Dear O2

I actually feel sorry for you. No, really, I do. The Gods of Fail looked down this morning and smote you hard with the Cudgels of Crap Customer Management. So hard, it seems, that you were stunned into silence for several hours.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this, was it? You’ve had to do something you didn’t really want to do, probably–implementing a Voluntary Code protecting minors from The Evil Internet.

A piece of utterly repressive, responsibility-dodging bollocks, I grant you. But you squared up (like all the other operators have/will) and got on with it.

You came up with a smart little scheme to make it pretty easy for people to do the necessary: to prove to your satisfaction (or that of your Regulator) that you weren’t going to let any sweatybody images fall upon the eyeballs of hormonal teens via your networks. Oh no, not you.

You did some sharp thinking about the dangers of using any of the data you already held on your customers–like how long they’d been with you, whether they had a credit card, or the date of birth they might have given you as part of credit-checking. Oh no, not you. That might lead to nasty discussions about Data Protection and all sorts of horrid.

And anyway, you had a sneaking feeling that some of your customers might well have signed up as adults, and then given the phones to their children. This might be something to do with the fact that you, like all the major mobile operators, have missed a blindingly obvious business opportunity to run “parent pays, child plays” contracts. Y’know, making it easy to do something like run a managed bill that we pay monthly, giving the kids some privacy of the numbers they call, not letting them blow their allowance (sorry) and all that sort of sensible stuff. But that’s another rant.

So they might have done this workaround, and there may be some phones in the horny hands of kids, and you won’t know which ones they are.

So your first blinding bit of genius is to assume that everyone, absolutely everyone, is under 18. Until they prove otherwise to you. Great move.

Your second masterstroke (actually, it is quite a good one) is to realise that this might be a slight pain in the arse for some of your customers. So you cook up a little sweetener. If they pay a pound on a credit card, showing the transaction up on Daddy’s bill if it’s a naughty one, you’ll refund £2.50 against the next bill for the account holder. You’re giving money away! You’re buying out the pain of the change. This is brilliant. Textbook stuff.

Next bit of genius. TELL NOBODY ABOUT THIS. Why trouble them with the pain of change in advance? They’ll only worry. Just imagine their delight when they try to visit a website (in my case, one that could not have been more innocent) and up pops a little surprise. A page run by someone called “Bango” asking for money before one can continue. You did this because that’s Bango’s core business, not yours, running this sort of administration. More genius at work. (Bango. Seriously. What. Were. You. Thinking.)

And as people started to question, and moan, and give you feedback (I posted the screenshot above about 9am–soon after you must have switched on, or extended, the block) you sensibly kept quiet, not wanting to add to the confusion.

I went into your shop at about 11 to find that your (non)communication strategy was actually multi-channel. Amazing! The assistant had no idea why all these people were asking her the same thing. She maintained that O2 would never, ever request credit card details like this. It was bound to be a hoax. I really, carefully, asked her if she’d had any sort of advance notice from O2 that this was going to happen. That today might be a bit of a “special day” in terms of unexpected–and wholly avoidable–contact. Nope. Not a word. She even insisted that something like this would have to have been on their internal systems. And nothing was. I showed her the live Twitter search on “O2”. Unimpressed. She doesn’t “do Twitter”.

Eventually something clicked, and I had to haul out my ID–she’d realised this was age verification. I had to produce photo ID. And she had to see it. Yes. Really. At 43. Not funny. Just stupid. And then I was unlocked and away, free to be all dirty again. O2, hanging your High St staff out like that is even less funny. Really, really dumb. Think how she felt when she caught on to what had happened?

And by the afternoon, you’ve had a bit of a rethink about communication and you’ve put up a blog post explaining your side of the story. The date of the post is 3 March. Not yesterday, not last week, not written in time for you to actually communicate it. (In fairness, I see at the time of writing, 7.20pm, that you are actually using it like a blog, taking all comments, and responding reasonably. I’m assuming you hired a social media wizard sometime around lunchtime.)

It could have been so different. A brief “we’re giving away £1.50 for 1 minute of your time” campaign, reaching all your customers, saying that you really wish the world wasn’t so grim that this sort of stuff was necessary, but it was, and here you go, you’ll get the price of a half out of it. A little bit of preparation and a bit more spent on communication, and you’d have turned this into a great piece of well-handled change.

And when people started giving feedback, where were you? The thing is, if you don’t tell people what’s going on, they start making stuff up. Complete horseshit, sometimes. As I suspect you eventually saw, people were telling each other that they’d have to pay £1 EACH TIME they accessed the Internet. That they could bring all sorts of contractual claims against you for breaching terms of service without due process. Horseshit like that is MUCH more exciting than boring old facts. But as you didn’t provide any, off ran the rumours. You should have known this stuff.

Failure when it could easily have been avoided. That’s what makes the whole episode so utterly depressing.

And please can I have my £2.50 service credit?

UPDATE: This carelessly abandoned O2 board paper reveals the depth of thought behind this carefully-crafted scheme…