The Vodafone Pummel

The Vodafone Pummel

Recently I landed up in Kolkata, India and needed to use the services of a local mobile telephony service provider since roaming options which my existing service provider offers are rather expensive for regular use. Assailed by numerous ads, banners, kiosks & streetside hoardings proclaiming that “Hutch is now Vodafone” I decided to go in for what promised to be the largest telecom service provider with a global branding & hopefully lofty service standards. My experiences over the next couple of weeks is a telling commentary on the woeful service standards of the provider at least in the city of Kolkata, India. It is also indicative of the pitifully poor standards of many Call Centres operating from & based in India.

Since a detailed narration of my woes would begin to resemble a rather long story, allow me to give you some episodic vignettes in support of my contentions stated just above.

Episode I:

My efforts to pick up a prepaid SIM Card from the Vodafone Telestore which is a retail & customer care outfit run either directly by Vodafone (Hutch, Kolkata in its earlier avatar) or by a franchisee.

Yours Truly (YT): Could I get a prepaid SIM card please. What are the various choices I have?

Vodafone Executive (VE): I recommend the 'unlimited' card which will.......

YT: Umm, my needs are quite limited. I am here on a short visit & would like to...

VE: Then you must go in for the Prepaid SIM Card valid for one year.

YT: But I am here only for a short visit.

VE: I still recommend the 'unlimited' Pre-paid Card. That way you can use it whenever you decide to pay a visit for the rest of your life.

YT: Is there something which is valid for say 2 weeks.

VE: There is nothing like that. The minimum is one month validity.

YT: I'll settle for that. How much do I pay & how much talktime.....

VE: If you want it here & now it's going to take quite some time. Why don't you go to a Vodafone retailer instead?

YT: I don't quite know where they are located. Having come here could I please wait a while if required & pick it up from you?

VE: (testily) I told you its going to take a long time. There is a retail outlet at the end of this road. Why don't you go there?

I beat a hasty retreat from the Vodafone Telestore.

Episode 2:

After my SIM card was activated I did a double-take as I wondered whether Vodafone was offering either phone sex or escort services. A lady in a come-hither tone throatily cooed that Hutch is now Vodafone. If the manner of announcing this fact did not quite succed in propelling you to the outer edges of sexual excitement, the next sentence welcoming you to 'our world' was surely meant to break down any resistance you might be exhibiting still in going over the edge.

Episode 3:

Subtitled : A brief encounter with the ubiquitous Vodafone Customer Care Executive (VCCE)

Yours Truly (YT): Hi, I had a query re: applicable tariff for IDD calls to......

VCCE: Before you go any further tell me your mobile number & name.

YT: But all I wanted to know is the tariff......

VCCE: (sternly): Mobile number & name first. Then only you can state the purpose of the call.

YT: Ok, here's my mobile number & name (rattles off both)

VCCE: Why have you called?

YT: To know the tariff during peak hours for making IDD calls to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.........

VCCE: Koala what?

YT: Kuala Lumpur, capital of Malaysia.

VCCE: What?

YT: Tariff for IDD calls to Malaysia.

VCCE: Mal what?

YT: Malaysia

VCCE: I don't understand what you are talking about

YT: (slowly) Tariff, IDD calls, Malaysia

VCCE: What are you talking about?

YT: Tariff, IDD Call.... (the line is disconnected)

Episode 4:

