Apple iPhone UK – a tale of woe and “can’t-help, won’t-help, please go-away”

iphone

My father isn’t a patient man when it comes to limp wristed customer support. His patience rapidly departs in the face of illogical customer relationship policies. He’s particularly attuned to customer service, you see, because he’s responsible for infrastructure (servers, connectivity, data centres, the whole shebang) at a world leading telecommunications company. He spends his days managing dozens of service and technology teams to ensure that they’re all pulling in the right direction to deliver greater than ‘five nines’* at all times.

(* ‘Five Nines’ — 99.999% up time. Anyone in the technology / data centre space loves saying ‘five nines’ to you, just to see if you know what they’re talking about. It’s like a masonic handshake. The people in the industry like dropping the phrase into conversation now and again just to check if you’re one of them.)

If you’ve been reading regularly, you’ll recall that I bought my mother an Apple iPhone from the United States. I unlocked it and gave it to her, replacing her Motorola RAZR that she’s had for years and could barely use. She couldn’t really get comfortable with the Motorola interface and I reckoned the iPhone would revolutionise her telecoms. I was right. She took to it immediately. The only explanation I gave her — and this was very satisfying — was the ‘one button speech’ (i.e. this one takes you back to the main menu, just click on whatever you want, OK?’)

Apple are just geniuses. Whoever can make a device that my mother can use without any training, looking at manuals or general panicking, deserves to be lauded. It was a fascinating experience for me to see just how bad the existing mobile device manufacturers had been performing. Previous to the iPhone launch, one could go on about how stupid the interfaces were, how unfriendly, how badly conceived they were… but with little in the way of ‘proof’. Whenever I argued the point, people would just tell me that my mother needed to learn how to use the phone — that, because she’s from the ‘pre-digital’ generation, it was her problem to have to learn. Rather than the technology fit around her, she was the one that needed to do the learning. I thought this was crazy. So when I was getting text messages from mum via her iPhone all day, I was absolutely delighted. My younger brother texted me in amazement one day shortly after mother got the iPhone, saying, “You won’t believe this but mum is playing music she bought on iTunes through her iPhone whilst she’s cooking, no joke!”

Fantastic.

I bought mother an unlocked iPhone from the States because she had a Vodafone SIM — on the family account. My father goes absolutely nuts if something he’s paying or paid for doesn’t work (think ‘five nines’ and you can at least understand why he gets so annoyed, it cuts right into his DNA when something isn’t operating correctly). It is my father’s viewpoint that Vodafone ‘works’. Therefore swapping mother to an o2 contract ‘official UK iPhone’ = not good.

Everything was brilliant. Mother was using the device to it’s full potential. Surfing the web whilst at Waitrose; getting her eBay updates on her iPhone mail; texting her globe trotting children; playing music; taking pictures of the dog; and of course, making phone calls. My father was bemused and delighted to be able to send text messages home and receive replies right-away from mother.

Then the problem: Someone at home, I’m not sure who, decided to take heed of the Apple warning on iTunes and pressed the ‘update firmware’ button. I had specifically unchecked the ‘update automatically’ option so somebody had to actually press the update button. And they did. The iPhone immediately stopped working. Mother had to swap back to the RAZR.

Normally I’d have gone home, reflashed the iPhone etc etc and all would have been fine. However I’m in San Francisco for a while. I came up with a solution right-away though. I phoned my other brother, “Right, let’s get her an o2 iPhone?” I said.

He readily agreed. We’d done the math. (Or ‘maths’ if you’re British). The additional expense of buying a UK iPhone and taking out the o2 contract for 18 months was nothing in the context of:

a) getting my father involved
b) making sure mother had the right device to communicate with her geographically dispersed family
c) simplicity — if it doesn’t work, you can take it back etc.

My brothers and I didn’t need to even speak about this. We already knew it. Least line of resistence and critically: Don’t get dad involved.

So brother #2, Martin, headed out to an o2 shop on his way home from work and bought the iPhone. At this point, mother had been offline for 2 days. Annoying for her (and us) but at least we’d got a fix. Martin took mother through the setup, got the contract activated and so on.

