The Danger of Dismantling (Digital) Learning

More than once or twice in the last few weeks I’ve been on the defensive about education, particularly in dialogue with industry folks in the digital sector. So here’s a bit of a brain dump.

There’s a problem at the moment – but it’s not quite as straight forward as you might think, and there’s certainly some misinformation fuelling some of the traffic – and decisions being made by young people, parents and employers are to some extent being informed by some significant propaganda proposed by a powerful vocal group whose interests may only reflect their personal short-term financial gain and not long-term issues.

Why did I go to University? I can’t remember why now. I know there was an expectation that I would go, and that I was going to be a rare thing because only about 5% of the population went to University. Fast forward more than 25 years and around 45% of the population now go on to study at university level. Whatever you think about fees, loans, debt and so on, there has been a marked increase in access to higher education – some folk think that’s not required and that it’s a waste. Other people think it’s only fair that anyone who wants a bash at Uni should be able to have a go.

Many people have talked about declining standards (usually the same people who think GCSEs have got easier – until they are asked to do some of the questions themselves: just you have a go at that GCSE maths paper if you’re not a mathematics person and you’ll see how demanding it is).

Standards haven’t declined – what’s changed is the range of performance, and also the level of work that’s used to get people the education that works. Compared to my time at Uni, there’s a massive amount of work that goes into supporting learners – staff who are trained to teach, who are up to date in their field, who have practitioner experience, who spend time with industry as well as engage in research.

As a practitioner who works in a University, I’ve spent a long time constantly updating and improving the experience and the knowledge that we pass onto students. My grads go out with skills they can use instantly as well as talent they can draw upon for decades to come. One thing hasn’t changed – and that’s what University has always been about – and that is that graduates are also ‘trained thinkers.’

Something I often hear – “University isn’t preparing graduates for work” – often by people who haven’t seen what I’m doing. Often by people who came from a University a long time ago. What they mean to say is – “Some CVs we have looked at don’t say that person X knows how to use software Y”.

University isn’t about learning how to use software Y. University should mean that person X will be able to use any software in the future, because they have some deeper, intrinsic thinking that allows them to adapt to any new situation. As a trained thinker, they will be ready to adapt to a situation, develop a new behaviour, acquire a new skill quickly when it is needed – because they have this deeper grounding that means they can do this for the rest of their working lives.

Which brings me on to the danger of the new panacea – apprenticeships.

Plenty of lads that I knew at school went on to do apprenticeships when I went off to Uni – particularly in an oil-industry town I came from. I’d come home and they’d be showing me their new motorbikes and cars. They had cash, skills and everything even a few years after I graduated – they were clearly well off and they had skills.

Then the arse fell out of their world – new technology, change in the law, whatever. Suddenly they were out of jobs. Their skills were highly specific, very linked to a technology which a disruptive event rendered obsolete. And to put it bluntly, they struggled to get work because there were engineering graduates who had not only got experience in the work place, they had also got the ‘trained thinker’ grounding that made them adaptable and ready. The guys who had been apprentices had no chance despite having been on some of the most excellent apprenticeships ever.

The danger of apprenticeships is that some are being sold as “an alternative to University” to people who would very reasonably benefit from a University experience. The use of scaremongering language regarding debt and fees is prevalent.

I don’t doubt the value of an apprenticeship but there is very little information on the drawbacks of such an approach – for all stakeholders, especially the apprentice. The curricula around the programmes is dominated by experiential learning of repetitive, operational tasks.

There is some doubt about the validity of the knowledge. I spoke to one young apprentice last week who was unhappy, because he felt that he was learning about one way of doing things – the company way – yet he had heard from people elsewhere that they were doing it differently, but he was not being exposed to that experience because “that’s not how it is done where I work.”

Where is this all going?

