Friday, June 05, 2009

Barriers break when people talk

That's Airtel's new marketing mantra. Airtel is one company that takes its brand philosophy very seriously, and so as their customer, I am living proof that their philosophy is true.

Soon after I arrived in the US in August 2008, I was in need of a calling card to call home. Having been an Airtel customer for the last few years, I chose Airtel's Call Home Service. Now I did not have a debit/credit card yet to make an online purchase, and so I had to ask my cousin to buy the card for me. Also, since I was tired of my cousins not letting me pay for anything, I insisted that I pay him the amount in cash. Ultimately the deal was struck - my cell phone was charged with $25 of call time, and I paid that amount in cash to my cousin.

About a week later, when I had used up a couple of dollars of that money, one day the card stopped working. "Your account has been blocked," was the most that I could get out of it. I called customer care. Now customer care wanted my cousin's name, his mail ID, his SSN, his credit card number and a complaint from his mail ID before they would start working. Since my cousin stayed in Ithaca and I in Newark, this took some time. Then finally, after another week or so, they registered a complaint.

Then started a series of follow up calls. Every night I would call their support and ask about the status of my call. Initially they tried to fool me saying there was some system error, and someone was looking into it and so on. However, having worked with a call center system for three years, I knew just how to handle them. So after a couple of weeks of this, I started logging a fresh complaint every night. Soon the agents discovered that their ticket queue was full of only one complaint repeated n times. Now they stopped receiving any complaint from me altogether.

The next phase was full of more follow up calls. Again every night. As Airtel's previous advertising tagline would put it, I expressed myself in all kinds of ways possible to the call center agents in India. I spoke in a businesslike manner first, then pleaded, made emotional appeals asking them how they would feel stranded in a strange country without a phone card (I was actually using's card by this time as I had my own plastic money), then voiced my displeasure as much as I could within the limits of decency. All in vain. Whoever received the call, male or female, repeated the same lines, "Your card was blocked due to a system error sir. We do not know why and how, and we have no idea when it will be fixed. Do you want a refund?" But I did not want a refund, for the refund would have gone to my cousin's account. I had already paid the money. It was past mid September by this time.

Then one night it happened. I was returning home and I made the regular call to Airtel support, and an agent called Shiv received my call. In retrospect I feel sorry for the guy, for any man can only perform within his intelligence level, and he is simply not well endowed in that area. I must have been irritated for some reason, and when he started his standard dialogue about the system error, it broke some barriers. I chose every four-or-more-letter word that I have learnt in 27 years of my life but never used, and very accurately targeted them at him, his family members living or dead, all other Airtel employees male or female, and their family members and ancestors as well for good measure (they later told me they had recorded that speech - I wonder how I can get a copy).

I'll have to say one thing about that agent Shiv - he takes his job pretty seriously, probably because that's the only job that he is capable of doing. All this while as I was calling him names and assuring him that I would keep calling all Airtel agents names until my card was unblocked, he kept repeating, "Please use professional language sir. Your card was blocked due to a system error. Would you like a refund?" But I did not want a refund, so the call went on and on. There's a saying in Hindi which can be loosely translated as "People who work by kicks cannot be convinced by words." The average Airtel helpdesk agent seems to be in this category, for however impassively Shiv may have behaved, my verbal kicks touched a chord somewhere in his brain which all my pleadings and "professional language" had failed to achieve for over a month and a half. Now it is a different matter altogether that due to his extraordinary powers of comprehension (probably because all his brain power was being used up by trying to maintain an "American" accent) he interpreted my instructions as "I do not want a refund. I do not want to unlock my account. Airtel may steal my money and keep it forever." But more of that later. On that night, he offered no solution.

Sometime during the next week, Airtel woke up to my problems and woke my cousin up in the middle of the night. By this time I must have been famous all over the call center and their ticket queue was full of pending tickets from me, so I was too big a problem to be ignored. My cousin gave them a strong dose of "professional language" upon which they apologized and promised to fix the problem soon. And lo! During the Durga Puja in the first week of October, my phone was working again!