There was a problem. After a few hours or arsing around trying to get the activation to work, Martin had to go back home to get ready for work the next day. The next night, he tried again. No dice. It looked like the device was screwed. It kept on displaying the Apple symbol. Despite my transatlantic “Hold the home button and the sleep button and that will reboot it” advice, the iPhone wasn’t working.

“Ok, take it back to the Apple store and get them to give mum a new one,” I reckoned. Martin agreed.

Mum took it out to the Apple store the next day but returned home with it. The helpful idiot at the Apple store asked her to take it home and said Apple would send UPS to pick it up.

Now I’ve already blogged on this before. There’s a specific reason why we dropped all this cash on the UK iPhone. It was so the sodding thing worked. If it failed to work, I expected Apple to just replace it. THERE AND THEN. No jiggery pokery, no shitting about.

I don’t mind having to play by the dickhead customer service rules if it’s me. I just shake my head. But when they’re doing it to my mother, it really begins to wind me up.

I breathe calmly when mother explains she’ll just need to wait for the nice UPS man to arrive.

He arrives.

Mother gives him the iPhone. He promptly takes the iPhone back to the Apple tech department.

“Good,” I think, “At least she’ll get a new one in a few days.”

No. She gets the iPhone sent back with a ticking-off. “This is a US iPhone and we can’t support it or help you with it,” (paraphrasing) says the note that came back with the bricked iPhone. Ah. Mother sent back the wrong one. Woops.

At this point my father decided to get involved. He assigned brother #3, Fraser, to fix the issue. Unfortunately Fraser had a busy time at work this week and didn’t manage to resolve it. So when this Saturday morning arrived, my father spotted it as an unresolved problem (think ‘five nines’) and adopted the problem.

Oh dear.

We do our best to isolate my father from the best of the United Kingdom’s don’t-care, not-bothered, not-interested customer support executives, most of whom operate without any independent thought and hide behind the corporate rules and regulations to avoid getting things done. At work, my father’s team do the same — they insulate him from the mundane ‘er, no but’ executives. On the few occasions where my father is exposed to general unwillingness hiding behind ‘themz tha rules’, he simply and politely escalates to the relevant CEO and has the issue fixed in seconds.

This morning, father hopped in the car with the (UK) iPhone and headed over to the o2 shop at Lakeside shopping centre.

He presented the device to the o2 sales chappy and asked for some help.

“Did you buy this from an o2 shop?” the chap asked.

“Yes”

“Are you an o2 customer?”

My father was shocked at the question, “Well, yes, we’re paying 35 pounds a month to you for this device — which isn’t working.”

“Ah, right, have you got a proof of purchase?”

“Proof of purchase? Obviously. We’re a customer. We bought the device and signed up. You’ve got our bank details on your computer. You’re taking money from us each month?”

“Ah well I need a proof of purchase to help you,” says the sales chappy.

Classic mistake. My father, a lifelong Vodafone customer, assumed that he’d get the same level of assistance from o2. You see, you can walk into any Vodafone UK shop — anywhere in the country, from Inverness to Hartlepool, and talk to them about your account. You don’t need a proof of purchase. You simply need to give your address and account password (as you would do over the phone) and any Vodafone sales executive can talk through your account and deal with your enquiries.

You’d think that o2′s information infrastructure includes the facility to confirm the iPhone was purchased from an o2 store and offer service accordingly? Well, no, it seems.

“But I’m a customer? We’re paying monthly?” asked my father — his exasperation count moving swiftly toward annoyance.

“I can help you if you’d like to buy something else?” asked the sales chappy.

“Sorry? No, I…” my father was losing his words. Bad sign.

“You might want to try the Apple store upstairs,” suggested the sales chappy, clearly delighted to have deflected the problem.

My father turned around and did so, putting his trust in Mr Jobs. He later told me that he reckoned he’d get a better service from Apple rather than stand about negotiating with the o2 sales chappy.

