customer service

How to choose a mobile phone network

If I was writing this 15 years ago when I first got a mobile phone, I'd start by asking if you, the reader, had one too. Obviously I'm not doing that now.

There are five main mobile phone networks in the UK, plus a bunch of "virtual" networks that pretend to be independent but aren't really as they use someone else's masts. I've been with most of them.

I started on Vodafone. Reasons for not using them: they're a bunch of fucking tax dodgers who hate you personally for being a small nothingness. My experience: I was on pay-as-you-go. The method of checking your credit was clunky and frequently out of date. If you went into debt with them – which was possible for some reason – you therefore didn't know it had happened immediately. When it did happen, the phone pretended to work properly, but texts weren't delivered, text sent to you never arrived and calls got engaged tones. Eventually you worked out that the phone was out of credit – it wouldn't tell you – and topped up. But here's the rub: Vodafone felt the need to punish you for going 15p into debt, so after topping up, the phone would only start working again 2 to 48 hours later, depending on how big a crime Vodafone thought you'd committed.

So I went to BT Celnet, again on pay as you go. Reasons for not using them: they no longer exist and good riddance. My experience: the advertised a phone that you could nominate any number in the land and get free calls for life on. I nominated it, made lots of calls and ran my credit down. I topped up, renominated the same number, made lots of calls and ran my credit down. I complained. They offered me ??5 in compensation. I told them I'd go to Oftel. They offered me ??10. I wrote to the managing director. They refunded me the ??40 they'd stolen. Every single contact with them I had from then onward involved them telling me they couldn't help in any way unless I changed tariff. The free-calls-anywhere boxes got stickers on them saying "UP TO* 300 MINUTES FREE!" on them over the free-calls offer. It got to the point that I couldn't even top up the phone – I'd be sent to a customer adviser instead who would tell me that, in order to top up, I'd need to change tariff.

So I went to Sainsbury's Mobile. Reasons for not using them: supermarkets claim they love you and only want to please when actually they want to own your soul and will do, say and promise anything until they have managed it. My experience: I got mugged by them in the foyer of Sainsbury's, which I hate, but the offer seemed good and promised free Nectar points. They said that they'd search each month for the best tariff in the entire market and match it. By the way, said the salesman, how much are you spending a month at the moment? Oh, about ??45 I said. He wrote that down. For the next year, every bill I had was between ??43 and ??44. One month I tried to not use the phone at all. I sent 40-odd text messages but that was it. The bill was ??44: they charged me ??44 line rental and threw in the texts free.

So I went to 3. Reasons for not using them: they'd just launched with super cheap prices, which was good, but every single contact with them is like having your teeth pulled out with rust-covered pliers by a drunken sailor. My experience: they were cheap. Gloriously so after Sainsbury's. But the phone, oh that first generation 3G phone… it was crap. Battery life, even with the bulky extra-power battery plugged in, was easily measured in minutes. The walled internet garden they had didn't allow you to access anything without paying a pound for it – even stuff marked free brought up a screen asking for your agreement to take a pound. Even getting your email cost a pound. And when the phone went wrong, as it often did, you had to spend hours on hold listening to Macy Grey before you got put through to someone speaking via two tin cans and a length of string with an??impenetrable??accent who wouldn't give a name and never once typed anything. The only time I spoke to someone I could understand (sort of, they were in Glasgow) was when I called to cancel. He implied the problems were at my end for being an early adopter. I told him I'd rather stick pins in my eyes than stay with 3 any longer.

So I went to O2. Reasons for not using them: they're a bunch of fucking??thieves. My experience: I signed up for a shiny new phone and a great deal online and waited for delivery. And waited. And waited. After 28 days, I rang them up. Where was this phone I'd ordered? Lost in the warehouse, they said, but we'll send you another. Don't bother, I said. I'm cancelling under the Distance Selling Regulations and because you're in breach of contract. Okay, they replied jauntily, we'll process that for you now.