  • Universities are changing so it’s important that you base any remarks and opinions on the modern, contemporary University and not the mid-range 20th century white tower you may remember.
  • Apprenticeships, especially in the digital domain, have yet to be proven so they cannot be a panacea
  • More needs to be done at 16 – 18 so that people understand what they should be going to University for and there are plenty of people who should not be going to University.
  • Companies pick their apprentices – whereas students choose their University. That has an impact on outcomes.
  • In all cases, the raw material (the apprentice or student) is the most significant factor in the equation. There are students who just aren’t that good – and it’s no reflection on what University experience they’ve had – but they can wing it for 3 or 4 years. A duff apprentice won’t last long in a firm so you’ll only ever see the innately good ones succeed. I get judged on the raw material whether I like it or not.

What’s clear is that there is a massive sea change in education. Unfortunately it will be at some young people’s expense either way.

NEXT TIME – the difference between education and training

The eBay Experiment and 21st Century Luddites

About 2 years ago, I suggested in a guest lecture at a company flogging a e-commerce platform to prospective clients that eBay was a natural platform to run an Internet retail business. There were sound business reasons to do so (although naturally the platform vendor wasn’t exactly wild on the idea).

Fast forward to the present and eBay is replete with big brands and small businesses exploiting the eBay proposition with  a great deal of success. eBay offers great coverage. It’s a site that various search engines’ algorithms acknowledge to have some clout (through all their various elements, including social signifiers) and therefore items that are offered on there can receive substantial uplift in their visibility – on eBay itself and on search engines too. Let’s say you’d be mad not to give it a go.

So think about the situation some internet retailers have found themselves in recently. Chatting with some of these entrepreneurs who are keen on British and European design, I got to find out about attitudes of suppliers to these retailers. A few years ago, they said they would find it difficult to get some suppliers to sell them stock ‘because they were not a real shop’. This, despite upfront payments and not by account. Fast forward again a few years and the situation has changed. But not in a meaningful way.

One retailer described how a supplier wouldn’t allow them to stock a product range, “because your eBay shop cheapens the brand.” This from a brand that is regularly found in TKMaxx at the end of the season (or during the season even). I’m not decrying TKMaxx because I think it serves an important purpose, but when you consider that many retailers on eBay sell their full ranges at full RRP, you have to question the currency of some product and brand owners thinking.

Another retailer was obliged to sell the goods from one brand at full price on their website (“maintains brand equity in the mind of the purchaser“) whilst the same brand owner also allowed Amazon to retail the product at one or two pennies above wholesale price, and whose products subsequently found their way into the cheap shelves at every Sainsburys. I don’t blame Sainsburys one bit for grabbing this bargain

At a time when shops are shutting down all over the UK, you have to ask why product and brand owners are stuck in this mindset. One brand claimed that web sites and eBay stores were “difficult to police compared to being able to vist a real world high street store.” Sending a rep around 1000s of little shops sounds like hard work compared to an afternoon clicking on several hundred very visible web sites and eBay stores.

We just want to support the British High Street,” claim the manufacturers and brands. Well it’s clearly worked so far. These brands clearly have no understanding about what customers really want. Plenty of research states that people defer to Internet retail and eBay not because it’s cheap but because that’s the place where the bloody goods are. It’s not online or eBay that’s killing the High Street – it’s the customer experience, including customer service, parking, product availability and so on. Comet had a web site – didn’t save them.

How about making sure your precious brands are manufactured in the UK instead if UK jobs are so important? After all – these goods aren’t cheap. Surely there’s room in your margins to have goods made here. Here endeth the rant.

The Rumour about Amazon

I was chatting with a successful serial entrepreneur a few weeks ago about business. The person enjoys setting up businesses and running them till they a) fail or b) succeed and get sold on. He advises a lot of people on what to do when their business flops.

He had been talking to an industry contact who’d had a successful retail business and was complaining about the behaviour of Amazon. The implication was: goods that he had sold through Amazon Pro (I understood that he was effectively the sole retailer and was making a good trade) were now being sold directly by Amazon at a somewhat lower price. His complaint was that he felt that he had done Amazon’s market research for them, they had access to all of the statistics on his sales, he’d taken the risk on holding stock which head been fulfilled directly by Amazon’s advertised fulfilment service. As a result of paying for an e-commerce service, he’d effectively been undermined by the service provider who’d taken the business from underneath him. His stock ranked lower than their own on the site and in Google’s natural search.

