Rant: When Telcos are Terrible at Communication

It’s time mobile operators fixed their networks – and their prose

In my kitchen in West London, my iPhone rings. I take the call, though only an obscure number outside London is displayed. The interference is intense. There appears to be a small crowd at the other end of line, making as much commotion as they do in Kiev. It is, I realise with a sinking feeling, a customer care centre – more like a rage management centre – run by my mobile network provider, Orange. I tell the caller that she should speak to her manager about the bedlam that prevents me from hearing her or taking her seriously. Then the line goes dead. A message springs up on my iPhone, very familiar: ‘Call Failed’. Not ‘The Orange Network Failed You in Your Home, As So Often, Ever Since At Least 2011’, but ‘Call failed’; as if I had made the call, and I had failed.

A friend told me that, on moving from O2, she had tried to get Orange to give her a signal booster for residential use. Yet, unlike Vodafone, that is only available to business users…

What is it about Orange, aka Everything Everywhere? Orange sends a text message that my bill is ready for viewing on the Web. I go to http://youraccount.orange.co.uk  and find the usual mix of over-familiar style and poor grammar. I log in to ‘my account with EE’ and see that there is 4GEE [sic] PLAN, ORANGE PLAN and T-MOBILE PLAN. Then I get password problems, like anywhere else.

How do I know this? Because Orange sent me a text message saying ‘We haven’t seen you use your online account recently – for security [sic] we’ll have to deactivate it unless you sign in soon’.

I just love the way I’m always to blame with this company.

It’s not just the subtleties of the branding that escape me. When I’m abroad, I’m told: 'Just text EU100 to 2090'. I do that, and I get a new message: 'We've had a problem... Please call our customer service team'. Recently, I phoned Orange on 150 inside the UK during working hours: ‘Sorry, our office is closed’.

In the usual matey tone, EE has sent me messages ‘recommending’ all kinds of youthful, hip events. I have texted back STOP; but for a long time it doesn’t stop.

EE promises 4G service, and claims to have gained 816,000 customers in the final quarter of 2013, taking its total to two million. It plans to have six million UK users by the end of this year. Yet on trains, at Victoria station or Kings Cross station, I’m often lucky to get a signal, and often get our old, 2.5G friend, GPRS.

Maybe I’m not on 4G. This professor has no idea; but when I managed my account on my Mac, and clicked on REVIEW YOUR PLAN, I got ‘SORRY We're sorry, you're not currently eligible for a recommended plan check’. So I still don’t know.

That really takes some doing.

Orange made full-year £1.57bn profits on a turnover of £6.48bn, a rate of return that amounts to an astonishing 24 per cent. Maybe some of that £1.57bn has now been invested so as to rectify some of the faults I’ve outlined; but Orange’s signal is still useless – not least, when one is on an important client call. Yet I want to like Orange. I’ve chaired and spoken at a conference that featured its charismatic CEO, Olaf Swantee – a fellow Dutchman, hailing from Hewlett-Packard, who has written me a testimonial before now. I’ve given a speech for Orange Research Labs, down the road from me in Chiswick, and very much liked the strongly Asian staff there, as well as a lovely suit who was over from France Telecom. In fact, I’m an Orange VIP customer, and, perhaps because of that, have successfully haggled over the heavy Web charges that I once incurred on a boat from Hong Kong to Macau. Orange is ready to replace my phone with alacrity. It is not all bad.

Yet you don’t have to be in marketing to know that you should not patronise customers, and should not promise what you don’t deliver. For a company in the communications business, which used to have the slogan ‘The future’s bright. The future’s Orange’, there is a lot of basic ground to make up.

As a journalist, I stopped writing ‘Why-oh-why?’ articles years ago. Perhaps this outlier piece will mean that Orange cuts me off as a speaker and consultant, or as a VIP, or even as a user – after all, it has put several bars on my activity already.

But please, Orange, fix your telemarketing, texts, branding, network, English and your website. Let the left hand know what the right hand is doing. Recognise what word-of-mouth derision is doing to you. Cut me off if you like – but I write, still, more in sorrow than in anger.

James Woudhuysen is Professor of Forecasting and Innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester, UK. A physics graduate, he helped install the UK's first computer-controlled car park in 1968.