He walked up to the Apple store basking in the glow of brand-Apple. The can-do nature of the buzzing store filled my father’s heart with relief.

He was referred over to the customer service bar:

“Can I help you?” asked the chap.

My father explains the issue, thrusts the iPhone over to the chap.

“Ah where did you buy it from?” asks the chap, calculating whether he can deflect my father.

My father calmly explains we bought the device from o2.

“Ah you need to go to the o2 shop. They’ll help you.” Case closed, as far as this Apple chap was concerned.

“But you’re one and the same, yes? o2 and Apple, in the UK? Besides I’ve just been to the o2 shop, they told me to come here.”

The Apple chap’s face fell as he noted that my father didn’t deflect, “OK, we’ve got a genius bar here, right?”

“Sure?” says dad.

“Can I take your name?”

“You what?”

“Can I take your name for the system?”

“Oh, right, MacLeod.”

“Ok Mr MacLeod, you’ll need to go into the queue. The four geniuses are very busy. Could you come back at 645pm?”

Faced with hours of wait, my father declined.

“If I give you 20 pounds, can you just sort the problem, give me a new one, anything?”

The Apple chap looked as though he’d been slapped.

“Oh no sir you’ll need to wait in the queue for the geniuses to check the device.”

“Listen,” explains my father, his exasperation count reaching 9, “You and I both know this device is broken. We don’t need the geniuses to tell us that. Can you just give me a new one?”

No. That’s not the way things work.

My father left with the screwed iPhone and returned home absolutely furious. Not before he used one of the iMacs in the shop to post this comment on a previous SMS Text News post (Title: “How do you use your mobile handset”).

Not even out of the Apple store, he was on the phone to Martin and instructing him to get rid of the MacBook Pro, the G5, the 30″ iMac and all the other Apple equipment in the MacLeod household.

“Ebay the lot of it, and get us some DELLs, this is just ridiculous,” he instructed, “I’ve had enough of this rubbish!”

The MacLeod senior household is thus an Apple-free zone. It’s also an o2 free zone, at the moment, whilst my brothers and I figure out how to move to the next step. My father, apoplectic with annoyance, is seething at the behaviour of both o2 and Apple. He, rightly-so, doesn’t care for the “inane” policies (or lack of care) that prevented any number of o2 and Apple chaps from helping him out.

Mother is back on her Motorola RAZR. I’m not impressed. Particularly since this shite experience reflects entirely on me and makes me look like a Class-A arse for suggesting an iPhone in the first place. Even more so, I’m the self-branded dickhead who got mother signed up to an 18-month contract from o2 complete with a device that doesn’t work.

I’m going to phone Martin and see if he can find the damn receipt so we can get a stupid, STUPID o2 shop to replace the sodding device.

How difficult does it have to be? I expected a lot more from o2. It can’t have been that difficult to look up my family’s account and confirm that my father was indeed Mr MacLeod and that the iPhone was, indeed, not actually working — and to immediately replace it. Perhaps it’s not within their control. Maybe they’re just salesmen. Perhaps you actually *have* to send the iPhone to Apple?

I expected a lot more of the Apple store, too. It’s simply not good enough to fob off my father with “er, speak to o2″ shite. Being an Apple customer is a universal experience. Well, it’s meant to be. In my experience, it has been. My MacBook Pro stopped working a day after I bought it, so I returned it to the store and it was replaced in 10 seconds, no quibbling, no arse. That’s one of the main reasons why I continue to be a customer.

Somewhere along the lines, good old British ‘can’t be f*cked’ customer service has entered the Apple UK psyche. For them to actually turn my father away — effectively tell him to piss off and stop troubling them — indicates that all is not well with the organisation.

I know it’s a slightly different issue with an iPhone. Got a problem with a Nokia? Here’s a new one, replace the SIM card and you’re done. Got a problem with an official o2 iPhone? Well, I’m not quite clear on what jiggery-pokery you need to do in order to activate a new o2 UK iPhone with an existing o2 UK iPhone account. Whatever the challenges, it’s not good enough to leave the customer sat staring at the wall without working service.