All of this is naturally urban (digital) myth and hearsay – but looking through the circumstances there seems to be no reason why it might not have happened. If it’s true, then it’s a disappointing use of an organisation’s strong marketing position against much smaller players in the Internet Retail game. And if it is true, the warning comes – if you want to use a large organisation’s power to support your venture, you’d better be sure  they aren’t going to steal your idea.

Dropbox is a business built on Amazon’s infrastructure. Is the same thing likely to happen to them now they have proved demand for cloud storage and the competition for that industry hots up?

Where does Internet Retail Go for the Small Retailer Now?

As a casual observer and advisor to several small business who retail their wares over the Internet, this year has thrown up a few interesting thoughts that might point to the future of Internet retail for the small “shopkeeper”.

This year has already been tough on the high street, with household names as obvious casualties. Mary Portas’ recent review was perhaps a combination of “statin’ the bleedin’ obvious” combined with some less sensible ideas (Bingo? Seriously?).

But the dramatic reduction in business on the high street has not immediately translated into a boom in sales for the small retailer in the Internet retail world. A drop in sales in the high street, has anecdotally in my case, been reflected by a drop in sales online for small retailers.

This posting does not discuss the issues faced by large household names online, many of whom have seen a dramatic rise in people moving to a different channel – in particular shoppers who purchase across many different channels. In this area, one has to look at the rise in click-and-collect services made available by household name retailers and brands. But that’s a story for another posting entirely.

Casual observation of a number of small internet retailers (family operations on the whole) seems to point to a couple of things that are having a serious effect and produce difficult decisions about the 2012 trading year.

The Amazon Effect - Amazon has become the long-tail retailer of choice for many, and it’s possible to buy almost anything there.

The eBay Factor - As people become price-conscious, the apparent (yet flawed) view that eBay is where you can buy things cheaper than elsewhere, means that it’s the first point of call for many shoppers rather than using something like Google Shopping.

These two massive players have one thing in common – they have open marketplaces. It’s possible to ride on the luxurious search engine advantages of either and host one’s own business within their marketplace listings. Plenty of small businesses now pop up in Amazon as the supplier. eBay relies on eBay shops rather than just the C2C auction business. eBay isn’t the cheapest in many cases. Neither is Amazon, but both brands have a high level of trust amongst consumers. For many eCommerce/Internet retail is either Amazon or eBay, in the same way that Facebook has become the Internet for millions of people.

Anecdotally I’ve seen sales and traffic slump on dedicated eCommerce sites whilst I’ve seen a dramatic rise in sales through eBay and Amazon for small retailers. This has stark consequences for channel maintenance in 2012 – is it worth keeping a dedicated hosted Internet retail business or is it better to move the business into Amazon and onto eBay?

My view is that 2012 will be a difficult year for dedicated eCommerce Retail hosting services as many of their retail customers simply end hosting contracts and focus on the 2 channels that bring them all their business.

It will however be a good year for people who can customize eBay stores. Coding hats on!

Christmas 2011 and Giving

<Places humbug hat on head> It’s at this time of year all the Christmas cards start flooding in from people I know professionally and personally (including readers of this blog and Twitter followers).

I’m delighted to receive them, but if you’re expecting one from me please don’t be disappointed or unhappy if you don’t receive one. I don’t send Christmas cards to family, friends or colleagues. Arguably I’m a scrooge but I have a good reason not to do so. Rather than spend money sending cards to people, I give the money I would have spend on cards and stamps to the British Heart Foundation.