So I went to… oh, wait, yes, I did go to Orange, but six months later I got a summons through the door. Six months of silence from O2: not a phone call, not a bill, not an email, nothing. The summons said I owed them a couple of hundred for the phone, a couple of hundred for the unpaid bills and a couple of hundred for the??bailiffs'??action they were now taking. I called them up to ask why this had happened on the number given in the summons. The guy at the other end of the line said "what's your O2 number?" I don't know, I said, I've never had a phone with you. "Well," he said, "fuck off" and hung up. The next day and after a bit of googling, I found a number for the serious complaints department. I had an awful lot of trouble making them understand the problem, mainly because they couldn't reconcile me not being an O2 customer with me having a complaint about O2. Repeatedly they'd say "ah, so your number is 07…" and I'd say "how would I know? I never had a phone from you in the first place" and they'd say "oh, that's confusing" and the whole business would start again. Eventually, they accepted that they'd made a mistake. They'd cancel the summons, call off the bailiffs and we'd all live happily every after.

So I went to… oh, wait: they didn't call off the bailiffs! They came to my door and asked for the phone. The phone I'd never had. I explained this and they got the idea remarkably quickly, because… this was common with O2! It happened really often, said the burly men. They went away. I called O2 and demanded compensation (it was worth a try). They offered me ??10. Uh huh. I eventually got them to ??40, which they paid by two cheques for ??35 and ??5. Uh huh.

So I went to Orange. Reasons for not using them: the glossy marketing is just glossy marketing, albeit quite a deep layer of glossy marketing. My experience: Orange were great. Friendly customer services, good deals when contracts expired, great coverage. I was with them for years. Then one day I phoned up to renew my contract. I was looking for the same or cheaper. The guy had really great news for me: he could get the bill down to ??20 permanently! Loads of free texts, loads of free calls, especially as I was keeping my last handset. I signed up for a year and had plenty of cheap calls. My 13th bill came as a shock: it was for ??200. The deal I was on, free texts and calls forever, had expired. I rang them. Ah, they said, that was a very special offer and I had been told it reverted to bazillions after a year. No, I said patiently, I wasn't told that or I'd've done something about it in time. I, I maintained, had been mis-sold. Hmmm, said customer??servicing. Why, I said, after a year of ??20 bills, would I want to start paying ??200 if I could just switch away? And, I added, the bill has taken two weeks to arrive, so I already owe another ??100, don't I? So they cut me a "deal": they'd credit me ??100 if I signed up to an 18 month contract at ??30 a month. I signed up, but I warned the sales droid: it'll be a cold dark day
in hell before I come back to Orange after this, and I'll tell everyone I ever meet about this duplicity. 18 months later and I cancelled the contract. Orange begged me to stay, shocked and horrified that they'd conned me. They offered me a really good deal to stay. I told them that, nothing personal to the guy at customer service this time, they still owed me ??200 – would they credit me with that? No, he said. Well, you can corporately fuck yourselves then, I said. After I switched away, they wrote to me, offering me the ??200 credit if I came back. Too little too fucking late.

So I went to T-Mobile. Reasons for not using them: they're too slow on their feet to deserve your money. My experience: T-Mobile were fine. Unadventurous, even dull, but fine. And they had a fabulous idea for travelling abroad: instead of cutting off your internet or charging a fortune for it, they let you buy?????5 internet boosters that gave you enough basic bandwidth for each day. So you bought them each day, controlled your costs, but didn't go without. And then my 2 year contract was up and I wanted an iPhone. Could I have one with them? Well, they said, you could have this old 3G one we've got knocking about. No, I said, I want a nice shiny modern one. Like the one 3 has for ??99 plus ??35 a month. Match – or beat – that and I'll sign with you again for 2 years. Uhhh, they said. Uhhhh, how about the 3G for ??99/??35pm? No, I've just turned that down for free. Try again. Uhhhhh, how about an iPhone 4 for ??350 and ??45 a month? No, the offer on the table is ??99/??35, not ??350/??45. One more go. Uhhhhhh, how about an iPhone 4 for ??100 and ??75 a month. Hmmm, I said, you really haven't got the hang of this bartering business, have you? Bye then.

