A Relationships Over Deals Case Study: Bell’s Disconnected Outsourcing Strategy

The following is the first in a series of case studies in which we refer to actual customer complaints relative to the challenges of dealing with services that have been outsourced.

While outsourcing provides a tremendous opportunity for an organization to better focus on its core competencies by leveraging the expertise and resources of a third-party, it is critical to establish and manage the relationship to ensure that the end customer experience is positive.

Outsourcing strategy run aground?

“The story you are about to hear is true! None of the names were changed because none were actually given (with the exception of Michèl EX47458, Stella EX47336 and the “Canadian-based” Michelle Campbell).

And so in the infamous words of Sargent Joe Friday, here are “just the facts!”

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2008

It was a comfortable late summer day with a mean temperature of 77.6 F, Visibility 15 miles and a maximum sustained wind speed of 8.00 miles per hour. (Check the Farmers Almanac if you do not believe me.)

The day started out like any other, coffee with milk and two sugar. Toast and margarine no jam.

The mail arrived at the community pick-up station as usual, and included a number of gratuitous/discounted offers for amongst other things increased hair growth, accelerated weight loss and dance lessons. The weight loss offer was mildly interesting, as I am at the ideal weight for a man whose stature is 6’ 9”. Alright 7’ 2”!

Included amongst the plethora of opportunities to change my life for the better was the Bell Canada bill. Upon opening it and viewing the amount that it purported as being the balance owing, I found myself wishing that one of the free coupons was for a set of electric paddles as my chest suddenly tightened and my left arm went numb.

So began a descent into the dark bowels of customer service indifference, incompetence and ultimately what became one of the most frustrating experiences of my life.

“But whose on first?”

While tragedy is often sweetened with comedy, the fact remains that after countless hours of broken promises, empathetic indifference, long periods of being put on hold, and being passed around between different departments like an unwanted relative, my experience with Bell in terms of addressing an erroneous billing issue was tantamount to a “whose on first” comedy sketch.

It started with my initial call to the number provided on the bill itself. A bill by the way that was supposedly the convenient and efficient amalgamation of fees for the bundled package of telephone, satellite and internet services.

Perhaps I misunderstood one of the many Bell sales representatives with whom my wife and I spoke in that bundled services was actually “bungled” services. (Note: up until this recent experience with billing, I thought that the sales process with Bell to set-up a new account was frustrating as it took several different calls before Bell actually got the order right. Hmm, perhaps that should have been a sign of things to come. But that is a story for another day.)

Back to my initial call and the fallacy of what was supposed to have been a bundled package. Upon reaching a Bell representative, I expressed my concern that there appeared to be sizable charges on the September statement for the internet, satellite and phone service installation. I also indicated that promised credits such as the discounts related to our “package” had not been calculated in the amount owing.

I was informed that I would have to be transferred to another department which looked after the satellite service. As for addressing my concerns relative to the internet charges, I was then told that I would need to request a transfer to yet another department upon conclusion of my dealings with the satellite group as internet services were handled by a different area of the Bell consortium.

After close to an hour of playing the department relay, where assistance was at times difficult to obtain I ultimately ended right back where I had started, speaking with a Bell Representative who happened to have grown-up in the town where I was now living.

Spending another 30 or so minutes painstakingly reviewing the line items from each section of the amalgamated statement, it was determined that the $710.07 in fees (that is correct $710.07 for the month) was, with the applicable credits and charge reversals, actually supposed to be $336.43. This of course did not include the $90 satellite installation rebate that would be credited once the coupon we had mailed in was received and applied.

The Bell representative with whom I was speaking informed me that it would likely take a month for the proper adjustments to be made, but not to worry because the correct amount owed would be reflected in the October statement.

I inquired as to the amount that should be paid during the interim period, and it was suggested that a payment of $710.07 was the best way to avoid any collection activity and late fees. I was however assured that the excess portion of the payment would be applied on future billings. In essence (and even though Bell had made the mistake) overpay, let us keep your money in our bank account, and once the proper credits were applied you would not have to make another payment until November or December. Am I the only one who sees a problem with this approach? As a side note, the Bell representative with whom I spoke assured me that she was entering everything into her computer so that our conversation would be “on file” thereby enabling any Bell representative to help me should the need arise. As you will find out shortly, this is a pivotal point.