In 2005 my dad died suddenly, and very unexpectedly, from a massive heart attack. He was only 59. He was a very fit man, lean and healthy, and having had some good fortune was able to stop working in his early 50s. He worked some land he acquired in France growing fresh veg and fruit off which he pretty much lived – fine healthy food, great lifestyle – all that was correct. He’d been pronounced 100% fit 2 weeks before he died during his annual health assessment with his GP. The doctor on hearing of his death was astounded and could not believe it.

So he died of an unknown, undetectable, genetic heart condition. And that needs finding out and eradicating. It’s one thing to extend people’s lives but other people are dying too early. So I need to help to stop this. If you want to give too, you can do here.

Happy Christmas to you all. In the real world, I’ll see some of you and share a beer. In the virtual world I’ll speak to you too (maybe less beer) – a tweet, a Facebook conversation (hey I’ll go mad and do a Google+). Much better than a card. And much more personal.

Living with a Nokia Lumia 800 (or “Life after an iPhone”)

After having had an iPhone through many generations from the very start, my latest phone upgrade proved to be a challenge. Instinctively, like any Apple fanboi, you would expect that I would have simply gone to the iPhone 4S. But something irked me on this upgrade. I thought about the Samsung Galaxy Note, but something about the Nokia was calling me – it just seemed that bit more special.

So I’ve opted for the Nokia. It’s a Windows Mobile 7 device, which is supposed to save Nokia from destruction.

Having had it for 3 days and used it to the hilt, what do I think?

1. Battery life: it stinks – it’s almost as bad as an iPhone. But there lies the crux of the issue. It’s almost as bad as an iPhone, not as bad as an iPhone. I have to do the same things to make the battery last that I do with an iPhone. Turn off all the push services, turn off 3G (you can’t do that with an iPhone on Three – you’re trapped on 3G – but you can on a Nokia), set settings for minimal battery use. So actually the challenge goes back out to all phone manufacturers – make a phone that can use all its features for an entire day without dying. I was particularly sad that Nokia hadn’t achieved this – I remember my E61 lasting days and days on 3G. Nokia say an update coming this month will considerably improve battery life.

2. Windows Mobile experience – within minutes of starting up my entire online life was integrated. I could not believe the speed of access to my cloud data such as contacts. This is much more integrated and seamless compared to the iPhone. And the whole thing is very, very fast

3. Onboard apps – take a bit of getting use to as you’re relearning a way of working but I really like the simple clutter-free view of a lot of information.

4. Call quality – knocks iPhone into a cocked hat

5. Apps Marketplace – clearly not as a well developed as iPhone Appstore yet, but the key apps are there for me: 4square, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Train information etc….. but the built in access to a whole raft of services almost renders some of these unnecessary thought not quite. From a games perspective, it’s clear the XBox service is attracting developers. The KPI of Angry Birds being there has been clearly met.

6. Interface – part of experience I guess but it make IOS look a bit old fashioned now. The screen is beautiful.

Not sure what I miss from IOS yet. It certainly isn’t a problem having split away from “The Tribe”. More soon.

SMC_MCR: Is Social Media Cafe losing its Way?

I don’t write very often. Last night was a night of heightened passions at SMC_MCR. Helen Keegan (@heloukee) was the brave volunteer who wanted (I think) to talk about her experiences of observing the role of social media in motivating and leveraging the Occupy movement in the United States.

This would have been an interesting discussion in itself. SMC_MCR has always prided itself on being able to have interesting and diverse presentations on the role of technology (and in particular social technology) in people’s work and in people’s lives.

But I think the flavour of last night’s event was markedly different from any previous SMC. Indeed, I’d say that there was very little in the way of discussion on the role of social media or other technologies. Helen bravely pushed the contributions she’d seen with socially curated imagery from the events in America, along with various tweets. These would have been interesting to explore, but the audience (perhaps mea culpa here) wanted to simply explore the Occupy movement itself.

My view is that many people who attended SMC were not really interested in a discussion of the role of Social Media and other interesting mediating technologies – they were more interested in a discussion of ideology of Occupy itself.

