jan 2009 | june 2010 |

Here's a tale of the Vodafone online ordering system, and how they managed to ensure that one customer who made the jump from O2 was left without any coverage at all for 10 days, through the Jan 2009 bad weather...

Oh wow. Where to begin?

I live in an area of poor cellphone coverage - despite claims to the contrary, much of the UK remains barely covered.

We had three phones here - two on Orange, and another on o2 - both services had equally poor coverage. All were originally on Orange, but the bloke in the Chelmsford o2 shop insisted coverage would be OK at this location, and we made the switch about 2 years ago, and signed an 18 month contract with a "free" Nokia 2630. When it was apparent that o2 was just as pathetic as Orange, I didn't bother to move the others, and infuriatingly, when the o2 18months ran out, of course, no one suggested we might like to switch from the £35 a month "contract" to the monthly SIM deal for £15, and I wasted several months before realising and switching it. Those silent and deadly direct debits that all networks now insist on at pain of surcharge are very handy ways of keeping on fleecing the punters.

And then I saw that Vodafone have begun offering devices - the Access Gateway - that are similar to WiFi routers, but designed to boost local 3g cellular coverage. You plug the device into your broadband connection, register the details with Vodafone - including the Vodafone numbers that you want to work with the system, and the Access Gateway configures itself. So Vodafone handily get to use your bandwidth when your phone is in range, which maybe cheeky, but a small price to pay to avoid digital exclusion and get back into mainstream society, where a cell phone is no longer an option.

Anticipating some fun and games, I bought (outright) a Nokia 2730 with a new number for £60, a rolling 30 days "contract", and an Access Gateway in the Chelmsford Store and set it up - and it all just worked. Incredible.

So with it all apparently working, I switched my number from Orange to Vodafone, and discovered that it's supposedly a lot trickier to "port" (move) numbers after buying a phone, than if it is done at the point of purchase. Anyway, it all happened, eventually. (Anyone want a nearly new Treo 650? Sadly, not 3G)

It was then time to switch the next Orange phone. I ordered online, and the dumb Vodafone website doesn't allow you simply to add to an existing number, but you need to go through a complete new contract procedure, direct debit, credit check and all. This time I had the number porting code from the outset, and it all happened with only a couple of additional phone calls to sort it out, and now all details appear consolidated in the same online login. Almost efficient and nearly painless.

On December 26th 2009 I set about moving the o2 number to a third Vodafone monthly SIM. Same process as before, I had the PAC code ready to go - and I had to place what was essentially a fresh order without reference to the existing two numbers; the website sent me an acknowledgement, and advised:

We’ll email you to let you know when it has been despatched.

Nothing happened, so when the O2 account ceased without warning on January 6th.,  I called on the support team and began a process of over 30 calls backwards and forwards to find out where it had all gone wrong. I have to commend Vodafone's frontline support people - they are courteous, speak coherent English, and seem genuinely "engaged".  The problems seem to lie further up the chain of command, probably with those that hide behind the various customer firewalls, drinking skinny lattes and thinking up those specious slogans like "make the most of now"... and especially dreaming up newer and better ways to confuse and torment customers with ever more confusing tariff schemes.

I eventually worked out that Vodafone is actually costing £5 a month more then Orange for a SIM-only deal with data, but without coverage that's not really an issue.

When I came to add the number to the approved list for Access Gateway users, I uncovered two obvious web bugs - so obvious that is is apparent that no rigorous testing could possibly have been done on the system which I was told had only "gone live" the day before. Within a couple of hours the link lead to:-

Sorry! Page can

Unfortunately, your request cannot be processed

  ...presumably someone else realised that there had been embarrassingly little testing going on!

Also the "contact us" email form has not worked for the last 10 times I tried using it, instead, after filling the damn thing out tediously with details that a competent web programmer could easily have picked up for the login, you are told there has been an error. My guess is because the login has timed out - and there is no recovery possible through the back button, presumably because there is no "keep alive" monitoring of typing on the form to keep the login open.

Like most global companies, Vodafone puts a lot of effort into new and better ways to tell the lost souls seeking support to piss off and use any online means to contact them - so when that online means doesn't work, it's only fair that the people in charge at Vodafone should get a decent kicking for their incompetence. And most of all, they should keep in mind that if the process of phone ownership was not so obtuse, jargon-strewn, failure prone, confusing and generally ruined by expensively contrived yet ultimately confused marketing, they wouldn't need so much support anyway.

How many Vodafone managers and executives and web developers actually bother to sit down and go all the way through the entire "customer experience" - including porting numbers from competitors and setting up their own home access gateways, I wonder?  Fate has handed Vodafone, o2, and Orange/T-mobile/3 what amounts a share of a cartel, where the laws of competition don't generally seem to apply. It seems possible that the government turned blind eye after it took £12bn out of the market in the form of a monster stealth tax when the 3G spectrum licenses were "auctioned".

