How great companies lose control of their reputation.

This is a bit of a vent, a hopefully cathartic post to seal a week of somewhat farcical interaction with a company I really like. I’m hoping that in addition to releasing the utter frustration I’m currently feeling, it will equally be read by someone that can actually make a difference, who might consider the route they have taken and the result it’s had.

I’ve been with the 3 network for many years now,  from the outset I’ve always viewed them as an innovative company who does things differently from everyone else. I still believe this is true in many ways today.

It started with the innovative Skype phones the company marketed for a while, a radical innovative proposition offering free Skype calling across their network, initially using a range of dedicated phones  and then through a special 3 Skype app that was available for some smartphones.

I still have the 3 Skype phones we had as a family, and the units are neat, robust devices with good battery life. Here’s one of ours…


Since then as a family we’ve had various PAYG SIMs and now have two contracts in place, one for me and one for my son. The unlimited data offering and the One plan are class-leading products and are just perfect for our always-connected smartphones, satisfying my son’s YouTube and Anime habit and my desire to ‘stream all the things’ without caring about data limits and other inconveniences.

I’ve just bought myself a Nexus 6, a beast of a phone, which despite it’s excessive dimensions needs a SIM of the tiniest proportions.


I considered trimming my existing micro-SIM down to nano-SIM dimensions but decided I might damage it, so to keep connectivity I decided to just ring 3 and ask for a nano-SIM.

Initially, this interaction went well. 3, like many companies, has decided to reduce costs, by moving its telephone customer support operation offshore, to India. The staff are polite, generally helpful and seemingly well versed in their roles. There are occasional accent issues that can take some adjusting to, but that could equally be true of a call centre in the UK to anyone unfamiliar with a local dialect. All minor problems that can be dealt with.

My request for a SIM was trouble free and in response to a direct question from myself as to what I needed to do when the new SIM arrived I was clearly told that I would need to call 3 to activate the new SIM and deactivate the old

(@Three – this will be available on the call recording if available)

All very sensible and good from a security perspective.

Upon getting home that evening I tried to set up some of my new phone, using WiFi, and some of the security conscious applications I use required SMS verification codes to be entered, in order to transfer settings. I then realised that I had no mobile signal, a not uncommon issue in parts of the house, but try as I might, I couldn’t get a signal.

Not to mind, let’s try the 3 InTouch application, a free app that allows you to make calls over WiFi and receive SMS messages. Unfortunately, this app had decided it wanted re-activation, so I attempted to do this to be met with this message: –


Yes, you read that correctly – the app that allows you to make calls when you have no signal, requires a signal to activate it if for some reason it forgets it’s settings or decides it’s just being awkward. Now as an engineer I can understand there may be some security or practical reason why this was seen as a secure way to validate the device, but it effectively renders the app utterly and completely useless in my current circumstances and there’s no work around to it.

(@Three this needs some engineering input to improve upon and find another secure way to validate a device, that doesn’t require a mobile signal.)

At this point I gave up for the night and went to bed.

The next morning there was still no mobile signal as I left the house, so I assumed there was a network issue and just headed for work. Arriving at work, some 40 miles away and therefore in a completely different cell, I still found I could not get any service.

Had my Nexus 5 become sullen and sulky in the face of it bigger, better and shinier new relative?

A quick bit of collaboration with a work colleague (also on 3, in no small part due to my frequent recommendations) and we did a SIM swap to realise the problem followed my SIM. It is at this point I realised I had been disconnected intentionally.

Another call and time-consuming navigation of the labyrinthine telephone system that 3 have put in place, I expressed my dilemma to the customer services representative: –

Me: I phoned yesterday to request a nano SIM and I think you have disconnected my current SIM

3: Yes sir, I can confirm your new SIM has been sent out pre-activated

Me: But that is not what you told me yesterday in response to a direct question

3: I’m very sorry Sir, what time does your post arrive, it should be with you today (during the original request I had clearly been told it would take 3-5 days to arrive, under promise, over deliver, I thought)

Me: Unfortunately that doesn’t help me now, I do not work near my home. <I express my frustration, but to err is human, if it’s on my desk when I arrive home it’s no great hardship.>

That evening the SIM wasn’t there

The next evening the SIM wasn’t there either

In-between the waiting, I had reached out to 3 social media team. I have had previous experience with them when things have gone awry (like the time they sent my son a SIM for a different customer, then resent the SIM but sent the wrong size) and they are a proactive, friendly and responsive bunch. They are based in the UK. They are the solution people who seem able to resolve many of the issues that arise from the communication problems and remoteness that arises through use of the customer services phone lines. I like them and it’s another area where Three are innovative and smart.

