The last few weeks have given me an opportunity to sample signal examples of customer service from some of the largest names in retail businesses in India.
Airtel, for instance, one of India’s largest mobile services providers.
Sunday, 7th July 2019, around 4 PM (all dates and times in IST)
My mobile stops working. I panic as it is Sunday and I am slated to travel to the US for an extended period the same night. I call the helpline and am given to understand that I would need to visit an Airtel store to get the SIM (a small electronic chip that goes inside a mobile device and is an integral component of mobile telephony on GSM networks) replaced. Fortunately, there is one not far away from my house that is open on Sunday. I go to the store in Galleria Market in DLF Phase 4.
The attendant gives me a new SIM and says it would be operational in a few hours. I give him my Driving Licence as ID proof. He says that my picture on the Licence was slightly unclear and it could pose a problem in approval. In any case, if not accepted, he would get a response within two hours, their TAT for the service. He said he would track progress of the case and let me know later. As I was travelling overseas I also asked him to activate a month-long International Roaming plan after asking him if I should wait for the SIM to be active first. He said I could get the Roaming plan activated right away as the SIM would soon start working.
On my enquiring, he also told me that in the worst case, if the SIM does not work, I would not be able to get it changed while I was in the US.
Sunday, 7th July 2019, around 7 PM
As the SIM had not started working, and as I was unable to reach the attendant in the evening, I call the Airtel helpline again who tell me that no case of SIM update was registered with them for my number.
In the meantime, I get an email from Airtel confirming that the Roaming pack costing Rs. 3999- has been activated. Activated on a number that is inactive. Hmmm.
I manage to speak to the attendant later that might, perhaps after 9 PM. He says that ‘he could see on his end’, whatever that means, that the request has been registered and the SIM would start working as soon as I reach overseas. I do not have any choice but to rely on his word as I have a flight to catch just a few hours later.
Thursday, 11th July 2019, 9:09 AM
I am now in the US. Gingerly switch on my phone. Worst fears realised. Neither my old nor the new SIM is working. And I am here for more than 3 weeks. Unable to call as SIM is not working, I send an email to Airtel with a sequence of events, and further:
“…In the meantime, you are probably also charging me for the roaming pack for the US, while you have not been able to get my SIM to work. Can you please ensure that the SIM is working in the next 12 hours. If you are unable to do that, please ensure that I do not get charged for the Airtel roaming pack for which I have no use if the SIM does not work. A confirmation of the above request will be greatly appreciated. You will need to communicate with me on email or WhatsApp as the Airtel SIM is unable to connect to any service.”
Friday, 12th July 2019, 7:03 PM
Receive email response from Airtel:
“This is in reference to your email informing us about not being able to use SMS service on your Airtel mobile number 99930XXXXX post SIM change. I have gone through your account and found that your mobile number is active on a different SIM 899100090169066YYYYY.”
(My feelings: Thank you Airtel for keeping me informed about another customer who I neither know nor care for, while you try to get my number to work.)
The email went on to tell me many more things about the other customer’s SIM which I will not bore you with here.
Friday, 12th July 2019, 9:57 PM
Touched by their desire to tell me about the status of issues of other customers, I write back to them:
“Your understanding is incorrect.
- Which part of my mail did you understand as ‘not being able to use SMS service on your Airtel mobile number 99930XXXXX’?
- Whose number are you quoting in your email? It is not mine.
- I am already in the US. As my SIM is not working, neither old nor new, I cannot send you an SMS. You can only communicate on WhatsApp and Email.
- In my earlier email I have already specified the name of the location I went to and where I was given the new SIM. I don’t know why you are asking again? Can you get necessary details from them and not me. If they have been deficient in collecting documents, I cannot answer for that. I believe I have given a copy of my Driving Licence.”
Can you pls refer this request to someone who can read an email and understand the issue.
I repeat my earlier email:
Wednesday, 17th July 2019, 3:46 PM
Another email response, in keeping with elite standards of promptness (response received after 5 days) and accuracy (still talking about another customer’s issue):
“This is in reference to your email regarding delay in activation on your Airtel mobile number 99930XXXXX. I apologize for the inconvenience caused. Your feedback will enable us to enhance our services and service experience. Let me assure you that action will be taken to ensure that this is not repeated. I have checked our records and found that the services of your are active with effect from 14-07-209 and working fine. You may check your current plan benefits or change plan online via My Airtel App. To download the app, click http://www.airtel.in/5/nv.”
Wednesday, 17th July 2019, 3:54 PM
The same email again with an added line:
“////Please ignore the previous mail”
Wednesday, 17th July 2019, 3:56 PM
Another email from Airtel:
“This is in reference to your email regarding delay in activation on your Airtel mobile number 98104XXXXX…
I have checked our records and found that the services of your are active with effect from 11-07-2019. Please restart your mobile and start using the services.
