Optus support disasters: Bureaucratic inertia destroys service

What follows is the draft of a letter I wrote in preparation for speaking to an Optus representative at management level about my ‘home user’ experiences with the company. The promised call-back never came, but the text accurately represents my experiences.

What follows is the draft of a letter I wrote in preparation for speaking to an Optus representative at management level about my ‘home user’ experiences with the company. The promised call-back never came, but the text accurately represents my experiences.

There are no words to describe the frustration of dealing with the monolithic, unresponsive and arrogantly indifferent bureaucracy Optus has grown into in just ten years. A decade ago I changed all my services from Telstra to Optus for that very reason: abysmal customer focus and service from Telstra. Today I wonder whether I don’t need to do the same thing again, finding a smaller and more customer focused provider actually interested in addressing my needs, supplying good service, and resolving any problems I might have with that service.

The Background

Since April 2010 I have been trying to deal with a series of problems related to Optus’ extensive reliance on ‘bloatware’ (badly written) Java code and a disconnect between Optus management and levels of Optus technical support relating to pre-paid wireless services and general networking infrastructure and reliability. Chronologically, these problems may be categorized under four headings:

  1. The Huawei connection manager software
  2. Optus website java code
  3. Optus networking infrastructure support
  4. Optus management failure in customer service and support

Huawei software

The Optus-branded Huawei E160E USB modem I purchased in March 2010 came with self-installing software to manage the connection and to offer a means of reading and writing SMS messages transmitted from and to the mobile number attached to the device.

This software, a ‘bloatware’ Java applet, has such a massive RAM and CPU footprint that it is almost impossible to run it and any other program simultaneously without locking up my system — 100% CPU plus so much RAM that pagefile must be written and read. The software also has an indescribably annoying process of frequently re-checking the existence of the modem and its connection status, which frequently kills the connection rather than confirming it, costing me 10MB from the ruinously expensive, miserly low wireless upload/download quota each time, 10MB being the (arbitrary) minimum MB quota used for each connection made. That’s like selling me a leaky water bottle, charging me for the refills, and knowing that I’m paying for the spilt water each time. If I didn’t know that this was ineptitude or incompetence I’d be tempted to call it a rort in the sense that I’m paying for something I don’t get to use.

For that reason I set up the modem in the native Windows connection manager, hoping to eschew the Huawei software altogether. To replace its functionality of reading and sending SMS messages, I looked to functionality I hoped to find on the Optus website, but soon discovered that the code there was just as bad, and for the same reasons – badly written Java. More detail on that below, but suffice it to say, I still have no SMS reader that doesn’t screw my system with its pants on, I can access my user account only intermittently, and I still cannot use the ‘contact us’ pages.
The Optus website

Words almost fail me in describing the ineptitude of the Optus web developers in throwing together HTML, javascipt, Flash and Java applets in as bloated, dysfunctional and confusing a website as I have seen in the 15 years that I have been a web developer, IT helpdesk manager, and ITIL process specialist.

If there was planning behind the structure of the site, it escapes me. If user processes were considered at all, they are certainly now buried under layers of frustratingly unhelpful marketing guff, and endless pages employing what I presume were supposed to be ‘flashy’ eye-candy that adds no usability, information or value.

In that maze of crap, I attempted to accomplish two relatively minor tasks: get a user account and use the ‘contact us’ functionality instead of making tech support calls. Both tasks sound pretty simple, don’t they? But they defeated both my best efforts and your own tech support personnel. What is your web development team thinking? My conclusion is that there isn’t much thought at all, presumably because there is no business management oversight or supervision of IT processes like the website. More on that later.

The details of my latest attempts to resolve these issues can be found in your incident XXXX [redacted]. What you should find there is the proof that I was jerked around by a support operator who did no more than run down a tech support script that had no room for Optus being the source of the problem, which turned out to be the case for both issues: my mobile broadband user account and password had to be manually created as a sub-set of my mobile phone account; something I could not do remotely as had been insisted it could by your support staff. And the fact that all three of my web browsers locked up on trying to access the account login or ‘contact us’ pages was finally replicated by one of your own technicians (3 February) who confessed Optus was aware of problems with its website despite repeated assertions over months that there were no such problems and the fault must be at my end.

But to gain even the smallest concession from your tech support staff about Optus technical failures, I actually had to undertake the troubleshooting myself, and at a technical level that I know is understood by most 14-year olds, but that seemed to baffle your tech support personnel.

In particular, I pointed out that when using a Java console and some error trapping I pinpointed the website problems to the attempted execution on my machine of Java applets apparently originating from optus.112.2o7.net (for contact page), fls.doubleclick.net and secure-au.imrworldwide.com (for login page). The Optus tech support response to this information was advice to me to re-set my browser settings to default, and to disable my firewall and anti-virus programs!!! In other words, to self-sabotage my security settings. This despite my repeated attempts to explain that my problems were long-term but intermittent, which should have told your staff that settings at my end that have not changed for 18 months are not the root cause. There is, of course, that other small matter that I am using three web browsers, each with different settings, but every one of them with exemptions in their settings to allow Optus to execute code. Nevertheless, all experience the same failures with the Optus website (MS IE 8.0.6001.18702, Mozilla Firefox 3.6.13 and Google Chrome 8.0.552.237), but not with other secure connections all over the world.

Let me tell you now that the blind reliance on assuming customer imbecility, on disconnecting the modem and rebooting every time I sneeze, and on the demand that I reconfigure my system to suit a bizarre voodoo conception of how a customer system should run in order to suit Optus web developers, does not address the inescapable conclusion that the errors I referred to under this heading all lie at your end. The proof of the pudding was your own technician’s admission to that effect.

