For a little over four months now, our nine-year happy relationship with Airtel has been under a lot of stress. We’ve been plagued by an awful internet connection that drops as frequently as it slows down. If one of us is using the internet to upload a video to Facebook or backup to Dropbox, the other has to wait around, because the connection becomes unusable, even to browse a static website.

Our work is mostly on the internet, and one of the reasons we opted for and stayed with Airtel is because of their fast, stable connection speeds even when multiple devices were connected. Two years ago we worked on a project that had seven of us accessing the same 4 Mbps line, and we didn’t face the slightest hitch. We have since upgraded to an 8 Mbps line, with never more than two laptops and one iPad connected at any time.

About four months ago we started noticing frequent connection drops and high latency when uploading files. Our internet was pretty much unusable. So we made a call to Airtel to raise a service request. What has since followed is a fascinating primer on how to piss off even your most loyal customer. And one we just couldn’t resist sharing with you. There are lessons here for all of us in the service industry.

Lesson 1: Make it super simple for your customers to connect with you.

Airtel’s IVR isn’t bad as IVRs go. But a connection is more than the system you use. If Airtel schedules a call with you, chances are they won’t call when you ask them to. Then they’ll make things worse by texting that they couldn’t connect because you didn’t answer your phone. Calling back is pointless; they’re calling from the IVR, and the call won’t go through.

Lesson 2: Don’t document conversations if you’re going to ask your customer the same series of questions the next time they call.

Airtel’s customer service has informed us on several occasions that their dashboard captures customer history at a glance. They tell you this with pride. So when you call Customer Service, they have all the information they need about you at their fingertips including all the service requests you’ve made. Which begs the question, why does every single Service Executive ask you to explain the same problem all over again, every single time? And why do they record conversations for ‘quality and training purposes’ if they have no intention of ever using these recordings?


Lesson 3: Synchronise your support or direct your customer to the same Service team each time they call.

One of the weirdest things about Airtel’s service set up is just how disconnected it is. You’d expect a company with millions of customers to invest in technology that made things easier for their customers and not difficult. When you call their IVR number, you are connected to a different person each time. This person diligently documents your call, and yet the next person you speak to seems clueless about your problem, even if you last called an hour earlier. They ask you to mail screenshots and videos to a shared email address managed by different people, and you end up with random responses that often have no relevance or connect to your problem.


Lesson 4: A complaint is NOT resolved until your customer, and you agree it’s resolved.

We’ve made about 30 if not more complaints about our shitty internet over the last four months, and fascinatingly every single one of these complaints has resolved itself. Magically. Without us, the customer, even in the loop. Sometimes even Airtel Customer Service isn’t in the loop. Apparently, everyone in the Airtel Engineering team has a magic wand that allows them to resolve problems without even looking into them. And Airtel Customer Service never seems able to explain. Gremlins maybe?


Lesson 5: Don’t be condescending to your customers (or anyone).

Your customers are not idiots. Don’t throw technical terms at them, especially terms that make no sense contextually, in the hope they won’t ask any more questions. Or even worse, tell them it’s a technical problem and they won’t understand. We’ve had Service Executives ask us to switch on and switch off our modems and check to see if the green light is blinking irrespective of whatever our problem is.


Lesson 6: Hire people who are willing to explore outside the lines to solve a customer problem.

Ever have a Service Executive or Engineer tell you whatever your problem, they can only colour within company lines. We’ve had both Airtel engineers who visited tell us they can only check for parameters defined by Airtel. If all is well on the Airtel dashboard, all is well. Because you got it, the magical Airtel dashboard doesn’t lie.


We would have loved if these Service Executives and Engineers listened to us, rather than just touted the Airtel line every single time. And when we replicated the problem for them, at the very least we would have expected them to consult with their peers and managers to understand and research possible reasons and how to solve them. And get back to us. Keep us in the loop. Never happened.

Lesson 7: If you ask a customer to make time for you, make sure you show up.

Of the six engineers or so that called for an appointment, only two showed up. Of the ten or so Service staff that asked for call times on social media, only one followed up until she had a conversation with us.


Lesson 8: Train your team to follow through.

We have spent hours on the phone with different people from Airtel, the last of whom called us a week or so ago. By then we’d given up and started shopping for another service provider. (OH JOY!) So we told her that while she was welcome to do what she needed to, it wouldn’t affect our decision. She insisted she wanted to help, to prove we were wrong about Airtel she said. To retain us as customers.

Whatever she said or did internally did result in an engineer coming over and spending close to an hour with us. He also set up a test modem. This was on June 21. Other than that, nothing. No update, no follow up call to check in or find out if the problem has been resolved.

Lesson 9: Don’t make promises you cannot keep and make sure your people don’t either.

Seth Godin says that the best way to build a brand for the ages is to keep your promises. Or not make promises at all. Since this circus started, we’ve had promises made to us by Service Executives, Team Leaders, Floor Managers and even Site Engineers. We were offered refunds and upgraded speeds that did not materialise, onsite support that more often than not did not turn up (remember the magical self-resolving dashboard?), test modems, one of which finally appeared four months after it was first offered as a solution.

One of the Engineers who called told us very candidly that he didn’t think our problem would be resolved because Airtel only escalated a problem when 50 or more customers complained about the same thing. He suggested we ask for an upgrade to a higher speed at the same price because the upgrade came with updated firmware that would solve our problem. That this was the shortest route to resolving our problem.

Lesson 10: Don’t take your most loyal customers for granted.

We’ve been with Airtel nine years, almost as long as Airtel’s broadband service has been around, most of them pretty amazing. We used to tout Airtel’s service at a standard and are disappointed and angry about how little they value us as customers. And their absolute lack of interest in solving a problem that has persisted for four months.


How would we do things differently?

For one thing, we would ensure that our customers signed off on every single service ticket raised. Relatively easy to set up via SMS. We’d synchronise our support ecosystem, make it easy for customers. We’d also have an escalation protocol, especially for tickets that remain unresolved or are repeated frequently. We’d invest in training our people to think outside the lines. To listen and to understand. To not offer empty apologies or make promises they cannot keep. We’d empower them to make decisions that solved problems rather than just go through a list, ticking off boxes like automatons.

As for our internet problem. It still hasn’t been resolved. We’re still facing the same intermittent connection drops, painfully slow speeds and high latency when uploading or downloading, even after the ‘test modem’ was installed. So if one of us is using the internet to backup or upload, the other has to watch, fascinated at this marvel of technology. To make things worse, we were set back almost three weeks when one of our laptops crashed. We’d turned off syncing to Dropbox because it killed the internet. A whole week’s worth of work gone. We’ve had to go without sleep to ensure we met deadlines. We’re still catching up.

Needless to say, the financial impact on our work and business has been pretty huge. We’d have moved service providers a lot sooner if the area we work from had options comparable to our Airtel connection from four months ago. More importantly though, for almost nine years, Airtel has been stellar. And you don’t walk away from stellar without giving them a chance to fix what could just be an aberration.

Hopefully, we should have chosen another service provider in the next week or so, which is very unfortunate because until four months ago, Airtel gave us joy.

We also know that when we post this primer and share it on our social channels, Airtel will get in touch with us, again. And ask us to explain the problem we’re facing, again. And ask us to allow them to assist us, again. And offer compensation and upgrades, again. And ask us to trust them, again. And ask us to believe that this time round our problem will definitely be solved, again.

What fun!

By Karina Varma

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