Joe Tibbetts an owner-manager for 30 years is a marketing and business development "engineer" and has advised hundreds of SMEs and many local and national government departments on their digital marketing communications


11 lessons in how to deal with a big, careless monopoly like BT

Publisher suffers 13 days of hell, frustration, lost time and lost profits because BT doesn't care that it is incapable of installing a phone/broadband line that works.

Rather than simply demonising BT (which, let’s face it, is easy sport) here is a story of the sort of customer service we all hoped was a thing of the past and eleven practical tips on how to deal with a mighty monopoly like BT.

A couple of months ago we opened a third office on the edge of a village in Kent a few miles from an international transport hub. Dover for the ferry, Ashford for the Eurostar.

BT Open Reach came to install our broadband line. The engineer explained that because of overhanging trees (belonging to the Highways Department) he didn’t have the right equipment (for “equipment” read “longer ladder”) so he was doing a temporary fix just to get us going. Nice man. I thanked him profusely and he laid the line at ground level through some roadside bushes.

He assured me that he would put a note on the record and someone would come in a few days with the correct equipment to do the job properly.

SATURDAY - morning
After a few weeks of problem free service we clocked on for a weekend of publishing stories to our online news platforms only to find our broadband was down. We called BT, they issued us with a case number and said their engineers would try to find out what was wrong.

A couple of hours later the BT engineers still didn’t know what was wrong. but we did. We had found our phone line, in several pieces, festooning the newly mown grass verge a hundred metres from our office.

SATURDAY - afternoon
We phoned BT at once, gave them the “case number” and explained what the problem was. After a while they called back to say their engineers were trying to find our what was wrong. We told them we knew what was wrong. The line was physically cut so could they send an engineer with a longer ladder and a spool of cable and reinstate the line. They said they would, within two working days. It was Saturday morning so we should have out broadband reinstated by Tuesday evening at the latest.

In the real world, this meant four days unable to work. I complained and was told that I should have taken out Critical Care and though I would have to pay a little extra for this it would have been worth it because then the response time would be six hours, 24 hours a day 365 days a year. I complained that nobody in BT sales had ever mentioned any of this to me

“Oh” said the first nice lady from the BT Business Accounts call centre “I’m not surprised. They never tell anybody.”

We moved back to the Birmingham office for four days, at great expense, and waited patiently.

Tuesday evening nothing had happened.
I called BT. They made a few pathetic excuses and after a while admitted that the job was “still waiting to be issued to an engineer”. I complained in robust terms. BT offered no explanation and no apology. The (2nd nice) woman in the call centre offered to call me back. I said I didn’t want her to call me back I wanted to speak to her supervisor.

“Why?” she said “she won’t say anything different to me?”

An hour or so later a supervisor called. The first two woman had been friendly and polite. The new woman was “firm” to the point of being aggressive. She offered to call me back. I said I didn’t want her to call me back I wasn’t satisfied with her answer and I wanted to speak to her boss.

“Why” she said.

“Because,” I said, “I want to escalate this complaint.”

I don’t know why I used those words. I have never used them before. “Escalate the complaint”? Typically in such circumstances I would say…. well never mind what I would typically say I just wish that I had thought to use the words “escalate the complaint” before. 

Like magic BT customer services started to operate in a way that really should be the norm not the exception

At 11.31 on Wednesday morning Jacob of High Level Escalations BT Business Repair Helpdesk called me 

Let me say, from the outset, Jacob is a gentleman and just what you need in such circumstances. Someone who picks up the problem, takes ownership of it and doesn’t let go until it’s fixed. And, in some obscure way, Jacob is “powerful”. For when Jacob says someone will come out on a Saturday morning to fix your line, that’s exactly what they do.

On the other hand, he offered no explanation or excuse for the missed contracted service level deadline and nor did he apologise. At the end of each telephone call, he thanked me for my time. Yes Jacob but to whom do I send the bill?

At one point, seeking reassurance, I spoke to Open Reach. They said they couldn’t help me because they used a different case numbering system to BT and “didn’t recognise” BT case numbers. This seems to me so stupid as to border on the criminally insane. I asked Jacob if this could really be true. He didn’t deny it.

In the morning a man came from Open Reach, with a longish ladder and a spool of wire and replaced the wire. It took half an hour. Then he spent an hour failing to make the connection work and went away again.
In the morning I spoke to Jacob and for half a day the BT engineers “tried to find out what the problems was”. The feeling of déjà vu was overpowering.
A week after we had first notified BT of the problem another man came and discovered that the BT accounts software thought we had a domestic account and the router, which was a business router, was incompatible. No explanation or apology was offered.
On Monday afternoon a third router came by special delivery. Special delivery? It’s that Jacob effect!
Jacob called me and took me through the process of reprogramming our business relationship with BT and installing the new router.
Twelve days after the problem was reported to BT it was pronounced fixed. Jacob thanked me for my time one last time and I waited. I expected at least an acknowledgment that the initial problem was their fault, that they had failed to fix the fault in the time they were contracted to do such things, that their fault finding and fixing processes were less than effective, that they understood that we had lost days of work simply because their system failed to spot a simple problem that they themselves had caused. I was sure there would be an apology and some, no doubt inadequate, offer of restitution. But I was wrong.
A parcel came from BT. I tore it open hoping for something that would restore my faith in this great, British, institution.

BT want us to pack up the two redundant routers in the packaging they sent us, get in the car, drive for fifteen minutes, park the car, walk to the post office and post the routers back to them

How can any organisation large or small get it all so wrong. Corporate history is littered with the corpses of massive organisations who died because they thought they were too big to fail.


  1. If possible, and this may not be possible, don’t give your business to BT
  2. When someone promises you that their organisation will return to do the job properly get on the ‘phone the next day and ’phone them every day, twice a day, until they do it.
  3. When choosing a supplier for your broadband compare service levels when the system goes down not just speeds when the system is working.
  4. Take out the highest level of “care” you can possibly afford. A week off-line can be disastrous for a small business. If possible go for 24 hour call out.
  5. You want to get to High Level Escalations as soon as possible. Escalate the complaint at the earliest possible moment. You need to get out of the call centre and into the “do things” centre, where the Jacobs live, without delay.
  6. Refuse to take the call back. Demand to talk immediately to someone who can deal with the problem. The call back is for their convenience not yours. The managers of the smaller Premiership football teams know that if you want to beat the big super rich teams you have to make them play the game at your speed. Take it to them and play hard.
  7. If they don’t call you back within 15 minutes call them back and ask to make a complaint that your complaint is not being dealt with. Insist that they open a new complaint case and give you a new complaint case number.
  8. Be polite but be persistent. The level of service you get is directly related to the level of grief you give them.
  9. When you are escalating be prepared for someone who is allowed/encouraged and possibly trained to be passive-aggressive to come on the line and try to frighten you off. Don’t be frightened off. I find the phrase “unless you moderate your tone, I will speak to your manager” very useful
  10. Don’t hold your breath while waiting for an apology from BT.
  11. Sell your BT shares sooner rather than later

Joe Tibbetts is an owner manager. He has been an owner manager for more than 30 years. His business Boilerhouse Online Publications (BOP) publishes Public Service Digital, Healthcare Innovation Monitor, The Information Daily and Council News Monitor. Each year BOP platforms attract more than 800,000 unique readers and viewers from among middle and senior managers mostly in the public sector.

 We have asked BT for a response to this story but so far no response.