big business · choices · growing up · keep trying

Mafia-style ‘service’

I want to preface this blog by saying that I know this is a complaint about luxury items in life and to assure you that I know that unfortunately there are thousands of people in the world who are without the basics like access to clean water and a roof over their heads. I also know that I have blogged before about my guilt concerning multi-national businesses, like giant coffee shop chains, and how I want to do the right thing and shop more locally but how I often slip and gravity to the consumer giants.  So what follows is a middle-class, middle-aged rant from a place of privilege and I am sorry about that.

This is all about the frustrations of interacting with the big ‘service’ providing giants. The ones that we choose to give our money in order to get on with things in our lives. The problem is that I feel like the very notion of us being able to make choices is increasingly risible today – be it friends who are held hostage by Southern Rail (to be clear I personally am on the side of the hard-working employees being driven to desperate strike action), to our car insurance and broadband companies.

Take a dear friend of mine. She has been guiltily handing over her money to Rupert Murdoch’s Sky for a number of years in order to enjoy a wider a range of television programmes. She also relies on them to provide her with the more essential phone and broadband service in her life as the linked in offers were too good to ignore. After yet another round of issues with her Sky+ box, and the resulting indifferent customer service, she finally decided to go through the hassle of signing up with Virgin. She had tried to do this a number of years ago, only to find out the day before expected installation that they were, in fact, unable to provide service to her flat. Well, after a very welcoming initial interaction with Virgin – after all they wanted her £50 a month – she has had the same problem again. Yes; three weeks after signing up, giving notice at Sky and eagerly waiting for her new Tivo box to replace the by now almost unusable Sky+ Box (which Sky were refusing to replace without a fee), Virgin texts her the night before installation to say that they can’t provide the service the following morning, rather that she will have to wait another 8 weeks. This would leave her without the extra TV channels – a luxury, certainly – for 2 months but also Broadband and telephone services which are a bit more important, especially if the only cost-effective way of keeping in touch with your family in a different country is via Skype. Now, in case you were worried about her being left in the digital wilderness, I can report that Sky have very graciously agreed to welcome her back price-matching Virgin and sending her a new box (in 16 days time) – both things which were not made available to her as a 9 year-long customer until she departed from them.

Which is my point. She is told constantly that she lives in a world full of digital choices and freedoms but in the end has found out she is reliant on one provider who will treat her with any decency as a customer if she gives notice to leave them and then returns. This is not choice, or even fairness. The other company can’t even be bothered to look at her case until less than 10 hours before they were due to install her service and then were confused when she asked for her deposit back and didn’t want to continue waiting for the installation to take place.

I’ve had my own issues with Broadband this week. I’ve been working with a mobile dongle for years as a way of saving on line rentals. I’m on my second dongle in six years. This meant that I naively thought I would be able to get a replacement sent to me now that my current one (nearly three years old) is becoming unreliable. But no, I am mid contract. I was therefore told I would have to pay for my new dongle. Now, to be fair, I could afford the £50. And, to be equally fair, my indecision about whether I wanted to take up this offer meant that I was transferred to another department and after over an hour on the phone, I have ended up with a deal for real broadband that will cost me less per month than the slow, capped mobile service (though I will, as is apparently standard in our digital world at the moment, have to wait three weeks for them to install it). I was let out of my contract a year early but have had to sign up to a new one for another 18 months. This means that I will be staying with the provider about whom I already have a lot of misgivings but who gave me an offer that I couldn’t refuse….

It’s like my car insurance. Nearly two years ago I was involved in an incident whilst parking where my car and another persons were damaged. I believe that the other driver was at fault and she believes that I was. For over a year our insurance companies argued about this in a suitably lacklustre fashion. But in the end my insurers took the blame on my behalf. Not half the blame as I had been warned I would probably have to expect, all of it. Because they ‘knew’ that the other company wouldn’t back down (Tesco apparently fight for their customers) and taking it to the next level (court) would be too costly. I get the argument but I am the one who now has a blame decision on her otherwise spotless driving record. I now have a huge hike in my premiums, even though my no claims discount was supposedly protected. So, when a double-what-it-had-been-before quote for renewal came through I was almost delighted to go online and see if I could get a better price elsewhere. I could. Choice was working in my favour. I could knock off over £150. I then had to ring up my provider to ensure that they didn’t take my renewal premium. Guess what, they could magically reduce my quote after all and it was £1 less than the cheapest quote of their competitors. I wish I could say that I told them to stick their £1 and went to the alternative, but I didn’t. I took the deal. I felt that I had no choice – like it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

And that’s the thing, we often get the ‘best deal’. We are good enough consumers that we know to follow the bottom line and save ourselves the money. But at what cost? We feel like we’ve been in a battle where we were the mugs, the people who had no choice but to stay in the ‘service’ of the Godfather or other mafia-style big companies. Yes, we are so lucky and privileged to drive cars and have televisions with hundreds of channels but in doing so we are stuck being bullied by these organisations.

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