Trick or Treat!

October of course is the month in which Thanksgiving and Halloween fall. Thanks to Bell however, Halloween came before Thanksgiving this year leaving me with very little to be thankful for relative to Bell Services.

On Tuesday, October 7th we received a call from Bell indicating that the outstanding amount on our bill was now more than $800 and as a result was turned over for collection.

Perhaps the people in Bell’s collection department did not bother to read the notes from my discussion with the nice lady who grew up in the small town where I now live? Maybe there was a computer glitch, whereby the credits had been applied but not properly posted. Regardless, I dutifully called the “866” number that was provided in the message.

Navigating through the “convenience” of Bell’s automated attendant, now I know what the invasion of Normandy must have felt like, I was connected with an individual who asked for my telephone number, account number and mailing address. I guess the automated prompting to enter my telephone number when I first called in was perhaps an exercise in strengthening my dialing fingers?

Providing the information, I then outlined the nature of my conversation with the Bell representative on September 2nd, as it appeared that there was nothing in the file to which this individual could refer.

At the end of my dissertation, the representative told me that I would have to be transferred to another department, where upon being connected I was once again required to reiterate the highlights from the September call. After listening to my entire story, the individual indicated that since I was in Quebec, they needed to transfer me (yes again) to the department that handled my region. This is when I had the pleasure of speaking with the individual who ultimately came to be known as Michèl EX47458.

At first skeptical of my “story” relating to the details of the September phone call, and after being put on hold three separate times for periods of between five and fifteen minutes, Michèl EX47458 gradually warmed up to the idea that perhaps there was a problem with their billing. After all, it was reasoned, I was consistent in providing the specific details of the September discussion. It was also reasonable to consider the fact that I would not have made up the number of $336.43 that represented the actual amount owed.

Michèl EX47458 assured me that the details of our conversation were now entered into the system – it turned out that the nice lady must have hit the delete button instead of the save button as there was no record of the September call.

He then informed me that he was going to provide their “investigation” unit with the details of our discussion and that our account would not reflect any adjustment until the November billing period.

We then agreed upon a $260 payment that when combined with an earlier payment meant that I had paid $410 on what was supposed to be a $336.43 bill, less the $90 mail-in credit. In short, I had paid $410 on what was supposed to be a $246.43 balance.

The phone is ringing, but no one is home!

The evening of Wednesday, October 8th, we received a call from Bell. The message indicated that we should call back using telephone number 514-948-8129. The message also instructed us to use reference number 6624055, and that anyone would be able to help us.

On Friday morning I called the number that was provided (yes Friday, because after all I do work full time and my world does not orbit around the Bell Canada billing department), thinking that Michèl really delivered as this must be the call regarding the investigation.

Anticipating a satisfactory and long overdue resolution, I was surprised to find that the number did not work. Specifically, it was a line the recording indicated, that was used exclusively for outgoing calls. There is nothing more demonstrative of a broken service system than getting a number from your telephone provider that doesn’t work!

The only option I had was to once again call the “866” number. And there began a 2 ½ hour odyssey that even now is difficult to fathom.

Following the previous drill of interacting with the Bell automated system, I was finally put through to an actual person. I explained that I was given a “514” number that did not work, and provided the 6624055 reference number expecting that Michèl’s notes would appear on the screen and the individual with whom I was speaking would be able to bring the matter to a close.

What is this “reference” number?

Rather than a speedy resolution, my submission of the reference number was met with an “I don’t know what that is” response from the Bell representative. She did however tell me that more than $800 was owed on the bill, and wanted to know what arrangements I would be making in terms of payment. Where are those electric paddles when you need them?

I once again took the time to relay the details of both the September and October conversations asking the woman to just check the system as Michèl EX47458 dutifully entered the information into my file. The response . . . “oh this is the billing department sir, we will have to transfer you to our credit department.”

Exiled to the world of interminable muzak, another representative finally came on the line. After reiterating my story yet again, the individual indicated that I was transferred to the department that handled the Ontario region, and that she would have to transfer me to the department that looked after Quebec. Are you beginning to see a pattern.