So I went to 3. Reasons for not using them: actually, they're now not so bad. Still cheap, but if you have a Mac you have control of the iPhone and will never need to talk to them (fingers crossed) so that's good. However, they will insist on calling you once every 3 weeks, 3 weeks from you signing the contract with them, offering you better contracts. This would be great but they don't mean "cancel the existing contract and put you on a better one" they mean "send you a further iPhone and you can put the old one in a drawer??and keep paying for it even as you pay ever-so-slightly-less for the new one??that they will then try to get you to replace three weeks later in a similar manner. Don't bother opting out (by text, email, phone call or letter or all of the above) because it doesn't work. You've got to live with them constantly trying to up-sell you to your detriment. Also, their roaming charges are HUGE. I mean staggeringly HUGE. They cap them at ??43, which you'll run through in about 2 days unless you get a hotel with free wi-fi. Which I now always do.

My recommendation? Break out the two bean tins and a piece of string. Or overthrow capitalism and replace it with a nice state monopoly that doesn't pretend to care about you while price-gouging and laughing at you. Or just take the cheapest and play the fuckers off against each other. Whatever. They're all the same.

99p none the richer


It’s my monthly team meeting for work today, so I have to get up at Stupid o’Clock, get 3 trains to Harrogate, prove that I’ve actually done some work in the last month, then get 3 trains home and collapse into bed.

I pitched up at the mainline station at about 0650 for the 0715 train forward. At this time of a morning, I can barely focus without help, so I’m not at my best. I popped into WHSmith, seeking a taurine-based beverage to prevent me sleeping past Leeds again and perhaps something breakfasty-sandwichy. Sadly, WHSmith couldn’t help with the sandwich, but they did have something called “Monster” that promised, almost, to be speed in liquid form. They also had an offer on Walkers crisps: 99p each and buy one, get one free (BOGOF is the trade jargon).

I grabbed two big bags of Quavers and a Monster and queued to pay. When I got to the head of the queue, the woman at the till said “If you get two Walkers bags, one of them’s free, like”.

Yeah, I said, these are Walkers, pointing to the Walkers logo. “No, it’s just them Grab Bags” she said. Uh huh, I said, pointing to the words “Grab Bag!” emblazoned on the front. “No”, she said, clearly now a woman on the edge, “them’s big bags. The offer’s on the others, like”. Clearly, we were at an impasse. The shelf with the Quavers was clearly labelled with the offer, I offered, and with that she catapulted out from the tills and on to the shop floor.

I scurried after her, surprised at the speed she was making. I arrived at the Quavers shelf just as she finished removing the offer label. “See?” she said triumphantly, crumpling the label in her left hand, “Those bags aren’t included”.

I was clearly being outplayed here, if such an obvious and painful lie could be told to my face without shame. She watched as I put the Quavers back and selected two, lesser, packets I didn’t really want instead.

I paid and left. I’m sure she felt she’d done the right thing by her store. I’m sure the store also would feel the right thing had been done. The sanctity of the offer was maintained, WHSmith didn’t lose money, Walkers got what it wanted from the marketing support they must be offering. Capitalism did really well.

Of course, now the WHSmith brand is damaged in my mind, with collateral damage to the Walkers brand. And I’ve spread this damage to my friends on Twitter and Facebook and now this blog. It won’t bankrupt either brand, but perhaps 40 or 50 people will spend the day feeling a bit negative about WHSmith. Some will be tipped over into not shopping there today. Others will forget this exchange but remember “wasn’t there something dodgy about Smiths’s special offers?” and stand a bit back next time they’re tempted by one, looking for the scam. The total damage to WHSmiths revenue will probably be less than ??100 so it’s nothing they will worry about, which is a shame. As for me, I’ll deprive them of profit for a few weeks (I’m out of Smints, but I’ll buy them at a locally-owned store at Harrogate station rather than Smiths at Leeds) then forget this incident and go back to shopping there. But I’ll join those who’ll never trust their special offers again.