Subtitled: The Coup de Grace

Shortly before my departure from the city of Kolkata, I noticed that the balance in my prepaid SIM card was abysmally low, making it virtually impossible for me to make outgoing calls. I discovered another Vodafone Telestore during my travels within the city (not the one mentioned in Episode I), walked in to top up my balance, was shown an automated kiosk where I could do it, discovered that it was zealously guarded by the doorman who demanded that I hand over the exact amount in currency notes that I was planning to top up. While I did notice several customer care executives sitting at their desks doing precious little other than presumably swapping the news of the day among themselves, I reposed my faith in the doorman & handed over the amount. He duly made the necessary entries on the touchscreen terminal, asked me to read out to him the password I would have received by sms fed in the currency notes and then triumphantly announced that the job was done. I checked another sms I had received in the meanwhile stating that the top-up could not be done & asking me to contact Vodafone. When I pointed this out to the doorman, he waved me to one of the seats in the lounge for waiting customers, went up to one of the Customer Care executives who was still engaged in dissecting the hot news of the day with his colleagues and engaged in a whispered interchange with him, pointing several times in my direction. He came back & dismissively asked me to carry on, assuring me that the top-up will happen within the next hour or two. By this time I knew better than to ask any further questions. I promptly complied.

The hours passed. The day metamorphosed into the evening and then into the night. The Vodafone top-up remained an event waiting to happen and I was still unable to make outgoing calls. Mercifully, I could call their customer care hotline without being charged and did so after more than 12 hours had passed. After duly recounting my name & number (even though everytime, in response to the automated voice prompt at the beginning of the call, I duly entered my mobile phone number), I was told that I should immediately proceed to the Vodafone Telestore where the transaction had been carried out, to sort out matters.

I told the Vodafone Customer Care Executive at the other end of the line that this would be an impossibility at present since it was rather late in the evening and the Vodafone Telestore would surely be closed at this hour. I also pointed out that it wasn't a very feasible option for the future either since the store was quite some way off from where I was staying and the time & money spent in getting there and back would total up to more than the top-up amount. Instead I offered to read out the transaction code & various other details printed on the Receipt which had been generated by the automated kiosk at the Vodafone store & handed over to me. The VCCE responded by disconnecting the call.

Over the next 24 hours & more as the top-up never happened and my frustration at my inability to use my mobile phone for outgoing calls grew, I was met with one of the following responses every time I called the designated customer care helpline.

Response A: Well, its a system failure. It will now have to be done manually. Be patient, these things take anywhere upto 48 hours & even more.

Response B: Its the festive season you see. These things would take time. Besides why was I calling in the evening since the manual process would need to be carried out during the daytime and during normal working hours.

Response C: Go to the Vodafone store where you did the top-up & sort it out. Don't call us.

Response D: No, I couldn't talk to the Supervisor/ Service Manager about my problem. They were either not available for such calls, were busy with other weighty matters or were talking on the phone. Could they call me back later then? I must be joking.

Response E: Ok, I am forwarding this call to the Supervisor / Service Manager (after much persistence on my part and with great reluctance). I hear some extension trilling away a few times. No one answers and the call gets disconnected.

On the one occasion that I actually managed to speak to a Service Manager, he was decent enough to apologize to me for the inconvenience, assured me that he was aware of the problem caused by their system failure and stated that he was putting the task of 'manually' topping-up my balance on priority. Amidst the unfriendly Vodafone customer care wasteland this indeed sounded like a melodious flute playing harmoniously. Sadly, nothing happened during the next 22 hours.

Before you start rejoicing at the comeuppance I received at the hands of Vodafone, let me deflate you. You see, it did happen finally. On the eve of my departure from Kolkata, about 40 hours after my failed top-up transaction, sometime after 10 in the evening. So much for 'manual' top-ups happening only during normal working hours in the daytime, as I had been told.

I daresay that Vodafone treats its customers in Europe & U.K. more promptly & kindly. I presume their customer care executives are better trained & more equipped to deal with exigencies of the kind I have mentioned. I presume they have better escalation processes for lingering problems. I can only presume all this since I have not been a customer of theirs in either Europe or U.K.

Being the global telecom giants they are, I have no doubt that Vodafone adopts a 'horses for courses' policy for the various countries that they operate in. Detailed studies may have pointed to the fact that customer expectations are quite low in Kolkata and hence the cost of implementing efficient systems and training customer care executives more thoroughly can be dispensed with. As long as that leads to an increasingly bulging bottomline, the acquisition of Hutch (which is now Vodafone) would be well worth it.