Customer satisfaction with cell phone network operators consistently ranks amongst the lowest of all major services - and it's not hard to see why. The marketing offers the sun, moon and starts to customers - the user experience lies somewhere between the gutter and knee-high. Along with banks and estate agents, cell phone network operators are almost universally reviled. But those permitted to operate cartels where the marginal cost of adding new users and providing services is virtually nothing, once the basic infrastructure is paid for, owe a much greater duty of care to their victims than seems to be the case.

In the course of researching the original purchase, I went into the Chelmsford Orange shop and moaned again about Orange's pathetic coverage - and mentioned that I was probably going to switch to Vodafone and get an iPhone. Without prompting, the Orange sales person chirped up that there would be no point in switching, since "we all have the same deals with iPhones - Apple sets the rules".

I rest my case: the UK cellular cartel needs to be a lot more humble and responsive to the marketplace (never mind the imperious Apple - don't forget to get your music for 9c a track at www.legalsounds.com). At least Vodafone has broken rank and presently seems to be the only one offering Access Gateways - although since even most of the Vodafone support people have no idea what one is yet anyway, maybe they all offer a similar device, but the people at Orange and o2 that I spoke to just hadn't read the email yet. Hang the bloody lot of them.

June 7th 2010 Update! It's not much better.

The dust eventually settled, and the Suresignal interface was got working. What a wonderful thing that is, but it still cannot excuse the basic greed and stupidity of the online account interface.

Today I wanted to upgrade from the basic but functional Nokia 6300 to something much sexier - like an iPhone or HTC Desire (Google Nexus phone).

The answer is 24 months (min) at £25 - which totals a whopping £600 plus VAT. I asked about insurance - another £10 a month. So that's £840 - £987 inc vat. Most household insurance includes mobile phones - worth checking - and most of the "premier" style bank accounts do.

What if the phone is lost or stolen and is not insured, what's the replacement cost?

"There is no replacement cost, you just have to pay the contract to the end."

You mean you want me to take out another contract and pay off the original one? But that's completely bonkers!

"[embarrassed silence]"

So I paid £400 (inc VAT) and bought an unencumbered one from one of the many sources on the web. Then I wanted to add data browsing to the SIM deal for that phone, which would be £15/month for 300 mins/200 texts/500Mb . Making the total cost over 24 months £823 inc VAT. Almost the same as the 24 month handcuffs contract deal - but moveable/cancellable at no notice, and insured as a bank account "perk".

"Your Plan comes with 300 SIM only minutes + Unlimited Texts with Vodafone Passport"

At the time I got this in December last year, there was the option of a £5/month "subscription" to get 500MB of data - but now the web says:

"No Subscriptions are currently available."

I clicked change plan anyway, but the web interface gave no option to do this, but instead, Vodafone had the nerve to suggest:-

"Good news - you can change to any of the plans on this page."

Good news for Vodafone - the cheapest offer was 18 months at £30 a month!

200 minutes (100 less than the £10 monthly deal) but whole 1000 texts. I think the most I have ever sent is 25 a month.

No data, and no mention of free phones etc., they must think we're all pretty gullible. But this is typical of most mobile phone networks and can best be described as a fecking disgrace and yet another attempted rip-off.

I tried calling 191 to sort this out, and nothing happened. The phone showed connected, but there was silence (I later discovered that this was because the phone was still connected to the car hands-free device - who ever heard of Bluetooth working over 50 feet?). So I had to call the listed premium rate 0871 number on a landline instead, and after 2 minutes of faffing about through the tedious front end of the system (do you know your phone PIN?), was eventually told (Monday 4pm) that they were all too frantically busy to answer, and would I call back later.

Also, all the interactive call centre front ends require users to press numbers on the keypad - and in many instances, the keypad numbers are desperately fiddly, and nearly all calls are initiated from pre-stored numbers. An awful lot of users over the age of 45 cannot read the numbers without reading glasses, either! More and more of these robots also offer the chance to speak the number - but that can be very hit and miss as well.

Anyway, I found the web chat option, and this is the discussion:-

Chat InformationYou are about to be connected to a online customer service adviser for Vodafone UK.

Chat InformationYou are now connected with VodaPerson.

VodaPerson: Hello, you're chatting with VodaPerson, one of Vodafone's online customer service specialists.  May I take your name please?

Hapless vodafone punter:  William

VodaPerson: Hi William, how was your day so far?

Hapless vodafone punter:  I am trying to understand what services I can get on my monthyl account 07968854452

Hapless vodafone punter:  My day is full of frustration - the Vodafone website is not very useful I'm afraid

VodaPerson: I'm sorry to know that...

VodaPerson: How can I help you today?

