Dial M for mayhem

Telstra's technical limitations and high operational charges are one thing but confused billing and appalling customer service are quite another, writes David Goodman

Call me old fashioned but I'm a natural fan of Telstra. There's something dependable and comforting about the idea of Telstra. In part, it's a resonance with the ideological certainties of my parents' generation and their commitment to state provision of public utilities. In part, it's a patriotic sense of attachment to "Brand Australia", which quite reasonably Telstra has often sought to cultivate. And in part it's an emotional relationship to events and athletes Telstra has sponsored, like Cathy Freeman's Sydney Olympics gold medal win, which stays in the memory forever.

Then there is the issue of service provision. Everyone knows that telecommunications companies are not to be trusted. Even the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman, Deirdre O'Donnell insists in her annual report that telecommunication companies should ensure they have "clearly and simply spelt out their terms and conditions". She also implores consumers "to read the fine print of contracts they signed".

The expectation of better and more reliable service from the national telecommunications icon is high. This is a blue-chip company, not a fly-by-night operation. Telstra offers years of experience, shopping mall outlets, great adverts, and the prospect of having a single bill for all services–mobile, broadband and home line.

Of course, loyalty comes at a price. In Telstra's case, this is the relatively high access and usage costs, the occasional limits to bandwidth and slow operational speeds. But these are general Australian problems and not solely the preserve of Telstra. This, together with the inevitable path dependency, would seem to provide the explanation, in large part, why most Australian telecommunications customers remain with Telstra despite the market opening up. In any case, anyone who has battled with earlier state socialist telephone systems or experienced the Australian system as a public utility has developed a tolerance to inefficiency and a perpetual optimism about the possibilities of technological change, including improved management systems.

Attracted by the single bill option last year, I decided to reorganise my Telstra services: mobile phone, home line and broadband services. Unfortunately, Telstra proved to be even more old fashioned than even I could have imagined. Despite appearances to the contrary, it has much more in common with earlier state socialist enterprises than free market technologically advanced companies.

Technical limitations and high operating charges are one thing; appalling customer service and total billing confusion are another. Telstra's customer-service efficiency reminds one of what telecommunications would have been like in the People's Republic of China during the early 1960s if there hadn't been a Great Leap Forward. In particular, sales and telephone helpline staff apparently have no training in expectation management, and what you sign up for is often not what you thought you were going to get. Forget the offer–just read the small print.

The small print must have been very small indeed. Telstra was somehow able to offer me the single-bill option even though they could not deliver on the promise. The mobile phone account could not for technical reasons be combined with the home line and broadband accounts which were on the same bill. For a few months, I settled for that combination. But then the Marx Brothers script writers intervened.

First, there was a sudden, unexplained cessation of the broadband service. Telephone enquiries revealed that there was no ADSL facility on the line, even though I had been using it with Telstra for several years. Resetting ADSL on the line resulted in the home line and broadband accounts being separated, each with their own number. Telephone enquiries further revealed that it was not now possible to combine these two accounts as they too were now on incompatible systems. Telephone enquiries also eventually revealed that for some unexplained reason the system was now regarding me as a "new" home line customer, even though I had held my current domestic number at the same address since 1994.

So no single bill, and of course this simplified narrative masks considerable hours spent in attempting to contact Telstra by phone in a process that would readily have made Groucho smile. Typically, one waits half an hour to speak to someone who cannot help, directs the caller to phone someone else for another 30-minute wait, before being told that they too cannot help and the whole process starts again.

When I contacted Telstra to have my "new" home line and broadband accounts recombined on a single bill, the home line accounts department told me to contact the broadband accounts department. When I did this, I was told to contact the home line accounts department. The invention of perpetual motion.

Shortly after, Telstra's Sydney executive director, customer sales and service wrote welcoming me as a new customer and suggesting I might like to combine my "home line service with two other eligible service types" on a single bill. I did write back to him on 29 December 2008 but have yet to receive a reply.