We got the Telephone Technology Blues

Diogenes's picture

We got the Telephone Technology Blues

August 17, 2009

When we moved to the Netherlands two years ago, we had the option of signing up for phone, internet and TV from a single supplier. There were lots of choices for this. We selected a local cable TV company.

The technician arrived within a few days of us moving in and connected the cable to get the TV working. We also received a set top box called a Humax for our TV.

The internet kit arrived in the mail. Although the instructions were all in Dutch, there were good illustrations and in about 45 minutes, we were up and running with phone, internet and TV.

The internet worked very well, the TV was OK, but the phone gave us problems. We had many bad connections. I didn't know if it was the phone or the line so I borrowed an old handset from a neighbour and tried it. The old handset worked much better.

telephone (6K)

So off I went to buy a regular old fashioned telephone. These are actually quite rare and expensive now. In the unsuccessful quest to find a regular handset I discovered the latest in cordless phone technology.

We ended up replacing our first cordless phone (which was only six months old) with one of those new fangled VOIP phones with DECT technology. Vroom, vroom.

The new phone also came with some Skype technology built in. We could use the new phone to call long distance using Skype. Our Skype directory even appeared on the display. Cool stuff.

But the trick is that you need a computer on and the Skype software running for everything to work. I figured all this out after I removed my laptop from the loop. Doh!

Alas, the new cordless phone sounded better than the old one, but it was still not as good as the old handset.

The other problem with our phone service was availability. People would call us and it would sometimes ring busy, even if no one was on the line. This is the kind of problem that you find out about days later when the caller finally does reach you. And it was always temporary problem.

Of course, whenever we tested this ourselves, everything worked. We have this pay-as-you-go cell phone which we bought for emergencies. This phone was used to test our home phone. In fact, our emergency cell phone was used more often for testing our home line than for actually calling anyone.

These problems are tough to resolve. When you do complain, it seems that everything is working fine and the service provider is inclined to deny that any problem exists.

Eventually we reached a breaking point. I decided that the best solution was get an old fashioned land line(analog) telephone, the kind that works even when the power fails. Screw the high technology.

- 2 -

Hello? I'm ready to sign up for the service!

So I set off to become a new customer of KPN - aka the Royal Dutch Phone Company of the Netherlands, the historical equivalent of AT&T in the US, BT (British Telecom) in Britain, or Bell/Telus in Canada.

I am old enough that my expectations for service were not high. I was prepared to wait a month for a connection. I was prepared to set aside the whole day on the calendar because the phone company never commits itself to a time. It never has.

We have lived in the Netherlands for more than 2 years now and have learned that North American toll free customer service numbers are extremely rare. The norm here is 900 numbers, which costs the customer for every minute they are connected. In North America, we associate 900 numbers with the phone-sex industry.

This really annoyed me at first. On the plus side, most customer service numbers are cheap: 10¢-20¢ per minute; and you are seldom on hold for very long. Eventually, you just get used to it.

I consulted with the KPN website to avoid paying the toll charge to become a new customer. To me, this was like paying admission to enter a department store. The KPN website is only in Dutch, which I don't mind even if I barely know the language. It's a good place to learn.

KPN offers assorted bundle packages - phone, internet and TV, etc. After exploring the site and looking up a whole bunch of new words in the dictionary, I still had a few more questions that seemed to have no answer on the web site. So I decided to phone.

I spent another 10 minutes looking on their web site for a phone number. There are many, many web pages on the KPN web site but very few of them have a phone number. 'Isn't it ironic' I think while I search

I gave up on trying to find a number on the web site and looked in the phone book, which was still delivered to everyone in our apartment even though very few are KPN customers. I also thought this was a brilliant idea, thinking there may be a chance that I would be able to find a toll free number for new customers.

I was wrong. At the front of the book were all kinds of 900 numbers ranging from 10¢ to 45¢ per minute for private customers. Some of the business customer service numbers were toll free. I tried them in the hope of beating the system and not paying to become a new customer.

- 3 -

Thank you for calling, but why are you calling us?

