Saturday, 10 July 2010

Vodafone's Catch-22 price plan

Called Vodafone today because they've just charged me £250 on one of my handsets. They mentioned a new price plan which is available now that my contract period is finished. £20/month for 900 minutes and an infinite number of texts. Pretty good considering that I just paid £250 for 900 minutes and a distinctly finite number of texts. So I asked to switch plans.

Should they have told me about this option - costing less than a tenth of what I was paying - without me having to ask for it? An interesting question, for a company claiming to provide the highest quality customer service of all the British mobile networks, but that's not what this post is about.

This post is about me remembering that my work mobile is on an old contract too, costing me about about £65 for much less than 900 minutes. So I asked to have that one switched to the £20/month deal too. And so the paradox started.

I haven't changed plans for about ten years on this one. I don't use it enough for the price to make a big difference, and I'm not too bothered about having the latest handset. But if I can save £40/month with no extra commitment, why not?

Well, here's why not. Because my existing plan is so old, Vodafone refuses to move me onto a new one! The customer rep - after asking in that recognisably puzzled tone of voice, "Hmm. Can I just put you on hold for a minute?" - claims that the system does not allow her to switch me onto any of their currently available plans.

Is this an attempt to get rid of customers who aren't interested in buying new handsets? Surely not, as I must have been fairly profitable for them over the years.

In fact, the answer must be simpler, more incompetent and a bit funnier too. There must be a business rule system in Vodafone's software which specifies which plans, under which contract conditions, can be moved to which new plan. And could the developers perhaps just have forgotten to set up rules for the 1999 price plans, assuming that surely nobody would have managed to avoid an upgrade for that long?

More likely, the permutations - given the complexity and number of different contracts they've introduced over the years - became overwhelming, and they made the pragmatic decision to leave such unusual cases to the manual intervention of the call centre staff. The flaw in this plan: they haven't given those staff the power to intervene.

So it comes down to this, in the words of their own customer service rep: Your plan is so old that it cannot be changed to a newer one. So, er, can I move onto a different plan so that this problem goes away? No, you can't move onto a new plan because you're not already on a new plan.

So Vodafone - a company that claims to be "at the forefront of mobile innovation"; whose "next generation technology opens up a whole new range of opportunities for customers" - in fact embodies the efficiency and absurdist logic of Catch-22's 1944 US Air Force. Maybe not surprising that this bleeding-edge leader in mobile technology has a history that stops in 2006.

Mobile companies are notorious for deliberately inventing complex contract plans to ensure that customers are unable to compare them on price. Sometimes, I suppose, complexity can bite them back. So I've taken the simplest available way out: I've requested a PAC so I can switch both handsets to a different network. Sometimes there's no point trying to negotiate with a machine.

And the funniest comment of the 28-minute conversation with a confused customer service rep? When I asked for that PAC: "But why would you want to leave us?"

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