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My contract phone died last week, after 20 short months of service.

I visited my network provider (let’s name and shame – it was 3) and asked what I could do. Were there any offers? I wondered. Could I upgrade, maybe? Their answer? I could pay off the rest of my contract now at a cost of £100 to access an ‘early upgrade’. But wouldn’t I then effectively be paying them twice? Paying off my old contract and starting a new one?

Cover of 'Three' by The Wedding Present

The cover of ‘Three’ by The Wedding Present, who I am happy to promote, to illustrate the phone company I’m not.

 

“Well, yes, but you might as well do it. It’ll cost you to £100 to get a new handset anyway.”

Yes, but then at least I’d have an extra handset to show for it – the one I’d bought and the free upgrade you’ll give me in December anyway. Your way, I’m just paying you double for four months.

“Ah, but the upgrade you’ll get will be a good phone that’ll last years.”

You mean like the one that’s just died on me lasted years?

She was talking nonsense.

So I left.

I went to Phones 4 U to enquire about replacement handsets. Phones 4 U, Princes Street, Edinburgh. Remember that. Then never go there.

“My contract phone’s died,” I said. “I just need a cheap unlocked handset I can use.”

“This is our cheapest.”

“Hmmm. What’s the next one up?”

“This one. £20.”

“So I just slip my sim card in and it’ll work?”

“Yeah.”

But it doesn’t. I’ve been sold a dud. A 2G handset when I’ve got a 3G sim card. I never even thought. I mean, I know 3G is better than 2G. Something to do with spectrums. But that’s all. I didn’t even know 2G phones still existed. Aren’t they like black and white tellies? Your Gran might have one left in an attic somewhere, but no one buys one any more. And anyway, doesn’t it work like computer software upgrades? You know – you can still open Word 2003 documents in Word 2010. No bother, I’ll take it back and exchange it for a 3G.

Ah! Gathered round the black and white TV. Them was the days.

Ah! Gathered round the black and white TV. Them was the days.

Or so I thought.

The first time I tried to do this, I stood at the counter for ten minutes without any acknowledgement from the guys sat around at desks. Maybe they were serving someone, maybe they were chatting with their mates on the phone. But I didn’t have time to wait. So I left.

The second time, I again stood at the counter for ten minutes, then finally got an acknowledgement, then got tut tutting and sucking through teeth when I explained my situation.

“You’ll have to phone head office,” says one monotone cashier to another.

Head office? I want a twenty quid refund for a phone I bought in good faith, because your badly trained sales staff didn’t ask me the questions I didn’t know needed answering. What do you need to talk to head office for?

“Nah, they won’t refund,” says one of the guys-behind-desks with absolute certainty. He’s lazily flirting with a girl while messing around with a phone. I can’t tell if she’s a customer or his girlfriend.

“They won’t refund? You mean they won’t exchange this twenty quid phone so I can buy a sixty quid one?”

“No.”

“But that doesn’t make any sense. To them or me.”

“I’m telling you they won’t refund.”

“But it’s been missold.”

“Are you on 3?”

“Yes.”

“Well it’s not been missold. They won’t refund. You’ve bought a 2G phone. You should’ve told us.”

“You should’ve asked. You’re the phone experts. I just came in here asking for the cheapest handset I can use.”

“Well you should’ve asked for the cheapest 3G handset.”

I get up to leave.

“I can phone head office if you like but…”

I sit ten minutes.

I sit ten minutes more while he types on the computer then phones head office. I see his eyes drop. He knows he’s got to break bad news. They won’t do it.

Idiots. Absolute idiots. Do the math(s), Phones 4 U. I want to buy a sixty pound phone from you. To do so, I need to exchange this unused twenty pound phone you missold me. There’s forty quid in this for you. Forty juicy quid. Count it. Smell it. I know you like it. Mmmm, taste the cash. More money. More filthy, dirty cash for your filthy, dirty, money grabbing directors….

But no. Not even that solved it. Not even me jumping on the counter, rubbing my thighs like a Yewtree suspect in an orphanage and telling them to taste my cash did it. I was just asked to get down from there before they called the police.

