Show some initiative: Getting the case solved

Or: The customer doesn’t give a flying hoot about your internal processes or org structure. Go out of your way to help them out.


I’ve written about Virgin Media’s completely misunderstood approach to social media support once before, as an example in how empowering your customer support representatives is so important. Of course, being the ever-so-optimistic person, I figured that perhaps they are an organisation that is still finding their feet from a social support point of view.

So, yesterday, when I spotted that somebody had vandalised the Virgin Media box up my street, I decided to get back in touch with them. When I did so, I made a couple of assumptions:

  • They would want to know where the box was
  • They would want to know a reference number or similar
  • They would want to see proof of this vandalism

Luckily, Twitter is a great tool for that; my tweets are geo-tagged, and so I tweeted them a picture of the box. I also decided to add the reference number of the box in the tweet itself.

Now, let’s pause here for a second, and think about the following: if you worked for a large a large utility company, and you received a tweet stating that some hardware you operated had been vandalised, what would you do?

What happened

I don’t think you’re meant to be able to see these bits.

So, the correct answer to the above question would be:

  1. Report the picture, location, and reference number to an engineer
  2. Thank the person who reported it, and let them know what the engineer said. Preferably something like “We’ll send someone out to take a look at it ASAP”)

Instead, I got a message advising me to fill in their social media response form. That’s lovely and all, but all the information they needed to completely resolve this inquiry was right there in the tweet. If Virgin Media need more information from me to prevent further vandalism to their own property, well that’s their problem, really.

I couldn’t help myself, and decided to voice my frustration. Not particularly polite, perhaps, but there you go. And, before you ask, no, they didn’t take the opportunity to redeem themselves.

When futility flexes its muscles

What went wrong?

Well, it’s pretty obvious, really.

Either, it’s an individual failing. In that case: Whoever responded to the initial tweet didn’t decide to take the initiative to look into the issue in greater depth, and take the logical steps to resolve the issue (send out an engineer…)

Alternatively, it could be an institutional issue: that Virgin Media have their social media team on the case primarily to placate the social media masses, that another team is actually dealing with support, and that never the twain shall meet.

It’s a sad day, when even what ought to be the simplest, most basic customer interaction turns into an exercise in mild frustration.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is how not to do social customer service.

An update: The battle continues

So, I decided to continue pursuing this particular case, to see just how long it would take Virgin Media to cotton on…

When I reported the issue, the front panel of the box was still there, leaning against the side of the box. If someone had acted quickly enough, all they had to do was to send out someone with the right tools, fasten the door, and job would be done. A couple of weeks later, the front panel vanished (probably stolen and sold for scrap). So far, the innards of the box have not yet been vandalised, but they are very exposed, and all it takes is one drunken idiot to take a heel to the cabling, and (as far as I can tell), my broadband internet would vanish.

So, how did they deal with it?

May 11th.

May 11th, I send them my first report, complete with an up-close shot of the poster inside, which includes a reference number for the box. That should be enough, right?

I’m asked to fill in a form? Curious.

I tell them that I’ve given them the information they need. Honestly, they don’t need my details (and if they do need to ask follow-up questions, they can — via Twitter).

Nope, still unable to do anything without filling in forms

I remind them again…

As you might imagine, this isn’t a particularly reassuring customer interaction. Now, I would be willing to accept that perhaps Virgin Media have some internal systems that they have to follow, and maybe they want to ensure that they avoid pranks, by only accepting support requests from people who they can identify. But honestly, as a customer, I don’t care.

Think about it: In your own business, if you received a tweet that a part of my infrastructure was vulnerable; Would you a) ignore it, b) insist that the customer fills a lot of information you don’t need into a form, or c) investigate & resolve the issue?

With Virgin Media, I’ve had a and b, so far, whereas most sensible human beings would opt for option C. Hell, Virgin Media must have had engineers in my area at some point over the past two months — couldn’t a dispatcher have asked one of them to swing by and take a peek?

24 June

In June, I figured I’d remind them again:

Let’s give it another shot, again with a photograph

This time, they didn’t reply. Which I sort of understand, I was being a bit rude.

13 July

I thought “Hey, it’s been a full two months since I first reported this, and the box is still not repaired. Perhaps I should remind them again…

This time, I figured I’d try a photo of the poster.

Wait, that looks like a familiar reply…

So I re-iterate my point: We all have a job to do in this. I’ve done mine, now it’s time to do yours…

But no, apparently not…

And so, I finally decided to fill in the form. Which was where I felt hopelessly powerless again. It turns out that the form the social media guys are trying to get me to fill in doesn’t actually add any new information at all — which simply helps amplify the feeling that the social media team and the customer support team don’t actually talk to each other at all:

If you had a form designed especially for social media support… Wouldn’t you attempt to at least make it render well on mobile browsers? I guess not…

Of course, I still have no faith that this issue will be resolved. Or rather: At some point, some drunken idiot will vandalise this box properly, which means that the whole block of flats will be without internet.

It’ll probably be a lot more expensive to fix than it is currently, and it means that Virgin Media will have a score of angry customers without internet.

It’ll have been easily prevented, too, and it could have been avoided at any time during the past two months.

Lessons learned?

Social support is hard, I know that — but ultimately, if you make a commitment to taking some of your customer conversation onto Twitter and Facebook, you also have to expect that you occasionally get messages that need to be actioned in ways other than sending people to a feedback form.

Be ready for that, and train your staff to take responsibility, and empower them to enable to make actual changes and fix actual problems.


Scffld is a blog where Haje Jan Kamps covers the great, the terrible, and a sprinkling of best practices of customer service. There’s a bit more background here.

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