Saturday, 27 October 2012

Capitalism isn't broken, it just doesn't give a shit

This is for fellow long-suffering Virgin Media customers but also for anyone who might one day have to rely on Richard Branson for their health care if the pirate ever succeeds in getting his hands on the bits of the NHS this government is putting up for sale.

Our "package" with Virgin media comprises TV (including on-demand services), telephone and broadband , and costs us nearly £50 a month before we make a single phone call or rent out a single film. Since the summer we have had a really poor (slow and intermittent) internet connection and no on-demand at all.

At first we phoned customer service, following the instruction on the error message on the screen. It's always nice to chew the fat with someone in Bangalore who is reading mechanically from a script - don't you find?- so we kept calling, and kept being told to "switch it on and off again". We did each time, because you could not progress through the phone call without abiding with this ritual first,  and nothing ever changed, apart from the explanation for the fault: sometimes there was a fault in the entire area that was being dealt with and sometimes it was just...our fault.

Eventually the Indians must have got tired of speaking to us and agreed to book an engineer's vist.

The chap duly turned up last Saturday and competently enough diagnosed that the strength of the broadband signal was too low because a box outside our house (shared by many other subscribers) needed to be upgraded by " a network team". He said that he would pass it to the team and expected the issue to be dealt within two business days.

When nothing happened on the Tuesday we called the chap again and he put us in touch with Keith Best, who apparently deals with complaints once they have been escalated all the way up from Bangalore to the office of the CEO, Neil Berkett.

Keith Best fobbed off my husband several times : he said the work would be carried out on Wednesday, then on Friday, each time promising to phone him back to keep him in the loop and never doing so.

So far so grimly familiar and banal.

But here's the kicker people: when you call Keith Best at the work number he gives out to customers, permanently switched off of course, he invites you to "please leave a message and I will get back to you at my earliest convenience".

This illiterate chump who, let us not forget, works for the CEO of Virgin Media, is the highest authority figure the humble engineer who came to our house can escalate our problem to.

So we have now gone full circle: we are currently paying for hot air (what else do you call non-flowing internet juice?) and, after months of conversational niceties with Bangalore,  having managed to get someone round to diagnose the problem, are now in the hands of British-based but unavailable customer service chumps who may call us back at their earliest convenience but on the whole do not.

Believers in the magic fairy dust of the free market would at this point encourage us to switch to a different operator but there is no other operator covering our area. We were with the dismal NTL because there was no choice and we are now with the dismal Virgin Media (which took over from the dismal NTL) because there is still no choice, bar getting SKY involved (huge dish, money to Murdoch, nah...).

Should there be two operators, or even three, you can be sure that, like with the energy companies, they would only ever be inspired to be as expensive and as bad as each other, not  a penny more, not a fruitless call to Bangalore less. Another note for those innocent fairy dust believers: there is no meaningful competition when there is little choice, untransparent price structures, impossibly complex 'packages' and, under any circumstances, no redress.

All of this means that there is no incentive whatsoever (given that pride in a great product and customer satisfaction  are alien concepts for these empty corporate suits) for Virgin Media to shape up, improve its service or even just provide the service they so efficiently take our money for.

They will call us back at their earliest convenience - when you actually think about it, it's not a Freudian slip, it's an unapologetic statement of fact, the only time in fact we have been told the truth.

Please reflect on this and join whatever campaign you can find, write to your MP etc etc to avert a situation when, in a not too distant future, as a patient whose cancer is metastasising and whose operation has been put off three times, you might find yourself at the receiving end of one such phone messages from the chimp put in charge of the Virgin NHS Customer Service, ooops, I mean Patient Care team.

Please also note that there is nothing broken with this model of capitalism. It does what it says on the tin. It delivers huge profit margins to shareholders and grotesque salaries to its CEOs. Just don't trust it to ever run anything you care about or on which your life depends. Whether you are a paying customer or a patient the cost of whose treatment still comes out of the taxpayer's pocket, you do not count. It doesn't care about you. It doesn't have to. No one and nothing is making it do so and it will never change if left to its own devices.