I would suggest there are three very obvious remedial management steps that have been missed —

For every bloated page, there should be a plain HTML substitute that offers the same functionality without eye-candy, and the really obvious error trapping that might offer a useful error message such as ‘to view this page you must enable …’, etc.

I know of no precedent for a programmer admitting writing bad code, and yet such code is ubiquitous. Testing regimes should be removed from programmers and their bosses. Instead they should sit with analysts using lowest common denominator systems (say, for example, an XP Pentium I machine with 256MB RAM) alongside the bleeding edge systems your developers appear to be using as benchmarks.
I strongly suggest that Optus would be well-served by using its website to give better FAQ advice on common issues WITHOUT forcing users to load java applets, and to advise on the technical status of networks in those same pages. I have found more useful advice on Whirlpool and other forums than on the Optus website or via telephone technical support. What a waste of what could be a money-saving and customer service delivery vehicle.

Optus networking

A second set of recurring problems for me has been the Optus networking infrastructure setup. Specifically, dynamically assigning to my modem a set of two DNS servers at ‘dialup’ that may be overloaded (your technician’s suggestion) but that fail to redirect me to less stressed servers automatically. For the past week these servers have been and, even after an ipconfig /release and re-boot, and contrary to your technical advice that this would change my modem settings somehow. More voodoo?

The support operator told me she would do some behind-the-scenes work on my account settings, but to do so would drop out my connection, and have no effect until I rebooted. When I asked whether she was talking about removing a lease on a particular configuration assigned to my service number, she could not or would not answer. In any case, however, if there really are remote settings that determine exactly what DNS configuration is passed to my Optus network adapter (which is set up to automatically obtain IP and DNS), why the insistence that the fault must be at my end, particularly after I reported on the latency and timeouts returned when pinging those DNS IP addresses?

Whatever the case, it appears to me, on my side of the opaque Optus technical support system, that every time there’s a network overload or some other unacknowledged hitch in the Optus network, my connection experiences massive latency and time-outs. Given this is a recurring problem, I would have thought an FAQ should be devoted to it describing diagnostic process and prognosis. A better use of the website, I think, than crappy Java applets that add no value or functionality.

From a customer experience point of view, Optus wireless broadband technical support has only level 1 technical support scripts, no direct contact with level 2 and 3 techs or your network provisioners, no ability to send or receive emails for passing on or discussing screen-shots, error messages, etc (you are a telecommunications company, right?), and no capacity to assist in any way other than advising that the customer unplug the modem, re-boot, plug the modem in again, hope that the right sacrifices have been made to the right gods, and then insisting that if problems persist you take the modem to another computer (which we are all just expected to have to hand) so the whole process can be repeated again.

As I write I’m still waiting on a promised call-back, and Optus has still not publicly acknowledged any problems in its network infrastructure.

Management failure

After all the hours of my own time chasing this relatively simple set of problems, I must conclude that Optus management does not exist, is sitting comfortably somewhere snorting cocaine and sipping Martinis, has no idea how deficient Optus customer-facing processes are, or just does not care.

Disconnecting technical support from any theory or practice of customer service is a disaster waiting to happen, the way it happened to Telstra. It is a sure sign that the organisation has grown too fast, or without competent management of the growth, to keep basic business goals at front of mind in all areas of operation.

For example, why would a customer care or tolerate the fact that Optus has several incompatible billing systems that are linked to user accounts? Fix it so this never becomes an issue for a customer to have to deal with. Why can a wireless broadband tech support operator not talk directly to second and third level support resources? Why do I have to wait days for a call-back? Why can tech support operators not see my entire contact history in their help desk system when I refer to previous incidents and contacts? In short, why should I care or suffer that Optus has created monolithic, bureaucratic silo structures that remove the customer from anything resembling service or support, preferring instead internal convenience, turf wars over responsibilities and seniority, and a complete lack of ownership by anyone in Optus for an identified problem?

A stunning admission of this grotesque management failure was advice from an Optus tech support operator that he thought it was a shame that I wasn’t a business customer, because had I been I might have been transferred immediately to a consultant with some understanding of customer service. It was direct acknowledgement that Optus does not value ‘home users’, and has made a deliberate decision to treat such customers with contempt. It was also direct evidence of faulty logic: though I’m a ‘home user’, I am also an IT professional who routinely offers advice to businesses on products and services supplied by Optus and its competitors.

These aren’t technical issues, but failures to manage technical processes, customer service and support processes, and, ultimately, to manage customer relationships. It seems almost trite to point out that as an Optus customer for more than 15 years, I have been treated shabbily. From having my house cabled for TV, phone and internet, to being refused cable in a unit because it was a ‘shared’ dwelling (sounds like a lawyer’s way of saying a cardboard box under a bridge), to using the outrageously expensive wireless option, has Optus served me well? No. What stories will I tell my friends and colleagues, all of whom use telecommunications services in what is rapidly becoming a commodity market? What advice will I offer to clients about value for money services and after-sales service?

If Optus management is not concerned about the answers to these questions, the company is indeed headed for a rude awakening, particularly with the NBN shakeup in the wings, and the already prominent price-war spearheaded by smaller players eager to pick up market share shed by the majors because they just don’t offer value and service anymore, presumably because non-performing managers are paid too well to put in place systems and processes that don’t work for customers. And yet, after all is said and done, customers are the sole reason Optus exists at all.

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