Thursday, December 6, 2007

I’ve just got off the phone with Garlands Debt Collection and Credit Management Services, and am pretty much spitting feathers with anger.

The story goes like this. Unbeknownst to me, the card from which Virgin Media are taking monthly payments runs out. It wasn’t my card – my Mum is my Company Secretary, and we used her card for this – so I didn’t notice. I am later told that Virgin emailed me, on a seven year old address (even though it is – or should be – fed through to my Gmail account), on 1 October and 30 October, to ask for payment. I get neither of these emails. I’ve done an exhaustive search through spam and trash, but I can’t find hide nor hair of them.

On 29 November, then finally send me a letter which arrives on 30 November and says:

“… we have recently been advised that the payment details you have provided us have been cancelled.

“As we have no valid payment details, your Virgin Media ADSL account has now been suspended. If you do not provide payment details within the next 5 days your account may be cancelled.”

I am, as Kevin can attest, livid, and I call up the first opportunity, the next day. I speak to Ashley, who takes payment for the £35.98 arrears by debit card, and sets up a direct debit so we’re not put in this position again. This is all annoying, but it’s not a big deal.

On the Sunday, our connection dies. I call Virgin Media again, and speak to Wayne, who tells me that whilst Ashley set up the direct debit, he forgot to unflag our account for disconnection. He reconnects us, and tells us that everything is fine.

Today, I get a letter from Garlands, threatening me with legal action over the arrears, dated 3 December. I am, as you can imagine, not happy. I ring up, and decide to record the call. For the sake of fairness, I tell them I am recording the call. The guy I speak to says that he has to check with a supervisor about that, so he puts me on hold. He comes back and says that they don’t accept calls being recorded. I tell him I’m going to record it anyway and can we just get on with it.

The hypocrisy here is that the very first thing you hear when you ring Virgin is that they might record the call, and I see no reason why a corporation should be able to refuse to have a call recorded. If they have the right to record me, I have the right to record them. But more importantly than that, they are threatening me with legal action. The fastest way to resolve this is by phone, and there is no way I’m going to have a phone call about a legal matter and not record it in some manner, especially given that Virgin Media’s customer service procedures are so deeply flawed. That’s just basic self-protection.

Anyway, I tell the chap from Garlands exactly what’s happened and he goes off to get his supervisor again, who’s called Julie. Julie gets off on the wrong foot entirely, forcing me to repeat my story. I am not happy. Julie’s attitude stinks: She refuses to listen to me, interrupts me continually, and then gets haughty when I get cross. She then checks the account and says that everything is in order. I ask her if she’s going to send me a letter confirming that fact. She says she won’t until the first direct debit has gone through, which will also be the point at which my arrears are paid off, despite me trying to pay them off last week by debit card. She says they don’t normally send letters out, but if I’m “demanding one” then they will. I tell them that yes, I am asking them to send me a letter. I may not get it until January, as it takes them that long to get their act together.

So all’s well that ends well. Except it’s not. There are so many things wrong with this whole affair.

I’ve been a Virgin customer for seven years, and I’ve never defaulted on a single payment, but that counts for nothing with them. Whilst the Virgin Customer Services guys, Ashley and Wayne were polite and friendly, even when I was cross, Julie was probably one of the rudest, most arrogant and obnoxious people I’ve had to deal with in a long time. She needs to learn to be quiet whilst people are talking, to stop interrupting and stop being an arse.

But really the problems here are at a fundamental, procedural level. Virgin Media simply should not be sending emails out to years-old email addresses about something like a missed payment. Email just isn’t that reliable, and unless you have an ongoing email relationship with someone – which they don’t – you simply can’t tell if they are getting your message. The first thing they should have done was send me a letter when the first payment was missed which politely explained the situation and told me how to remedy it, including giving me Customer Services number and instructions on how to set up a direct debit or add a new debit/credit card to my account.

One the second missed payment, they should send another letter, mentioning the first, and politely explaining that this is rather important that it’s all fixed before the next payment due date, which should be included. After that deadline passes then yes, escalate to the “We’ll cut you off if you don’t respond” type of letter.

But the first I know of this problem is a stroppy letter from Virgin. Not good.

Further more, sending out a letter threatening legal action just a few days after the first letter telling me I might get cut off is ludicrous. Virgin should give me a chance to act upon the first letter before giving my details to Garlands, and should ensure that they do not put people into the legal willy-waving system who have actually paid off the arrears and made everything right.

Julie took great pains to tell me that Garlands are not responsible for any of this, that they just do as Virgin tell them, but I don’t buy that at all. If they are getting confused and angry phonecalls from people like me who have taken the appropriate action and made good, then they need to be telling Virgin that the procedure is flawed, that they are being asked to act on accounts that are no longer in arrears. Julie’s attempt to abdicate responsibility for this does not wash at all, although it does fit with her shitty attitude.

The absurd thing about this is that Virgin are wasting money by not thinking through this through more thoroughly. Yes, an early letter costs more than an email, but I would have sorted the problem out there and then, and all would have been well. Even if I hadn’t sorted it out and they’d still sent the Nov 29th letter, they should have given me more time to act before forwarding me on to Garlands. They pay Garlands for every account chased, I would imagine, and they just wasted money having me chased when I’d already fixed the problem.

Garlands clearly don’t give a shit – they’re getting paid and that’s all that matter to them. But even they could be saving money by not acting like pompous pricks on the phone. I’m not sure why I had to speak to Julie instead of the first – and more polite – chap who answered the phone. Perhaps it’s because I said I was recording the call. (But frankly, what goes around, comes around. Suck it up, Garlands.) But whatever the reason, if Julie learnt to keep quiet, let the customer talk, and then politely explain what’s going on, she could have cut that call time in more than half. Instead of a 12 minute call, it should have been a 2 minute call – me explaining, and them saying “It’s all fine, sorry for the inconvenience.”

You can get through a lot more calls a lot quicker if you’re just nice to the person who’s calling, no matter how cross they are. Start off by apologising, and stay pleasant the whole way through the call, and by the end of it the caller will be calm and may even apologise to you for being cross. (I’ve done that myself – ring up feeling livid, then end up apologising for being a bit cross because the person on the other end of the phone was so nice.)

But the bottom line is that Kevin and I are now going to look for another ISP. Virgin Media have done worse than waste money, they’ve pissed me off, and maybe even irreparably damaged a previously good relationship. Collection agencies almost by default are a bunch of assholes. They often deal with people who lie, cheat and/or are broke, and so they return shitty behaviour with more shitty behaviour. Virgin need to understand that when they escalate a situation to a collection agency that they most likely will lose that customer. No one likes to have financial attack dogs loosed on them and legal threats made.
I have Twittered liberally about my thoughts regarding Virgin Media, and I shall not hesitate to tell anyone who asks just how incompetent they are. Their accounts escalation procedure is broken, and if they go from zero to legal action in less than seven days, they can expect to lose a lot more customers. I’m not an “A-list” blogger, but who knows how many people will read this and decide against using them as an ISP. And all for what? A bit of common sense and politeness.

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