So ends the longest deathbed scene featuring a political leader since the passing of Spain’s Francisco Franco in 1975. There the similarities end.
Franco was a warlord who took power by force and held it for nearly 40 years. Mandela was a symbol of forgiveness and reconciliation who served but one term as president.
I can’t add much to the eulogies pouring out from so many sources. But while we celebrate Mandela’s life, we should also remember and appreciate the contribution of others without whom there might have been an entirely different outcome in South Africa. Two people stand out. FW de Klerk, who recognised – perhaps just in time – that majority rule was the only option for his country in the long-term. And Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who added so much moral weight to the reconciliation process through his role in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Of these two, I would reckon Tutu the greater man. Like Mandela, he fought a life-long battle with courage, grace and humour. Yet De Klerk, despite being a beneficiary of apartheid for most of his life, though his actions over a relatively brief period allowed the decisive breakthrough to take place before fading into obscurity.
Though both are still living, we should celebrate their achievements as well.
Is there any company in the so-called first world that matches British Telecom for incompetence, obfuscation and opaqueness?
Well probably quite a lot, but right now BT is on my radar on account of their mastery of the art of upsetting their customers.
Now I know I’m about to come over as a spoilt brat ranting from the comfort of my safe, technologically-blessed home, when all around the world there are millions who would give their right arms for smart phones, satellite TV, super-fast internet, and maybe for fridges, washing machines and a reliable source of water and electricity.
But this is my reality, and I’m not best pleased when a service you rely on – in this case broadband and landline – suddenly stops working, and then you can’t don’t seem to be able to do damn thing about it.
Put it another way. It doesn’t impress me when you try report a problem online, your supplier’s website asks you to enter your phone number and then claims that you’re not a customer. When you finally succeed in reporting the fault, the supplier – still through their website because you can’t talk to a human – accepts there’s a problem.
Then, when you finally get through to a human after three days of trying, they tell you that they’ve fixed it, and promptly hang up. This despite the fact that evidence to the contrary is staring you in the face in the form of a big red light on your router telling you that broadband is down – five days after you reported the fault. And when you get through to another human – after an age in a queue – you’re told that it will take another five days before they can send anyone out to fix the problem you’ve helped them to realise still exists.
So what started on a Saturday night and was supposed to be fixed by the following Thursday would now – assuming they actually got their act together – not be fixed until next Tuesday. That’s a ten-day wait.
What made things worse was our inability to speak to a human until yesterday, the date by which the problem was due to be fixed, according to their website.
All of which was a cue for the intervention of my beloved wife, the scourge of banks, insurance companies, utility providers and anyone else foolish enough to cross her. My wife doesn’t take prisoners. When I see her in this mode I think of Vlad the Impaler.
Her conversation with the BT call centre was, shall we say, robust. So robust that it sent the dog scurrying for cover and me reaching for the noise-reducing earphones. She is the sort of angry customer those polite Indian agents are trained to deal with. Yeah right – as my offspring would say – much in the same way as the Japanese designed the Fukushima reactors to withstand a tsunami.
She has a well-established routine for this kind of conversation. She times the call and writes detailed notes so that she can quote chapter and verse what is discussed. She has been known to insist that one of the objects of her ire retrieve the recording it makes of all conversations in order to prove her point. In this case it was one hour and twenty seven minutes – relatively short by her standards.
What made things worse for the unfortunate person on the other end was that she took it upon herself to offer a temporary solution that was demonstrably not a solution. While our normal connection was down, we could use a BT WiFi Hotspot. Not acceptable, there isn’t a hotspot anywhere near us, said my wife, how can you call it a solution when it won’t work for us? I want a dongle, she said. We don’t provide dongles, said the agent. Let me speak to your manager, said my wife, sharpening her bolt. He’ll only refer you back to us, said the agent. Don’t care, let me speak to him. After a couple of minutes on hold, the agent came back and said we can have a dongle, with one gigabyte of data. One gigabyte? Not acceptable. Yesterday alone, my husband used half a gigabyte through his IPhone. It’s costing us a fortune, and you’ll have to pay. After more “constructive engagement”, the agent finally came through with unlimited data. Anything to get my beloved Vladette off the line.