Further, it’s the height of nonsense to insist you send your iPhone to Apple to get repaired. This is a TELEPHONE we’re talking about — a critical piece of communications equipment — and a highly priced piece of equipment together with a premium monthly payment.

Absolutely ridiculous.

We will (my brothers and I) in true British blitz-spirit, sort it out. We’ll weather the shite at the o2 shop in the next few days when Martin digs out the receipt and then hopefully get it all resolved.

No thanks to o2 or Apple, at all.

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  • maverick

    i’ve been an o2 customer for three years and and bought my phone from the online o2 store but have been to a retail store and just had to give my details as mentioned in regards vodafone i think the ASSistant your father had was just useless prick

  • http://nokiageek.com Matt @ Nokiageek

    It’s the whole issue with after sales service at retail stores though. ‘Gonaa buy something? No? Well I’m not going to help you because that takes time out from my day when I could be earning commission.’

    It’s one of the main reasons why I left working in retail. I was sick of my boss bollocking me for trying to help people who had genuine problems.

  • http://normob.blogspot.com HeavyLight

    Rory Cellan-Jones, just back from Las Vegas for dot.life (“a blog about technology from BBC News”), has a great write-up of his normob experience with an iPhone.
    He loves it, when he’s within wifi coverage and downloaded 72MB in three weeks!
    But there’s always a sting…
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/technology/2008/01/the_iphone_great_at_home_lousy.html

    “Paging, Pat Phelan!”

  • Mike

    Wow – what a fantastic, lucid rant Ewan.

    I think that the UK bosses of both O2 and Apple should this very morning be kicking some ass.

    I’ve had mixed experiences with Apple customer service and the whole UPS way of handling returns, but on th whole it’s good. I’ve had CSR’s make outside-the-box decisions to remedy problems that haven’t fitted their scripts, and it’s nice to interact with people who do obviously care. I’d like to think your dad just had an unlucky string of edjits in his path.

    Bit extreme to ditch all the Apple love thiugh?

    Crikey.

    Mke

  • Ewan

    Thanks Mike — it’s possibly a bit extreme to ditch Apple — my father is having none of it. I’ve tried highlighting the good points but he’s (rightly) absolutely annoyed that when he needed the “Apple goodness”, it was 100% nowhere to be found. I myself still have my MacBook Pro!

  • Mike

    and another thing…

    “Further, it’s the height of nonsense to insist you send your iPhone to Apple to get repaired. This is a TELEPHONE we’re talking about — a critical piece of communications equipment — and a highly priced piece of equipment together with a premium monthly payment.”

    Ah. er, um…I do think there was a smidge of O2/Apple rightness here. As I understand it, about 30% of handset returns to operators for problems are ‘No Fault Found’. i.e. they put the handset into their logistics system, it goes to a test house, is run through a battery of tests, and according to the diagnostics machine, there’s nothing wrong with the hardware.

    Now this does not exclude USIM, Network or Account setup problems. What it does tell us is that about one third of the time the problem lies somewhere between the handset UI and the user’s brain. Who’s fault that is is a can’o’worms in itself.

    Introduce an elemement like PC-based activation, where your home PC, broadband connection, the server at the other end and the MNO’s account management systems all have to play nice, and there’s a *lot* more to go wrong. I believe all this has been well-documented in the past, both in the US and here.

    I have it on good advice that putting a handset through this returns process is not cheap – think €100 a shot that they can’t pass back to the customers, and you see why MNO’s want to minimise any returns at all. They don’t encourage returns, they want it to work first time.

    Also, having replacement handsets in-store to hand out to customers is a real cost to the MNO. If I were managing the flow of iPhones in and out of stores I’d be really keen not to be easy with them. Sure, your dad had the backup of Clan MacLeod technical might and righteousness, but if they gave new iPhones to everyone who walked in & demanded their bottom line would be in the , er, toilet.

    So to this end, what makes more sense – for Apple to take your iPhone back for a few days to test, or to give you a new one on the spot, bearing in mind that if there’s no fault, they’ve just lost a handset they will never be able to sell as new again?