Now sure that’s fascinating but I think it’s outside of the remit of the event. As one member of the audience declared, there was already a meeting about Occupy elsewhere in the city – and to paraphrase – this member of the audience thought that SMC having a similarly themed evening that prevented other Occupy-interested people from attending was a bourgeois ploy. With that I think the evening was set to become a political discussion about a political movement than a technologically themed discussion and how that technology supported a contemporary issue. And lacking something else to offer I guess I joined in as the wind-up merchant I am.

My views on Occupy are irrelevant in this post, but the danger of last night is that SMC essentially became a talk shop for liberal politics rather than the relatively politicly agnostic talk shop for interesting issues in technology that it should be. There’s nothing wrong with discussion and debate surrounding liberal politics and tactics. But the context of SMC is not the place for it.

Why is that dangerous? SMC_MCR relies on a good groundswell of regular and new members and participants to make it an engaging event. It needs support from differing communities within the City to make it work. It needs to be a place to network (networking is key for the business community as well as the social community). By becoming what it became last night, SMC runs the risk of alienating much of its core membership and ultimately suffer an untimely demise. Somehow it needs to find its way back to its roots – something of the social, digital and techie vibe that got people excited.

Some Thoughts on the 4Ps and Customer Centricity

A cracking debate on the relevance of the traditional Marketing 4Ps in contemporary digital marketing has broken out in several places on the Internet. The pro-4P lobby believe that in the rush to get online, many organisations are forgetting some standard rules and good practice, citing the 4Ps as an element of the marketer’s armoury that should be introduced and taken on board. Writers such as Dave Chaffey and Paul Smith have long (in Internet Time) promoted an evolved model with changes to the meaning and number of Ps in the equation.

The anti-4P lobby claim that the evolution of social media means that the 4P model (and its descendants) are increasingly irrelevant because they are centred around the marketer and the product and not around the customer and their world (I won’t use the word “needs” because that is a contentious point). This lobby believe that in a social media world, companies need spend less time selling their product and more time working out what customers would like them to do, and that focussing on how the business broadcasts, and decides what it’s offering is, is an outdated and irrelevant concept.

It’s essentially a worldview difference between “This is what we do” versus “What can I do for you?” The first view will tell you all about brand value and product attributes. The second view relies on customers deciding what those values and attributes should be.

With this in mind it’s interesting to look at the use of Twitter by two organisations competing in the same marketplace – Northern Rail (Northern) and Trans Pennine Express (TPE). Northern (often nicknamed #northernfail is plagued by ancient rolling stock which is slow and unglamorous. There are often problems. TPE has new, fast express trains, but it too suffers from delays, cancellations, overcrowding and so on.

Casual observation of the two Twitter streams shows a marked difference in the use of the medium. TPE clearly have the 4Ps in their sights and use their stream to communicate promotions. Dialogue is clearly between winners and entrants to competitions. Nothing wrong with that (textbook you might say), but I would argue that the vast majority of customers might prefer the Twitter stream to engage with them on their use and valuing of the product. But it is all about “The Sell”.

Northern clearly use the channel to engage with people who complain or who have problems with their train journey. Indeed they’re clearly monitoring the channel for key hashtags and phrases where their customer base congregates. Dialogue is (sadly) apologetic but it clearly engages with audience in the points where they want. TPE are much slower to respond (if at all) and I would argue they are not monitoring the channel in the same way as their rivals.

A perfect (if such a thing exists) take on this is the T-shirt company Last Exit to Nowhere (LETN). With occasional tweets about product, LETN spend a lot of time engaging with their audience in non-promotional ways. Tweets are often about film trivia (or extreme film nerdery). Facebook updates often follow the same structure. Very rarely is a promotional matter with regard to product dealt with, although it does happen – and this often around new product often based on engagement with the community on the product’s development.