After the gratuitous holding period, I think that the theme from Love Story filled the airwaves this time, another person answered. Upon providing my account details, the man asked what arrangements I would be making to pay the $800 balance that was outstanding. Chest pains, numb left arm, and now excessive hair loss, I told him the story which at this point had been repeated so many times that I came to feel like I was one of Bell’s taped messages. The response . . . you guessed it, “this is the billing department sir, I will need to transfer you to credit.”

After protesting that I had been passed around like a bad joke, the gentleman indifferently assured me that there was nothing he could do as he was in billing and my issue had to be handled by the credit department.

How can I help you?!?

What had now degenerated into a bad comedy routine, the credit department representative greeted me with the request for my account information followed by a cheery “how can I help you?”

After explaining my tortuous journey, which included yet another rendition of the details from the September call, as well as my exchange with Michèl EX 47458, the person who I came to know as Stella EX47336 “helpfully” told me that I would have to review the matter with the billing department and that she would transfer me immediately.

At my wits end, I told my new friend Stella EX47336 that this was the end of the line, and that I wanted to talk with a supervisor as I had finally reached my limit. Expressing great empathy for my situation, Stella EX47336 assured me that her supervisor would not be able to help, but said that she would put me on hold and personally (while staying on the line), facilitate the transfer to a supervisor from the billing department. She asked me to be patient as I would be on hold for a few minutes as she wanted to take the time to explain the sad details of my Bell experience to the billing supervisor. Queue supermarket muzak.

I must admit at this point that Stella EX47336 was true to her word as approximately 7 to 8 minutes later her cheerful voice once again echoed over the line as she introduced me to a supervisor from the billing department. Thank you, Stella! Perhaps there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

After assuring me that she was totally sympathetic to my feelings of frustration, the billing supervisor (who did not provide me with her name and employee number) said that she would put me on hold and would look into the matter. I responded by saying that between being passed around from one department to the next combined with long periods of being put on hold, I was not inclined to wait on the line – Michèl EX47458 where are those notes in my file – while she tried to find out what was going on. Especially if it involved another long wait. I suggested that she take down my number and call me back when she had the information she required to properly address what had become an incredibly aggravating situation.

Still maintaining a sympathetic position, she assured me that she would not be long, and that it would be better if I stayed on the line. Against my better judgement, I agreed. The song this time was a little better, and just as I felt myself starting to relax, I was disconnected.

Like the proverbial gambling addict, who believes that the next pull of the lever would open the door to untold riches, I determinedly called the “866” number. And yes, you probably could see it coming, I was passed around to three “different” departments before speaking with a gentleman who stated, “oh, you are dealing with people out of India. Let me put you through to Michelle Campbell who actually works out of our Montreal office. She will be able to help you!” Does anyone remember the old Johnny Rivers song, “when will we ever learn?”

I was greeted by Michelle Campbell’s voice mail indicating that she was away from the office until November 10th and that I could leave a message or call 514-490-6511 in her absence. So I did it, I took the bait and called 514-490-6511.

The voice mail message was in French, and being close to fifty years of age, I grew up in Winnipeg where French immersion had more to do with a cooking technique versus learning a second language. Not understanding a single word, I waited for a beep and told the story to the airwaves until the line beeped again and I found myself disconnected one final time.


Tired, frustrated and basically spent, I returned the receiver to its base and reflected on the countless hours of my life that I would never get back wondering how a big Canadian company could be so out of touch with understanding the importance of the customer experience.

Like my efforts to resolve what should have been a simple issue of billing, my promised credits and adjustments are probably floating out there in the vastness of space. And had I paid the full amount back in September, even though it was determined that it was not owed, my money would now be there as well.

So goes the perils of Bell expanding it’s business outside of its core competencies, while expecting to fill the service gaps with a poorly conceived and executed Outsourcing Strategy. Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio . . .

Update . . .

After a seemingly interminable period of time, Bell – out of their Montreal Head Office mind you, did get to the proverbial bottom of the matter admitting that an error in the number they had associated with my account was actually for a customer with a similar name in another city.

They immediately credited the overcharge with an apology but sadly, the countless hours I had spent on this sad situation can never be recaptured.

Be sure to check out SRS’ new Source Relationships Not Deals Seminar . . .

“This seminar bridges the disconnect between executive vision and practical front line execution. It is unlike any I have seen or been a part of.”


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