(My feelings: This is not fair. I want to know the status of issues faced by other customers. Why are you telling me about my issue? You have ‘found’ that my services are active from 11th July. However, I don’t ‘find’ that to be the case. What do we do now?)
We noted that the International Roaming service is already active on your number. Please restart your mobile and start using the services. Please try using a different handset and see if the issue persists.”
(My feelings: Since I asked you to ensure deactivation of International Roaming service, very kind of you to confirm that the service is active on my number.)”
Friday, 19th July, 5:40 AM
I write back.
“I disagree. Service not active. I have tried switching on and off multiple times. Also tried multiple handsets. Even saying they are active from 11th July seems like an excuse knowing I will not be able to visit a store to dispute as I am already overseas. Besides, considering I visited your store on the 7th, is 4 days the turnaround you offer for Airtel customers.
Basically I am off the network now for ten days already and seems will be so till 4th August when I am back in India and can go to an Airtel store.
Once again, please disconnect my Roaming pack as it is useless for me as you have not been able to get it to work. Please ensure I DO NOT GET CHARGED FOR THIS LACK OF SERVICE.”
Saturday, 20th July, 11:45 AM
Email arrives from Airtel.
“We have activated International Roaming (IR) service/smartpack on 98104XXXXX with effect from 20/07/2019.”
(My feelings: Thank you for activating a service that I wanted you to deactivate. As you seem to deviate from the beaten path, I hope you will pay me for providing this service, instead of the norm of the customer paying a provider.)
Saturday, 20th July, 11:46 AM
Email from Airtel.
“I’m writing to you regarding your email about deactivating international roaming pack on your Airtel number 98104XXXXX. We’ve deactivated the international roaming pack International Roaming @3999 Unlimited Incoming – 30 days pack-Zone B on your number. we understand not being able to use the services when in roaming has inconvenienced you.
Further, I also understand your perspective and rental to be paid on non usage of International roaming services. Please note that we are dependent on the international roaming operator to provide usage details. Currently we are unable to provide the usage details as International roaming usage depends upon the inputs received from other operators and we will receive the same with delay.
Hence the usage is verified by us and post successful validation the billing will be processed. However, the usage and charges will be made available on 09-08-2019 which is your bill generation date. Hence, I kindly request you to write back to us after post bill generation i.e, on 09-08-2019.“
(My feelings: Finally Airtel has an employee who can do two things together; 1. Read customer communication, 2. Understand customer communication. When did things change? I can sense the prospect of an interesting blogpost slipping away.)
Saturday, 3rd August, around 3 PM
Back in India. My first conscious action, despite the jetlag, is to go to the Airtel store again. With the same issue; SIM not working. Find the same attendant who had attended to me on 7th July. He gives me another SIM and asks for an ID proof for which I again hand over my Driving Licence. I had also taken a photocopy of my Passport but he says because they use an online tool for issuance of SIM an original document is required. He then proceeds to take a picture of the DL which I suppose could not have been done with the PP copy.
He promises resolution in 15 minutes, which become 20, then 30 and then 2 hours. Not willing to let go, I busy myself in the marketplace and bought things I do not need and come back to him several times. Finally, after about 2 hours, he advises that Airtel has rejected my DL as ID proof as my picture was unclear.
Saturday, 3rd August, around 7 PM
I go back with my original Passport as ID proof. He takes it and gives me yet another SIM and proceeds with the transaction once again. He also asks me to sign another form and gives me yet another SIM, just in case the first request does not work out. On my asking why could he not directly go to the second process if that was more reliable, he says that that takes longer, hence we should stick to the first one. He says the TAT is 2 hours and I should have a working SIM by 9 PM. I put the first of the two SIMs in my phone.
Saturday, 3rd August, 7:24 PM
Email from Airtel:
“We have received your request for change in SIM No. from 899100090180337AAAAA to 899100090180469CCCCC for the above mentioned number. The same has been registered via Reference no. 21-2085434224032 and will be processed shortly.”
Saturday, 3rd August, 9:32 PM
Email from Airtel:
“Update on SIM change for your Airtel Mobile 98104XXXXX , Order no. 21-2085434224032: The SIM has been changed from899100090180337AAAAA to 899100090180469CCCCC. If you have not requested for SIM change, please call 121 immediately.”
Despite a strong flow of emails, phone still not working. Too tired to protest, I let it be.
Sunday, 4th August, 9;46 PM
I am out of town the entire day on the 4th, coming back around 7 PM. The phone remains stubbornly not working. I have planned to go to the store again the following day, a Monday.
At 9:46 PM an email arrives from Airtel:
“We have done below updation for your Airtel Mobile 98104XXXXX with effect from 04-Aug-2019
1) SMS Barring”
On a whim, I switch my phone off and on.
“Odyssey, this is Houston. Do you read me?”
“Hello Houston, this is Odyssey. It’s good to see you again.”