What LETN shows is there is a small space for the 4Ps, but it certainly takes a back seat. Concentrating on customer centricity is what drives their traffic rather than a sales drive. Because LETN have a strong empathy with their customers (as opposed to the customers supposedly having any kind of strong affinity with the LETN brand), customers clearly engage because it’s about what they’re interested in, not what LETN are interested in selling.

Part 2: #Fail BT and a Failure of Customer Care

In Part 1 of the BT Customer Care Fail, we talked about a breakdown in customer care standards at BT over a relatively simple residential telecomms matter.

A couple of people read the blog (several hundred on the day) and it must have been read somewhere by BT. My last email to @BTCare asked them to initiate a formal complaint. Corporations often have a formal complaints procedure – in fact I set one up once precisely to stop people complaining: most people when they call want to let off steam – if you ask them if they want to initiate the formal complains procedure and say there will be forms to fill in, most people say, “no thanks – I just wanted to get it off my chest.” But I wanted the formality on this occasion. The flipside to a formal process is that it will make grown-ups sit in a room, take notes and document things.

The finality of the last email from @BTCare suggested that the Call Sign number was unrecoverable. But then a day later came this piece of really interesting mail from David, one of the Customer Care staff who’d been dealing with a lot of the emails.

I had raised this with our senior management stall within BT since my last e-mail as to be honest i felt this was not great customer service that we were providing to you. I have managed to get this reported as we should be able to provide our customers with the same number if they remain within the same exchange but it was our system and other issues that were stopping us from doing so.

In light of this i was able to raise this directly with our suppliers to see if they were able to put a fix into place and i am happy to say that they were able to do some tweaking and some changes and they have now been able to re-provide you the call sign service with your original number on it. We did do a test call but unfortunately we got no response so we are unsure if it is working at your end of if it was just that you were unavailable at the time of the call.

If you could please confirm if the service is now back up and running again as i will need to close down the orders on your account to show it as working or check why if it is not yet working.

Note the first couple of lines: you can see the first signs of empowered customer service, of a genuine person within the business. Work I did in the past with opening call centres showed me that great customer care is often about empowering individuals to make change happen, about allowing people at the coal face actually make a difference to the people who call them. You’ll note from Lisa Harrington’s comment on the blog that there is clearly some work to be done at @BTCare when trying to combine traditional contact centre process (telephones) with email and twitter contact management. Fundamentally everyone must be singing from the same hymn sheet, and at the same time, contact centre staff for all channels need to be empowered to make change when there are clear reasons to do so. Lisa’s also arranged to call me at a future date and I’ll write more about our discussion if appropriate.

If you want to see an empowered customer care outfit, take a look at US retail store Woot: they’ve recently been acquired by Amazon, and one of their staff made an excellent video which reflects their open and empowered culture (which the video actually suggests they would like to keep). Thanks to @KatieMoffat for that one.

And finally – the good news. The Call Sign is back. The old number has been restored. Mrs EB’s own culture of customer care can resume. You can buy things from New Rooms and call if there is ever a problem or (more likely) if everything is how it should be.

#Fail BT and a Failure of Customer Care

Bit of an epic this one – but if you persevere, you see a lesson for customer care. The lesson is train for consistency.

As many of you know, Mrs EB runs a successful online retail enterprise New Rooms Online (http://www.newroomsonline.co.uk). It’s her day job, it’s how she makes a living and she has many thousands of customers all over the world. If you haven’t bought a surprising little luxury from there yet, you should.

We recently moved house, wanting to take our phone number with us – we ‘ve actually moved closer to the BT exchange that covers our district (imagine the line speeds we’ll get – although more about that later) so under BT’s normal terms, that’s not a problem. I’m sure you can think of compelling reasons not to stay with BT, but to maintain the number through a house move, it SHOULD be the simplest option. Attached to that though is Mrs EB’s number for her business – an ancient product from a time gone by called BT Call Sign. When Mrs EB first started the online business, she asked BT what the easiest and cheapest solution would be – and they advised all those years ago that a Call Sign number would be best. Call Sign is basically a second phone number that comes in on your existing phone line – you know the second number is being dialled into by the a caller because it rings differently. Originally designed for families with teenagers who had friends ringing in all the time, it was quickly re-purposed and sold as a cheap second line for people who have businesses from their homes. Many business folk still use it. Even BT’s own page recommends it as a way of separating business and personal calls here and here.