Hapless vodafone punter:  I thought I had web browsing included on this phone, the web interface says: 300 mins 100 txts - nothing else

Hapless vodafone punter:  and I cannot add subscriptions?

VodaPerson: Let me see how can I help you with this...

Hapless vodafone punter:  ty

VodaPerson: Please wait while I pull up your account..

VodaPerson: As you’ve already provided the security details along with your number at the start of your chat, I’ll consider the security check as successful.  

Hapless vodafone punter:  please do

VodaPerson: Please wait while I check this for you...

VodaPerson: I've checked your account and can see that your price plan is 300 minutes + Unlimited Texts + Vodafone Passport at £12.77 (exc VAT) per month...

Hapless vodafone punter:  it looks like everything has changed since I moved here from orange and I cannot now add mobile internet to my SIM-only deal

VodaPerson: and WEB Browsing pack at the cost of £5 is added on your account...

Hapless vodafone punter:  I thought I was paying £5/month for mobile internet access, but there is nothing visible on my account at all

VodaPerson: since 17/12/2009

VodaPerson: WEB Browsing pack is active on your account...

Hapless vodafone punter:  where can I see that?

VodaPerson: for which you're paying £5 per month...

Hapless vodafone punter:  But I cannot see any of this using teh online interface

VodaPerson: the extra services active on your account are not visible online...

Hapless vodafone punter:  why on earth are they not? the website rally is not very good - always full of inconsistencies and errors

VodaPerson: I'm sorry for the inconvenience caused...

Hapless vodafone punter:  if the website was not so bad, your phone service would not be so overloaded, I could not connect at all using 1919 30 mins ago

VodaPerson: I assure you that the WEB Browsing pack is active on your account

Hapless vodafone punter:  yes, the phone works with it - but why is the website wrong? And I need to add that website browsing pack to another phone on the account. The website will not let me do anything other than upgrade to some 18 month £30 a month deal which I don't want

Hapless vodafone punter:  The web page has the nerve to say " Good news - you can change to any of the plans on this page" good news for who? Not me!!

VodaPerson: If you wish I can add the website browsing pack to your another number...

Hapless vodafone punter:  could you please? But why does the web interface not work? And how much browsing does that include?

VodaPerson: It would be £5 per month...

VodaPerson: and you'll get 500MB data usage...

Hapless vodafone punter:  OK - that's what I was expecting to find on the web interface - so whyt does it try and sell me an 18month contract I didn't ask for?

Hapless vodafone punter:  please escalate this to a supervisor and tell them you have a very disgruntled customer

VodaPerson: I'm sorry about that..

VodaPerson: however, you cannot add any subscription on your account online...

Hapless vodafone punter:  why?

VodaPerson: Your feedback will be escalated...

Hapless vodafone punter:  thanks -

VodaPerson: May I confirm the number on which you would like to add the web browsing pack...?

Hapless vodafone punter:  ##########

VodaPerson: thanks..

VodaPerson: Please wait while I action this for you...

VodaPerson: Thanks for waiting...

Hapless vodafone punter:  OK

VodaPerson: I've added the web browsing pack on your account...

Hapless vodafone punter:  at least this doesn't cost me 3p a minute like the 0871 phone service

VodaPerson: I'm sorry I'm not aware of such service..

VodaPerson: can you please let me know in detail about this...

Hapless vodafone punter:  I mean your phone helpline - when 191 doesn't work (like now) Uk users are expected to call a premium line and pay 3p a minute to be connected

VodaPerson: I'm sorry for the inconvenience caused to you..

Hapless vodafone punter:  And the web site doesn't list this £5 deal an where - is it no longer available? http://shop.vodafone.co.uk/shop/sim-only-plans/all-sim-plans

Hapless vodafone punter:  once again, if your website was better and there was not so much confusion, the phone service would not be so consistently overloaded. Vodafone is unnecessarily badly managed by people who plainly do not understand what they are doing. Everything has become so confused and convoluted that even vodafone is completely confused by it's own marketing department!

VodaPerson: I do appreciate your comment...

VodaPerson: and will forward this to the marketing team...

VodaPerson: we're also updating the website...

Hapless vodafone punter:  thanks - your managers make your life unnecessarily complicated. All mobile networks seem to be the same though - there is a competition to be more obtuse with ever sillier pricing plans than then their competitors

Hapless vodafone punter:  websites are always being updated - it's in the nature of websites - that's the business I am in

VodaPerson: Ok I understand that you're an expert on this...

VodaPerson: will also pass this to the online team as a feedback...

Hapless vodafone punter:  it really does not require an expert to see that the web interface for my account doesn't do what it says on the tin

VodaPerson: Is there anything else I can do for you today?

Hapless vodafone punter:  that will do thanks - you've been very helpful

If you want to deal with a proper mobile operator, then only Virgin comes close to being recommendable. Too bad they don't do SureSignal femtocells.