you speak to at the BT call centre don’t have access to what Open Reach are doing (or aren’t doing). The problem for me, and no doubt tens of thousands of others, is that it’s Open Reach which connects your line.

Fundamentally, BT IS NOT customer-focused. Yes some of the people you speak to are helpful enough and do what they can to sort your crisis out, but the fact is they generally can’t do it because a.) their system doesn’t allow it (a truly customer-focused business would have a system that did) and b.) the purpose of their job isn’t to prioritise the individual customer who has a serious problem – in a short-term commercial sense that makes sense of course because there’s more profit to be made from the customer who just wants to switch from a rival broadband provider.
So it’s about system and culture, and not having the system is culture driven because the culture dictates that you don’t need the system. Am I over-simplifying this? In a brand sense, I don’t think so.

And ‘in a brand sense’ is what I’m talking about here because that’s what I’m ultimately interested in (even putting aside the fact that BT’s incompetence almost closed my business down for six weeks). I don’t care what internal problems BT have (and it’s amazing how quickly their staff tell you about them when you start complaining), the point is that if your most basic brand proposition is to provide your customers a phone line (and if that isn’t their most basic proposition then I’d like to know what is) and they aren’t able to do this, then something is seriously wrong. Yes I don’t doubt that the world of telecoms is a complex one, but that’s what BT is supposed to do – in other words telecoms should be their ‘core competence’ (the clue’s in their name, I’d have thought…).

In the 25th June issue of Marketing Week this excellent trade journal reported that BT was the 11th ‘best’ British brand. What nonsense: BT is Britain’s 11th ‘biggest’ brand – quite a different thing. The ranking is based on brand valuation – ultimately, a science which looks to put a figure on the intangible assets a brand holds – and such a ranking is clearly important and valuable. However, and in this case, it isn’t entirely relevant because, for at least part of its business, BT has no competitors. Yes if you want broadband there’s a host of brands queuing up for your hard-earned cash, but need your thin bit of phone cable from your house connecting to the thick bit at the roadside? Ah… only BT are allowed to do that.

The world around us has changed quickly in recent years and, as far as brands are concerned, rubbish customer service means being named and shamed on every social network site known to man. That’s also true for BT, the problem is, at least for their basic service, you don’t have too many alternatives (though rest assured I did explore satellite broadband).

Just for the record though, it must be said that the engineers who actually do the work seem excellent – certainly those that came on site for us couldn’t be faulted (it should also be said that they knew all about the hopeless service levels you get from the call centres).

So my guess is that BT will continue to abuse its monopoly position on a basic service (i.e. providing a simple landline) and instead pump its money and resources into competing at the frontline with the likes of Virgin and Orange for those relatively lucrative broadband contracts. The bombardment of corny BT TV ads which follows the long-term relationship between single mum and decent and ordinary new bloke, are testament to this.

So is BT the worst large brand in the UK? It is in my mind and will remain so until I get proof otherwise. Added to which, and from what I hear, most owners of SMEs wouldn’t disagree. What can we all do about it? Very little, but using Skype as much as possible certainly makes you feel better.

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