In addition, I did not want to take BT’s broadband at the new property as O2 have a special deal for their mobile customers, reviews of service (especially customer service) are good and there’s a significant line speed offering.

In very simple terms (I have spoken to BT 4 times and have exchanged 10 emails with them. Here’s roughly how the story goes:

Mrs EB makes the first phone call request moving the phone line and Call Sign but dropping the broadband. The salesman wants to discuss options but she say I am the man with the answers and says they need to talk to me.

The second phone call requests moving the phone line and the Call Sign but dropping the broadband. Put through to second person. The salesman wants to discuss options. I describe the O2 offer. Salesman agrees it’s too good to miss but says I need to speak to home moves.

Speak to home moves. They say I need to cancel Broadband before I move phone line. Get put through. Broadband cancellation person asks why, I explain the above. They say I will need to pay a broadband termination fee of £25 “for administration and the removal of equipment from the exchange.” I am surprised and can find no obvious policy about this online (http://www.productsandservices.bt.com/consumerProducts/dynamicmodules/pagecontentfooter/pageContentFooterPopup.jsp?pagecontentfooter_popupid=26746&s_cid=con_FURL_termcharges) as we have cancelled well outside the minimum period. BT have yet to show me the information publicly about the £25 fee. I have no choice but to agree. The man presses buttons and I ask to be sent back to home moves…..

…Who then say I have to wait 24 hours before putting a home move order in because you can only have one order on your account at any time – and I have one cancelling Broadband.

I ring the next day asking to move our phone number and the Call Sign. I seem to speak to several people including an officious lady called Linda. She says in no uncertain terms that a Call Sign number cannot be moved as they are generated randomly by the Exchange (don’t ask). At this point, I feel it’s becoming personal. I tweet @BTCare with frustration (http://twitter.com/groovegenerator/status/15328631100)

@BTCare write back and ask me to send them an email – they say they can fix it, but hours later they let me down with this email:

Thank you for your e-mail.

I am sorry that you have had problems with my colleagues and trying to get the order placed to move your landline service to your new address.

I can confirm as advised by some of my colleagues that you cannot carry your call sign number over to your new address as this is just an add on to your landline number. The reason that you are being charged £25 to remove the broadband service from your line is because you do not wish to continue with the service and once a request is placed to cancel broadband we as an isp are charged to remove the service from the line and we therefore have to pass the charge on to you as the customer, the charge is to remove the BT equipment as the new owner may not want to have BT and this is why it has to be removed and if it is not it causes problems ordering broadband with BT or any other isp.

When an order is placed on an account to cancel or modify a service may not be then possible to place another order until the original order closes as this may cause either or both orders to fail. I can therefore confirm if you do move premises we cannot provide you with the call sign number at your new premises.

But whilst that email is being sent, Linda (our lady from earlier) leaves this message on 1571 (even though we don’t live at the house any more) : have a listen to this gem: @BTCare Caller

So two conflicting stories from @BTCare.

I email @BTCare and send them the audio from the phone call. This is the reply:

Thank you for your email dated the 08/06/2010 including the sound clip from BT. I tried contacting you by telephone however I have been unable to reach you so I left a voicemail informing you that I had called.

First off all Mr Edmundson Bird I want to begin by saying how sorry I am for any incorrect information you may have been given in the past.

I can confirm that if you do choose to continue your telephone service with BT when you move property that you will be able to carry your existing telephone number and call sign number with you.

As there is currently an order on the system to cease your broadband service on the 16/06/2010, you will need to wait until after this date to place your homemove order. I am very sorry that we are unable to place your homemove order at the moment however the broadband order will need to complete first of all.