This situation continued for about a week, I made a few calls with that card, and then it was blocked again. Repeated all procedures mentioned above. Only difference is, to speed up the process I went into the four-letter-word mode directly this time. It worked better, for my phone was unlocked within a week or so this time. I made a few calls again, and the last call that I made was on the 20th or 22nd of October. After that my card got blocked again but with a different message this time, "Your account is empty. Please recharge your account to continue calling." I knew there were nineteen dollars and some change in that card, so I called Airtel again (I remembered their number by heart now). They said as per my instruction to agent Shiv (!) on the 22nd of September, they have refunded my money on the 17th of October.

Now this was funny. Firstly because I had definitely made calls after 17th October, and all the process of unlocking my account and relocking and re-unlocking it had taken place after my call to agent Shiv. Secondly as I verified from my cousin, the money had not been refunded. But in the subsequent calls, if I asked these things, they directed me to their supervisor. This, by the way, is the standard Airtel procedure to drop the call. They would put me on hold for the supervisor, and then never come back again. This time, after I explained that I had caught them in this act too many times to believe in coincidence, they agreed to call me back if the call got dropped. And sure enough, the call did not get dropped this time.

The supervisor turned out to be a super-moron though. His logic was, "We deal in phone calls - if you have a problem with phone calls, contact us. The bank deals with money. If you have not received the refund, go and ask the bank for it." What can one say when faced with such irrefutable logic? I could have started my standard procedure of "expressing myself" to my heart's content, but then I thought the guy must be having too much on his plate already as he has to manage the likes of that agent Shiv every day, and let him go. Although I am a poor grad student here, I still put a value on my time and energy and I have a fair idea of how much of time and energy to spend for $19. I had already overspent it. I had bought that card in August and it was already November. I was a full time Raza customer now, and I had spent more than $25 worth of talk time (out of my free minutes, of course!) on that Airtel card. I decided to call it quits.

But Airtel was reluctant to let me go even if I wanted to leave in peace. They were thick-skinned enough to dig up my phone number from their database even after this and try to sell me their new products. If that is not the height of optimism, I wonder what is. Once again, a heartfelt thanks to these telemarketing agents, who have no idea whatsoever of the customer service department and its workings but are forced to listen to my complete story each time they call. I thank them for providing some comic relief in an otherwise boring day, for what can be more entertaining than being able to bash up a telemarketing agent's company with actual experiences, and then involve them in a discussion about how good the competitors' products are. One poor guy got so frustrated that he started asking me about the rates Raza and Reliance were giving and then started fumbling for words when I proved that the Airtel rates were higher than both.

Latest status: in February they called my cousin asking why this account was kept inactive, and if we don't refill it would get expired. On hearing the story yet again, the agent had looked up the records and accepted that there had been some problem in giving the refund. Can you believe it? He actually had the nerve to imply "Yes, we are sorry we stole your $19 this time. But it won't happen again, please refill our card." That is the kind of attitude that a company wants when they hire a marketing agent. This guy deserves some kind of an award from Airtel. As a gesture of goodwill, they actually refilled my card with 30 minutes of talk time ("We are sorry for stealing your $19.75, but here's $0.75 that you can keep as a gift from us.").

This brings the theft down to $19. For Airtel, an India-based company, it makes perfect sense. They earn in rupees. $19 is actually higher than any monthly bill I have ever paid on my Airtel mobile phone back in India. For one earning in US dollars, it is not much. When you have an army of cheap punching bags available who are ready get cursed and abused over phone for money, you can afford to swindle a few hundred NRI's this way each month and walk away with a neat profit. Besides, they have to pay A. R. Rahman. Now that he has won two Oscars, probably his fee will increase. As for me, I at least managed a few hours of toll free entertainment (I can still find some willing target if I wish after a particularly stressful day) and this long blog post. Not really a bad deal for $19. What do you say?


  1. This reminds me of my crappy experience with AOL. I know a movie that could cheer you UP.

    Hope your quals went well :)

  2. @Crystal Blur: Let's see if I can find someone to go to a movie... I wanted to see A&D as well, and now I am waiting impatiently for HP6.

    As for the quals, I hope so too!:)

  3. I am hoping that everything would get well for the quals. By the way, thank you so much for sharing us this worth to read article. I hope that I could be able to read more articles like this one soon. Keep it up and more power to you and your blog.


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