Technical fail: Coping with glitches when working from home
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Home working means managing your own technical hitches and frustrating calls to TV and broadband providers - a new area of expertise for Richard Burton
The TVs are always on in all of the offices where I work in normal times. Up high on walls or dangling from the ceilings. Loud and constant. A bit intrusive for the sedentary folk in Payroll or HR, but everyone in newsrooms just talks, telephones and types over it.
It’s just something that’s there in the background. We see events live before we read it on Reuters or hear it from another horse’s mouth. Terrorist attacks, state funerals, ministerial resignations, you name it.
So, the last thing that concerned me as I took away two laptops, signed into three dropboxes, two image databases and downloaded Zoom and Microsoft Teams, was wondering how I’d keep up with Sky News, CNN, or Bloomberg as I settled down to three months of writing from home.
A few trouble-free weeks in and, having read stories about how lockdown was breaking the internet, I had enjoyed problem-free access.
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Then, just as I was waiting for an announcement from Sadiq Khan I was supposed to be commenting on, my TV went blank. Not a huge issue, but sight of the Sky News ticker would have helped as I didn’t have access to the wire services in my kitchen.
I used my phone to look at one of those, It’s us, not you websites that tell you there’s a broadband problem in your area and an engineer is on the case, but found the signal was weak so wrote it off. Except it wasn’t.
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Like so many other reports I read later, the story turned out to be wrong. My internet connection was fine, but my TV wasn’t.
My problem was getting a solution. Lockdown may not have broken my internet but it caused a severe wobble in my connection with customer services.
I rang Virgin Media’s usually very responsive helpline and, having been taken through countless multiple choice options, waited, gave what I hoped were the clearest instructions and waited again, only to be told there was a pandemic so I should go online.
After trying a few different permutations to trick it into giving me a real person, I gave up and went online.
I logged in, gave a few details and a test signal was instantly pinged to the box under the TV. It came back fault-negative. The signal was fine so, if nothing’s showing, it must be the Tivo box. In other words, it’s not us, it’s you. Like I’ve not heard that before.
Alas, I went online again and tried two of those nerdy YouTube channels, the sort I always imagine are run by beardy people surrounded by boxes of coaxial cables. Both showed me how to turn off, wait as long as it took my mum’s boxy Rediffusion Mark 8 to come alive back in the days when Ken Barlow was at uni, and reboot using a control-alt-delete equivalent with the control buttons.
That, and an equally nerdy forum, led to nothing. So, at 11pm I went back online for a web chat. I started typing in one of those boxes that puts you in direct contact with someone else who can type. I explained the issue, confirmed more than once that I’d tried everything they were suggesting, and waited.
After a few replies that appeared to not quite answer questions or ask them of those I’d already given, at just after midnight, they stopped coming so I gave up and went to bed. I came down again at about 8.30 the next day and found I was still logged on and the little chat box was empty so I asked if there was anyone there. There was. I got a message asking if my problem had been resolved.
I was tempted to say, nice to hear from you again, I’ve been sitting here all night, but instead took it on the chin when told to check my cables. I decided to try ringing the helpline again, only to find, as I waited for a reply, a message telling me the customer services person was typing.
Just as the message came through to tell me they needed to send an engineer out, the phone was answered and a voice told me they needed to send an engineer out. I imaged two people sitting together, one typing, one talking. Bad cop, bad cop.
Either way, the news was, he couldn’t come for six days. OK, so I could still get everything I was paying for on my phone, but I needed that to interview people about the stories I was responding to on the news I couldn’t get.
Not ideal, but one copes. Later, I received a text confirming the engineer would visit tomorrow, asking us to stay in another room and confirming he would use “all precautions”.
When he arrived, I said he couldn’t come in without a mask so he had to retrieve one from the van. He swapped the box quickly and efficiently but, unlike the original fitter who’d stayed long enough for a cuppa as he went through the entire set-up procedure, he left as soon as stuff started appearing on screen and dashed off, telling me to “follow the instructions”.
All of which gave a clear indication of the pressure these companies are under with reduced staff and increased demand.
And this from someone who never suffered any of the 54 outages the network monitoring firm ThousandEyes reported from all providers over three weeks in April.
And I wasn’t even personally affected by the performance declines Ofcom had reported as networks were put under increased strain with millions working from home, children using online platforms to carry on school work, and people generally turning to gaming and streaming for entertainment.
A BT spokesman did tell me later when I asked for an official view of the issues that they felt at an “advantage” in that all their UK call centres operate within this country, adding: “We’ve managed to get many of our retail colleagues to help in the contact centres, using their customer experience on web chats, for example.”
Virgin’s response was far less forthcoming, merely forwarding a blog confirming what I’d discovered earlier, that monitor websites such as Downdetector aren’t always right, and pointing out that “some small level of disruption is inevitable when you’re providing a service to six million cable customers”.
But just when I was lamenting the lack of communication to a longstanding customer, I was made to eat my words. The engineer sent me a text saying I could call him if I had any problems. Helpful. But not before he’d told me for the second time to expect a customer satisfaction email, adding: “I hope I wowed you enough to score a 10”.
Sadly, I couldn’t oblige. Six weeks later I’m still waiting.