It seems as if the default position of companies like BT is nyet. To get something out of them you need to become an Impaler – to be prepared to make so much fuss that you reduce the person on the other end of the phone into a gibbering wreck. And to do that you have to abandon all your long held beliefs about fair play in order to arrive at an acceptable solution. Effectively, you have to acquire the ruthless focus of the psychopath. Otherwise you risk joining the thousands of other callers who end up being fobbed off.
Only a week ago a neighbour had a similar experience. You could argue that his was the worse predicament, as he had three internet-hungry offspring at home during the school half-term at the time. No need to spell out the withdrawal symptoms. He was cut off for a similar time, and was told on several occasions that the fault was in his house, and that if he wanted an engineer to visit it would cost £130. Being a corporate lawyer, his choice of weapon was a stiletto rather than the bolt to the chest favoured by my wife. Eventually the engineer he prevailed upon BT to send claimed that the junction box outside our houses was a mess and needed to be replaced. By implication, he blamed all the other suppliers who relied on BT’s copper wire connections to provide their services.
In our case, the fault came at the worst possible time – 24 hours before the heaviest storm in years swept through southern England. This of course gave BT a perfect excuse for the absence of a human response in our hour of need.
To be fair, BT are only the latest in a long line of new worst suppliers. One more than one occasion in this blog I have waxed lyrical about the inadequacies of HSBC, the world’s so-called local bank. In BT’s case, the people who could solve our problem work from an anonymous location less than five miles away from where we live. To activate their services we have to talk to a bunch of long suffering call centre agents halfway around the world. Crazy huh?
Why stay with BT, you might ask? Well, the problem lies in those few metres of copper wire between the roadside junction box and our house, which is their exclusive and monopolistic preserve. And because of the company’s fragmentation into numerous semi-autonomous businesses – for example broadband is handled by one company and landlines by another – you find yourself constantly being batted from one business to another.
The balkanisation of services has become a plague in the United Kingdom. Our National Health Service is a patchwork of quangos, trusts and business units created by successive meddling governments, each with their own ideological axes to grind. British Gas, even though it’s only one of a number of energy companies these days, is similarly fractured. And a couple of weeks ago, the postal service was privatised. Well sort of. Now we have something called the Royal Mail that is a public company. But there’s something else called the Post Office that isn’t.
The result across all the sectors that the public relies upon most is hundreds of little principalities, each of which must have their own CEO, their board of directors and their senior management teams. All these people are receiving salaries and benefits beyond the dreams of those who once ran the old GPO (post and telecoms), the Gas Board and the Health Service. In a dark moment one could be mistaken for thinking that the meaning of competition was not vying with the next guy to provide the best service to the customer, but a race between executives to grab the most personally lucrative piece of the action.
Whatever the vision of the Blessed Margaret Thatcher when she launched the wave of privatisations back in the 80s, things have surely not turned out the way she expected. And BT is just one example of the incoherent, baffling and dysfunctional corporate spaghetti with which the long-suffering British customer has to deal on a daily basis.
Back in our little world, the dongle arrived this morning with commendable speed. But before we opened the package, without notice or fanfare, the internet returned, even though the speed is about a third of that promised by BT’s much-vaunted Infiniti service. Perhaps that’s BT’s version of “under-promise, over-deliver”. But we still have no landline. For that, I suppose, we will have to wait until the instruction pings back from Bangalore to our neighbourhood service depot just down the road.
I’m fully expecting that the fix will take the full ten days, which is about the same length of time it takes for a letter with a stamp on it to arrive from that fine Indian city. Back to the future, you might say.