Calling the toll free numbers for business customers did not work either. I was thwarted by the next level of customer service, the automated telephone menu system.

Everyone is familiar with these. A voice recording comes on and gives you a choice of options. Select the right item, and you are one step closer to speaking to someone who might actually care.

The KPN menus were elaborate, some offering 5 or more items. My Dutch is not that good, so I had to listen to each one several times, looking up words in the dictionary while listening. At three levels deep into the customer service menus, my head began to spin. I needed air.

tony_montana (15K)

In North America, most telephone menu systems have some kind of escape mechanism - you can press 0 or # or * or nothing at all, pretending like you don't even have a push button phone. Someone will usually come on the line to help you out.

Automated voice recognition systems have their own challenges. I play along with these systems until they fail to understand something I have said, which typically takes about 10 seconds. Then I pull out my Tony Montana/Scarface book of helpful suggestions and try out a few.

Voice recognition systems are very good at recognizing certain words in the english language. Programmers have choice phrases they use frequently and voice recognition systems learn these words early in their development. So if you string enough of the right words together it sets off some kind of system alarm which gets the attention of a real person.

So while I'm not that fond of systems that will recognize speech, they are more fun than the regular telephone menus.

I'm sorry, I heard you say you have not found a system that will wreck a nice beach. Is that what you said?

I digress.

The KPN telephone menus had none of the usual escape mechanisms.

Pressing # returned me to the previous menu. Pressing 0, * or anything that was not on the original menu only resulted in me being admonished in Dutch for not selecting a valid menu item. Doing nothing only resulted in repeated requests to select a menu item. Swearing did not work its magic either.

I gave up trying to escape, dropped down to a third level menu again, and made an educated guess. A message came on the line that said something about alle medewerkers being busy and to have patience. At least now there were only two choices, wait or hang up. I choose to wait.

- 4 -

Can you help me? Ik spreek Engels

After a few minutes, someone answers. At last I get to speak to a real person!

In conversations with the Dutch, if you don't say anything in response to something they say and just offer a stunned deer-in-the-headlights expression, they respond accordingly. I am good at this. I then confess that I speak english. No other explanation is necessary. Having pity on me, they do their best to explain in English.

This technique even works when you are speaking to people on the phone in the Netherlands. They recognize the expression on your face without even without seeing you. Everything works out OK. It is not that way with automated voice menus.

So we figured out together that I had selected the wrong menu item (ha-ha) and was subsequently transferred… but in short order I was talking to someone who handled new accounts. He was very plesant. I think he may even have had sales training.

One of the great things about call centers in the Netherlands is that they don't out-source work to developing countries like India and Malaysia because there are few people in these countries that speak Dutch. Even fewer are interested in learning it. Since almost everyone in the Netherlands speaks English, it is usually much easier to communicate with people at a Dutch call center than, for example, the people who track lost baggage for Air Canada.


What is cognitive dissonance?

After my questions were answered and I had selected the package that would best fit my needs, I mentioned how ironic it was that contacting the phone company by phone seemed a lot more more difficult and complicated than phoning almost any other business that I have had to deal with. And, by my estimate, it had cost me about €4.50 in toll charges so far to become a new customer of the phone company. I confessed that this particular business model seemed very strange to me.

My agent understands this, apologizes, and offers to give us a credit on our first bill to compensate for that. I thank him and secretly pat myself on the back for a bit of brilliant negotiating.

So pleased was my KPN agent that I was signing on as a new customer, that he also offers to transfer our existing telephone number for us, to save us the trouble. Now I am pleased. I gave him the account information and we set a date for the new installation.

I was hoping for a switch over date of September 1, but 9/11 is the best they can do. This is the phone company, enough said. I have also agreed to switch my internet service to KPN because they have a ½ price deal for the first 3 months.

A good friend of mine has this expression "Please, stop saving me money!" to describe the many times in life where an opportunity to save money turns into an opportunity to waste it. This expression resonates in my head, for some strange reason, after our phone conversation has ended.

Next: Don't make promises you can't keep