    I spot an Applecare iPhone support add-on in the brewing…

    Cheers,

    Mike

  • http://normob.blogspot.com HeavyLight

    You’re making a good point, Mike.

    But, particularly from the point of view of a non-technically astute, boring-old-normob, if the phone doesn’t function the way the customer expects it to pretty much out of the box (or at least without them having to become an enthusiastic techie), then the “fault” lies between the manufacturer and whoever sold them the phone.

    It really doesn’t matter if it’s a hardware / software / network problem or just that the normob has misinterpreted the poorly written user guide and can’t easily find help.

    Just imagine buying a new tv and having to search through web forums, exchange emails with a support desk or taking it back to the store, just to figure out if you’re doing something stupidly wrong or that the unit is broken? And then being told you’ll have to wait hours to speak to someone who might be able to find out.
    Why should it be any different with a phone, let alone one that’s unique selling point is it’s radical user interface!

    The solution in my mind is for Apple (as, in this case, they’ll probably do the job better than O2!) to hire far more “geniuses” so that customers with problems can be dealt with effectively and efficiently. And for a well-staffed problem-solving hotline. It’ll be expensive to set up but after all, the operator knows there’s a good chance you’ll churn within 24 months, whereas Apple want you as a happy and loyal addict^H^H^H^H, sorry, user for life!

  • Ewan

    Had it been me with the iPhone in the Lakeside store, I’d have gone to the (conveniently located) cinema to pass the time and then met with one of the geniuses to get a replacement. My father just had rather higher expectations of service.

  • AJ

    Good luck with Dell customer service by the way – based on personal experience Mr MacLeod is in for a big shock with that one.

  • Pierre

    I think you should be able to pre-book your iPhone, have it activated by the Apple store, and not leave the store without a working phone – or your money back guaranteed. Apple are great, but this part stinks.

  • Mike

    I think the article was too long. I stopped reading after the first 4000 paragraphs. Be smart. Be concise.

  • Harris

    I’ve got to say I completely with your father on this. I’ve owned a number of differenet accounts from different operators (simultaneously), and the only one that has stuck with me is a Vodafone account. Why? Well an example from last week my new phone (Nokia E90) arrives and I can’t get the 3.5G data service to turn on. I phoned VF support, talked to a polite and inteligent person, walked through some diagnostics, resets, etc. to no avail after 20 mins of this, they ask where I’ll be tomorrow, I respond saying I’ll be at my home office. Then 9:30am the next morning delivery guy arrives and swaps out the phone for a new one (which worked).

    Would I like an iPhone – Yes. Am I willing to put up with a userous tarriff and poor service – No. So I’ll stick with what I have, until I can get a legitimate unlocked iPhone at a reasonable price (and preferably 3G!).

  • mike

    @Mike 17th 5:57pm:

    Ewan took the time to do a very clear post that laid bare a major failing in the Apple/O2 customer handling flow. Skim read if you don’t have the time,but don’t assume the post wasn’t smart just because it was long. Folk appreciate the time taken here by Ewan, Ben, James, Ricky & Krystal to promote thoughtful discussion. Sometimes good things take time, eh?

    The other Mike

  • Daisy

    I just came across this post by random (going to check the rest of the site now) and thought it was brilliant. I really enjoyed reading about your family.

    I had problems with my Iphone when I first got it. It was a speaker issue. However, I bought it from Apple online, mainly to get the airmiles for online shopping (via airmiles.co.uk), but also I could not face going into an O2 shop. I just made an appointment online with a ‘genius’ in advance and when I went in they tried to fix it. I had to go back a second time, and the genius said there was a tool coming from the States which would fix it but he understood what it was like to not have a 100% phone so gave me a new one straight away.

    That said (re going into an O2 shop), I am very pleased with O2. Much better than Orange. I had very few issues but I did call a couple of times, and it was freephone to be connected to Apple for tech queries. I’ve since switched to O2 broadband..and they are brilliant. 8.5 years of broadband + more of dial up, I’ve never had such brilliant service.

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