Because no longer is ‘the customer always right’, not even when they are waving an extra forty quid under a salesman’s nose. In fact, the only good thing to come out of this is that instead of shovelling another £40 into Phones Not 4 U’s massive coffers, I paid a nice, geeky Scottish lad £25 to fix my old phone and a very helpful Polish fella £10 for a pay as you go sim. Independents £35, Phones 4 U nil.

But this post isn’t about my individual gripe against these two companies (it really is). It’s about the little incidents like this that are being played out up and down the country day in day out, all because of useless, bloated, badly operated corporations (and in the case of mobile companies, an effective cartel).

Oh yeah, now you're talking.

Oh yeah, now you’re talking.

For a look at how it should and could be, let us go back to a fictional High Street of 1914, to Mr Josiah Jenkinson’s Telephonic Emporium… *a smog falls across us, the streets are alive with urchins coughing up bits of lung, somewhere an aged crone cackles, “‘ere mister, ha’penny for a good time?”*

Josiah knows his stuff. Everyone in town knows he’s the man to go to. He’s been in the telephone game since the 1890s and even once met Alexander Graham Bell. He sells me one of these nifty new telephonic communication devices. One of those tall things with a detachable earpiece. I take it home to try it, but alas, it is a gas powered one (for the purposes of this tale, there were gas powered phones) and by Jove and gadzooks, I’ve only gone and had my house converted to this newfangled electricity. I take said phone back to Mr Jenkinson.

Now Mr Jenkinson likes to make money, but he knows the way to do this is good customer service, respect for the people you’re dealing with and basic common sense and courtesy. There’s no ‘company policy’ or ‘computer assessment’ to hide behind. It’s good, honest business.

“I’m sorry about that Mr Peacock,” he says, “I should have pointed that out to you. I can sell you an electric one but it will be three shillings dearer.”

“That’s ok, Mr Jenkinson, no problem. It was a simple mix-up, that’s all. Here’s the three shillings, my good man. See you in the Old Nag’s Head for a game of cribbage some time.”

Everyone is happy.

Contrast that to my little 21st century episode.

I’m fuming because I still don’t have a phone and I’ve just gone mental in front of three cashiers and some frightened Japanese tourists who only came in to ask the way to the castle. Young fella-me-lad is angry because he’s being paid feck all to deal with angsty arseholes like me when he wants to be flirting with the ladies. And ultimately, even though they do everything in their grubby, seedy power to make sure they maximise profit, not even Phonies 4 U are happy because they’ve missed out on more filthy cash.

Everyone is unhappy.

And it is completely unnecessary. When corporations hide behind ‘company policy’ and ‘computer says no’ anti-common sense, everyone is worse off. Well not everyone, but I will return to this in a later post.

These scenarios happen up and down the country each and every day. Badly paid shop staff and call centre workers battling angry members of the public over badly thought out company policies which attempt, but fail, to boost corporate profits. And the greedy little managerial sods who put these policies in place, who employ depressed teenagers in soulless megastores on sub-living wages, are blissfully oblivious to it. They never have to face down the braying, self righteous Yorkshireman verbally dissecting their business. They never have to man the company twitter account for tirades of abuse. They just sit in their hot-tubs patting themselves on the back for what they mistakenly believe is their optimally efficient refunds policy.

So remember that next time a politician tries to defend corporations because they ‘create jobs’ or are ‘drivers of economic progress’ or some such bollocks. Yes, they may employ people (on less than subsistence wages). Yes, they may make money (for their shareholders and directors). But progressive they are not.

And please, please, never use Phones 4 U. If they won’t give me my twenty quid refund, I’m damn sure I’m going to get £20 of satisfaction bad mouthing them all over the internet.

Bob Dylan

“Hey man, phone companies really bum me out too, man. I got a thousand telephones that don’t ring, do you know where I can get rid of these things?”

This blog piece was written while drinking Schiehallion in The Abbey bar, South Clerk Street. The phone fixing shop is nearly opposite, a few doors down from the Queen’s Hall. The place I got my pay-as-you-go sim card is just up from there. I can recommend all of these establishments as people who conduct business in a decent and proper manner.

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