A letter to Charles Dunstone, the head of Carphone Warehouse in the UK

Dear Mr Dunstone,

I would like to share with you the story of my recent problems with Carphone Warehouse and Value Telecom. I’m a naturally charitable person, so I think I put most of them down to cock-ups rather than conspiracies. But there does seem to be a natural tendency for sales assistants to make promises they can’t keep, and after-sales support people to see insurmountable problems instead of opportunities to help.

To begin at the beginning:

My girlfriend and I both live in New York; I’m English, and she’s American. She’s going to be spending a month in Europe, and so the last time I was in London I decided to buy her a phone she could use while she was there. (As I’m sure you’re aware, most US phones don’t work in Europe.) My initial idea was to simply get a pay-as-you-go phone, but then I was told that international calling rates on such things are exorbitantly expensive, and I wanted something which she would be happy using in France and Italy as well as England.

So I go into the Carphone Warehouse on the Brompton Road, where Richard, my friendly sales assistant, tells me that there’s a better alternative: deals where you buy a phone without a monthly service charge, and then bill all calls straight to a credit card. Those deals are much cheaper than the pay-as-you-go phones when you use them on the continent.

However, Richard then proceeded to find problems with all of the networks who weren’t owned by Carphone Warehouse: essentially, he said, if I didn’t live in the UK, I couldn’t sign up for such a plan. But there was a solution: Value Telecom, owned by Carphone Warehouse, didn’t have such restrictions. The phone cost more, but it would be worth it.

Immediately there were small snags – I couldn’t put the phone in my girlfriend’s name, because the name on the account had to match the name on the credit card, and I didn’t have her credit card on me. (I was in London, while she was in New York.) Also, Richard couldn’t set me up with international roaming there and then: I’d need to call Value Telecom and get them to set it up. But that wouldn’t be a problem. While I was on the phone, he said, it would also be very easy to switch the credit card that the calls were billed to from mine to hers.

So I bought the phone, and took it back with me to New York, where my girlfriend was very excited about being contactable while in Europe.

And then we tried to make that one simple phone call.

The first attempt started OK, but when I tried to change the account into my girlfriend’s name from mine, I was asked for the existing credit card number. A relatively reasonable request, but I didn’t have the card on me, since I put the phone on my UK credit card rather than my US one.

The second attempt was a non-starter: all the support staff had gone home. Unlike all the other networks, Value Telecom doesn’t have a 24-hour phone line.

The third attempt was the real blockbuster. I was calling on a credit card, costing some 65 cents a minute: little did I know that the call was to last for over an hour. First of all I was told that I couldn’t change the name on the account over the phone; that would have to be done in person at a Carphone Warehouse store. When I explained that that would be quite hard for us, seeing as how we are in New York, 3,000 miles away from the nearest store, I was told that OK, just for us, we could do it by fax. This time, no one was interested in the existing credit card number, and there was no way we could do this by phone. I would need to fax over a cover letter, the new name and address on the account, and a photocopy of the credit card. Yes, a photocopy. I don’t have a photocopier at home, and there’s no information on a photocopy of the credit card that I can’t put in the fax, and my girlfriend’s on her way to Europe, but apparently we need a photocopy.

Anyway, the whole photocopy issue soon turned out to be moot, because after my girlfriend gave her credit card number, we were told we couldn’t use it at all, because it was issued outside the UK. I mean, she’s American, she lives in New York, of course it’s issued outside the UK. But apparently Value Telecom can’t charge to cards issued outside the UK.

This was all getting a bit much, but at least I thought I could keep the phone under my name, on my UK-issued credit card, and just activate it for use on the continent. It’s all part of Richard’s one easy phone call, right? Wrong. When I tried to do that, they decided to run a credit check on me. And when they asked for my address, I told them I lived in New York, and they said that they couldn’t run a credit check on people outside the UK. So I’d need to pay a £100 deposit, which would be charged to my credit card for three months. OK, let’s do that then. Oops – sorry, we can’t even charge your credit card for the £100, despite the fact that it’s the same credit card that was used to pay for the phone in the first place. You live outside the UK, you see, and we need a card with a UK address...

Mr Dunstone, I have to say that at this point I was feeling quite frustrated. What with being put on hold the whole time, I’d spent nearly an hour on the phone, and had achieved precisely nothing. I don’t think that what I was asking was particularly unreasonable: after all, most US phones don’t work in Europe, so surely it’s quite common for US residents to want to buy phones for when they’re in Europe.

Anyway, at this point I was transferred to a supervisor, who got an abridged version of the story, and who then put me on hold again to see what he could do. I stayed on hold, stayed on hold a bit longer, heard a little beep, stayed on hold a bit longer still, and eventually heard a message saying that the time alloted for my message was up, and that I was being disconnected. Evidently the supervisor had managed to shove me into some sort of voicemail queue, and that was the end of that.

I took a deep breath, and went back home, where I can make calls to England at a much more reasonable rate. I reckoned this could take a while. Rather than try to go through the whole process from scratch, I first made a couple of other phone calls. The first was to First Direct, who issued my credit card, and who said that although they were sending all my correspondence to New York, they still had me down officially at a UK address. The second was to Richard at Carphone Warehouse, who had helpfully given me his phone number. He wasn’t working today, but his colleague was very nice, talked to the Value Telecom people, and told me that when I called back, they should be able to sort me out.

So I took a deep breath, and called Value Telecom back. This time I got a woman who used the word “actually” a lot. No, there wasn’t a note on my account, and no, I couldn’t change the address on the account to anywhere in the US. OK, let’s just get the phone set up so it can be used in France. We’ll have to do a credit check. I’m ahead of you there: use this address, I’m still registered there with First Direct. A long time on hold. Eventually: those credit check people say you’re a US resident. Yes, I’m a US resident, but my card is still UK registered. They can’t do a credit check on a US address. Which is why I gave you the UK address. But you actually live in the US. Yes – oh, never mind, just bill the deposit to my card. OK. Well I’ll send this off then…

Suddenly, my credit card details were being sent off somewhere to pay my deposit, when the last time Value Telecom tried that they came back and said they couldn’t do it. So could I get some confirmation that international roaming would be activated? Yes, it will be sent to you in the mail. Sent where? To the address you gave me in the UK. But I don’t live there, and haven’t lived there in years. So where should I send it? To my address in the US – here it is. Sorry, we’re a UK company, we don’t send mail overseas. Look, it doesn’t matter anyway, my girlfriend’s leaving today, can you give me some confirmation today that the international roaming has been switched on? Well, if you give us a UK address… oh, and by the way, you won’t get your money back after three months, you’ll only get it back after six months.

So that’s where I am now. I know I’ve completely failed in switching the phone into my girlfriend’s name; I think I’ve succeeded in making it work in France, but I’m not sure; and I know I’ve succeeded in spending an entire morning, from 9am to 1pm, trying to sort out what Richard assured me I could do in one five-minute phone call. I’ve tried to phone back to make sure that the international roaming is activated, but the customer services department is closed again. (It’s now a quarter past two in New York; a quarter past seven in the UK, on a Monday.) If I’d had any inkling of what I’d have to go through, I would never have bought the phone, and simply told my girlfriend to get two pay-as-you-go phones, one in Paris and one in London. Sometimes, when you try to make life easier, it only becomes much more difficult.

Yours sincerely,

Felix Salmon

(Back) to felixsalmon.com