How are organisations using social networks to connect to their prospective customers? Well, in the straw-poll experience that I had with companies in the UK domestic telecoms sector yesterday, the answer appears to be “not very well”.

Over the past few years I have had a series of traumatic experiences when my home broadband and phone contract has come up for renewal. It shouldn’t be this hard, but I ultimately resent the way in which my encumbent supplier regularly raises my fees, and seems to treat me with contempt in the process. That the process also invariably involves having long-winded conversations with poor people confined to duff scripts and dreadful systems (“sorry, the system is running a bit slow today”) just makes it that bit worse.

Oh, and then there are the pricing models. Price is as much a psychological concept as it is one of economics. And the pricing models used for selling phone and broadband services in the UK seem designed to be as confusing as humanly possible.

So yesterday I thought I would approach it differently. Could I engage with telcos just through social (or at very least just online) to be able to get to a point where I could make a decision? Could I use the transparency of social channels to get a better deal? And what about the much vaunted way in which organisations want to use social to have “conversations” with customers?

I’ve also been of the view for some time that if a company can’t be bothered when it comes to selling to you, what hope for how they will treat you as a customer? Having said that, and the remarkably low bar for customer experience in the telecoms sector, and utilities in general, I had fairly low expectations when at 8.16am I sent out the following tweet:

There you go. I’m looking for a supplier, and to spend a minimum of £600 over the next 18 months. So what happened next?

Virgin Media

First out of the blocks, and seventy minutes after my first tweet, cable provider Virgin Media got in touch…

A little bit of humour, so there’s probably a human involved here. But an immediate attempt to shift me to a call centre – and because of the use of the Lithium system that is a contact centre-y tool for social, the first tweet from Virgin didn’t even meet the basic tenet of the medium – 140 Characters or less.

There was a bit of conversation over Twitter:

But ultimately I was pushed back to either their website or to their call centre.


My current supplier got in touch an hour and three quarters after my first tweet…

Now one of the most common features of telecoms pricing models is that great offers are offered to new customers that just aren’t available to existing one. Although I didn’t explicitly declare my current supplier in my first tweet, it’s clear BT don’t keep much data because I’ve had to use the BTCare Twitter handle enough times in recent years.

And so to the live chat…

Paul: Hello. I’m Paul. Thanks for that information, I’ll check it and get back to you in a moment.

Paul: HI Matt. Checking now hold on thanks

Paul: I can get you through to our customer options team who can look at our current special offers for you. Is that OK?

Matt Ballantine: Yes – can I do that online as I can’t access a phone at the moment?

Paul: No sorry they are not available on line. I can give you their number if you like. It’s 0800 800 030 (free from a bt landline)

Matt Ballantine: Right – sorry, but will have to call later. Is there no detail of existing customer offers online?

Paul: There are yes. You can take a look at them by going to, selecting ‘Buy Our Products’ and then selecting ‘existing customer’.

Matt Ballantine: OK – thank you.

Unfortunately the rest of the transcript didn’t save, but the jist of it was that I’d have to speak to someone at the BT contact centre to get the best deal because only a few were listed online. Yet again, digital channels being used to push the customer to the traditional ones.

Plus Net

Just over two hours from the first tweet and the smaller firm Plus Net got in touch with a fairly passive response:

A gentle prompt…

And eventually through tweets I was pushed towards their website and online chat…

Ellie: at 16:14:53 Hi Matt

Matt Ballantine: at 16:15:48 Hi there – I’m looking for a quote for fibre broadband c. 32Mbps, no data usage cap, and anytime calls. Currently with BT using Infinity.

Ellie: at 16:16:00 To check availability and pricing – please click here – then enter your details. It will then generate results on my end, so please get back to me so that I can help further.

Matt Ballantine: at 16:17:53 Ok – will do

Ellie: at 16:18:27 Excellent

Matt Ballantine: at 16:18:56 OK done.

Ellie: at 16:19:26 Thanks, I see the information here. I would recommend our Unlimited Fibre and Anytime calls package. You’ll get our Anytime UK calls and our truly Unlimited Fibre broadband on an 18 month contract which includes up to 38Mb speeds, and a free router (£5.99 postage applies).

Ellie: at 16:19:41 Unlimited Fibre with Anytime calls costs just £25.95 a month for 6 months and then £35.94 a month thereafter on an 18 month contract. This is for the broadband, calls and monthly line rental.

Ellie: at 16:19:43 Click here to order Plusnet Unlimited Fibre with Calls – then scroll down until you see the Unlimited Fibre Broadband and Calls package and click the “Start your order” button for this.

Matt Ballantine: at 16:20:46 OK. How does it work with shifting from the existing supplier? Do I need to get something like the mobile PAC code?

Ellie: at 16:21:35 You will need to get a MAC code from your provider to switch the broadband over to us, but don’t worry you are able to order online with us first to secure your order and then request the MAC code from your provider after. You just need to then pass this on to customer services once you receive it to get it added to your order.

Matt Ballantine: at 16:22:42 And our existing phone number will transfer across as a result?

Ellie: at 16:23:03 Yes you will be able to retain your number

Matt Ballantine: at 16:23:47 Great – thanks for your help!

Eight hours in the making, but at last a costed proposal which I have been led through by an actual person, but without resorting to a telephone. The only experience where online & live chat were well integrated (Ellie was getting feedback from the web to help assist me make a decision).

Well done Plus Net.


Ten hours late, Sky reply with another Lithium-powered redirection to traditional channels.

Ten hours? Really, at ten hours you maybe should consider doing what TalkTalk did…

Talk Talk

… which was to not bother responding at all.

So what have we learned?

Well, that social (certainly Twitter) is a triage channel when it comes to new customer acquisition, and telephone reigns supreme for most providers (something that I also found in research I did for The IG Group last year).

Want to have a conversational sales experience purely online? Only Plus Net seemed capable of that.

And for the occasional comedy brand interaction you see well publicised, absolutely no-one wanted to enter into a group conversation on Twitter. Not really surprising, but so much for transparency.

What does this say for the actual experience if I were to become a customer – well, that’s difficult to tell. But if you a shepherding prospects almost immediately into your not their preferred channels, it doesn’t look good…

5 thoughts on “The transparent consumer

  1. Matt, can you try renewing your car insurance this way when it comes up for renewal please? I wish I’d tried it when I renewed mine last month:-(
    The thing that most annoyed me was the lack of awareness within my incumbent provider, which BT seemed to suffer here – highlighting that for most of these organisations social is a bolt-on that’s not nearly integrated enough

    1. I wonder if our psychological biases against changing suppliers (fear of change, loss aversion, sunk cost fallacy, etc etc) will ever get overridden by greater transparency of cost, pricing and service quality…?

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