I suspect though that they have become the victims of their own success, where previously twitter direct messages were used (which admittedly are far from ideal) they now have a shiny social media feedback form on their website which can be used to provide the detail required for them to solve problems.

Unfortunately, the technology gods that have been conspiring against me throughout this saga struck again and it seems that none of the feedback I painstakingly typed reached them. I never received a confirmation email, and they never received my complaint.


Anyway, today there’s a letter on my desk, looks like it could be a SIM!

Unfortunately the letter was unsealed, within it there was a delivery note, for my SIM, but my SIM was nowhere to be seen.

So now, my activated SIM, which anyone could put into their phone and use to their heart’s content is floating around in a Bermudan triangle of lost technologies, lost, stolen, holidaying, who knows?

Time for another sojourn through the serpentine, twisting arteries of the 3 phone system to express the fact that I’m now utterly pissed off and have developed a farce-induced attack of tourettes that needs an outlet.

I also need that SIM deactivated.

My first tack was to head towards customer retentions, because as we all know, companies man those lines with people with real power to make changes, funny how that same atttention isn’t always as readily proffered when customers are quiet and happy, but they’d all buggered off for the evening gone home to their families, so I reached a dead end and had to call again to play telephone keypad roulette with the best fit options on offer.

I wasn’t rude, but I did express my frustration to the representative I eventually reached so he was left in no doubt as to my current state of mind. He immediately asked if I could get to a 3 store locally: –

Me: Yes, that’s possible, where is the nearest store, I’m not sure there is one in Sevenoaks?

3: Let me look Sir <quick verification of post code>, it’s 217-219 High Street Sir, would that be convenient?

Me: If that’s Sevenoaks, that’s great! Will they give me a SIM and activate it on my current number

3: Yes Sir, they can do that for you

<Some discussion ensued with regard to opening hours, and I said I would visit the store in the Morning>

“I really had no idea there was a 3 store in Sevenoaks” I though to myself, I’ll double check where it is: –

“OK Google, where’s the nearest 3 store”

“The nearest 3 store is 217-219 High Street, Orpington?”

(@Three, this is just another example of why offshoring phone support is a bad idea, I clearly checked and verified that this store was in Sevenoaks, but the representative, who no doubt has very limited knowledge of UK geography has not grasped that this store is in a different town!

I now have to drive to a different town, will have to pay for parking, in order to collect the SIM that you were unable to reliably deliver to my house, something every other business I deal with online seems to manage with consumate and seemingly magical ease on a regular basis.)

Maybe I’ve just been incredibly unlucky here, but I do accept and understand that things sometimes go wrong.

As someone who takes a great deal of interest in customer service issues and would far rather praise excellence than highlight failure, this debacle has pushed me closer than ever to becoming an angry, annoyed customer, who is still considering his long term future with a company I believe, at heart, is different and stands out from it’s competitors.

I’m usually calm when dealing with issues like this as I know to err is human, but this is 5 days of frustration and farce and at some point, when you feel no-one is really doing anything, you feel the need to become the loud and annoying person in the room that everyone else hates.

It’s not the day to day simple stuff that makes customers loyal, it’s what happens when things go wrong and how they are dealt with that turns the loyal customer into the fiercely fanatical advocate.

All the customer research shows that whilst it’s always best to avoid mistakes, it’s how you deal with them that separates the merely good, from the exceptional, these situations are real opportunities for excellence and I can’t help but feel that in this instance 3 have failed, miserably.

Let’s hope that tomorrow’s collection goes smoothly and starts to rebuild that trust I’ve now lost.

To any company leader reading this, please think long and hard about whether your hard won reputation and your interaction with  your customers, the bedrock of your business, is best sacrificed at the altar of cheap, remote and disconnected individuals.

I’m not saying that they don’t care, just that their job becomes significantly harder as a result of their remoteness and their lack of cultural connection; try as you might there will always be barriers and communication issues that have a significant impact on how your business is perceived. You are sending a message that the direct point of contact with your business is a cost, not a critical interface, that you are prepared to sacrifice for the sake of your short term bottom line.

Here endeth the lesson, thank you for reading, I’m going to pour myself a beer.

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2 Responses to How great companies lose control of their reputation.

  1. Richard says:

    Doesn’t really help with the main problem here, but maybe it’ll lighten your mood a tiny bit to know the Tesco store at the end of the high street in Orpington doesn’t charge for parking. Or at least it didn’t when I was last there – I lived there for several years and never paid for parking in town once 🙂

    It’s for customers only of course, but there’s bound to be something you need from a supermarket to justify using their carpark…

  2. Andrew says:

    Thank you Richard!

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