After the 16/06/2010 please do not hesitate to contact me back and I will be happy to arrange the homemove order for you.

So – good news but I have to wait a week before they can move the phone number. I think we’re moving in a direction of sorts. I decide to go on holiday for a week seeing as there won’t be much in the way of movement. When I come back, I send an email to @BTCare asking them to move the two numbers. Here’s the reply:

I can confirm that I have placed an order to move your line. Order reference VOL011-34793031384. Your line will close on 25/06/10 at 1, Greenway, Fulwood, Preston, PR2 9TJ and it will activate at 16, Victoria Road, Fulwood, Preston, PR2 8ND on 28/06/10. All of your calling features will also activate on this day. I have checked the call sign part of your order and I can confirm that I can not guarantee that this number will activate at your new property. I can appreciate that we have given you conflicting information on this matter and I am very sorry for any confusion. However your order does include the number for call sign at your old address but does not have this information on the new address part of your order and this alarms me, as I am unable to allocate your call sign number to the new address. Our records state that this order is only possible on a home move to the same exchange and I can appreciate that you are staying in the same exchange. Please be advised that I will do all that I can so that you can so that you can retain your call sign number.

There are some alarming words in there aren’t there – words like “I am unable to allocate your call sign number” and “I will do all I can”? And on the 28th of June, our normal phone number is live but there’s no line for the business number. I drop BT a tentative email just in case it’s delayed or something. Here’s what come back:

I have checked the order that was placed by my colleague to move your services over to your new address and can confirm that the order has now fully closed off. Unfortunately having now checked the account it appears that when your services were moved to your new address a new number has been allocated to the call sign number. As my colleague advised we would do our best to retain your number however it has unfortunately not been possible to do in this case and i am sorry for any inconvenience this may cause.

Not really what we were hoping for. I write back, reminding them that they had committed to keeping the number on several occasions. I mention I’m not happy and feel that I need to engage with their formal complaints process – I’m not getting anywhere with the frontliners. This is what come back:

I appreciate that there was conflicting information given in relation to you being able to keep the call sign number and I can see that Paul advised you that it would be possible, however the last e-mail you received by my colleague that placed the order clearly advised you that it may not be possible to keep the number as in his e-mail he stated “I can confirm that I can not guarantee that this number will activate at your new property” .

The situation at this time is that we cannot provide you with the number that you previously had at your old address and the choice that is currently available is that you continue to use the call sign service with a new number or you can cancel the service of your account. There is nobody in BT that can get this number back as the department i work in has the best facilities to deal with enquires and resolve issues but it is not physically possible for us or anybody else to get the number for you. We do not guarantee any numbers or orders as all orders are subject to survey and availability as our services are used for residential use only as outlined in our terms and conditions it is breach of policy to use residential services for business purposes.

I have raised a complaint on your account in relation to your unhappiness that you could not keep your call sign number but as advised as it is not possible to get the number back there is nothing we can do to get it back.

That’s it. Note the corporate buck-pass with “….services are used for residential use only as outlined in our terms and conditions it is breach of policy to use residential services for business purposes.” More alarmingly, what happened to Rodney and Linda’s guarantees that I would be able to keep the number. And the finality THERE IS NOTHING WE CAN DO TO GET IT BACK.

It’s disappointing that simple customer care on a simple everyday matter for a telecomms business proves too difficult for @BTCare. The lack of attention to detail and the conflicts in understanding by the customer care team suggest very poor training – and BT should have no excuse given that they charge significant sums of money for their still relatively monopolistic position in the residential market.

Customer care are the frontline marketing force for a business, and when they don’t know what’s marketable, they present a risk to the rest of the organisation. With the rise of social media and organisations like BT taking on (allegedly) the social network view of customer care, things are going to have to change – especially as the opening up (unbundling) of the comms marketplace continues.

In other news – I can’t get broadband yet – but @BTCare’s David assures me I’ll be able to choose from a plethora of providers in 48 hours.