EE beautifully demonstrates everything that's wrong with big business: step forward a game changer please.
This weekend I spent over £1,000 in the most unpleasant way imaginable. Buying a new mobile phone contract.
I knew it would be bloody awful so put it off until the last possible moment: using my phone in spite of its smashed back, dunk to the bottom of the loo and disparaging comments from colleagues. But on Saturday one of my kids hurled it across the skanky bleachers at swimming, smashing it to smithereens.
I could delay no longer and trudged to Carphone Warehouse. I care not a jot for the Warehouse or even iPhone but decided on both on the grounds of continuity in the hope of making the purchase smoother.
But the experience was akin to a three-hour naked crawl through London's sewage network. In spite of a brilliant, funny and charming assistant called Zarah.
The horrors were boringly predictable. Tortuous debate about which locked-in contract was worse value than the last, a total lack of transparent pricing – of course the system doesn't total up the spend so you can easily compare the options. The big sell on a £15 quid a month 'geek squad' insurance, incomprehensible questions about megabytes, unreadable terms and conditions on Zarah's flicking screen, forms to sign and boxes to tick, calls into various call centres all suffering "an usual volume of calls" and requests for passwords lost in the mists of time.
But the moment when the biggest rat appeared was in Carphone Warehouse: it was in EE. During a long period waiting for the contents of the shattered shell of a phone to be transferred the new one, Zarah suggested I went to the bright and welcoming EE store a few doors up to move my number over to the new network.
I approached one of three unoccupied young men to ask for help only to be informed that they do not "do" customer services. I asked what they did do and he rather grandly told me that he was a "sales consultants". As I left he returned to his idle group of colleagues and recounted our conversation to great hilarity. Well quite. What could be more amusing than a customer of the last four years asking for help?
The afternoon dragged on. I had arrived at Carphone Warehouse at 3pm with my husband and three kids, who then drifted off stifled with boredom. Zarah unlocked the darkened doors to release me back into the shopping centre some time after 6pm. I now have a broken phone and a new phone: neither work properly.
Somewhere in this mess are, I am certain, the seeds of everything that big business gets wrong: atomised systems, the wrong rewards and absolutely no perspective on the medium or long term value of the brand.
The customer is utterly lost in a structure that serves only itself. Mr EE "sales consultant" is probably poorly paid and rewarded only for sales. Neither he nor his manager wants to waste time helping people when he could be meeting his sales targets. Zarah's technology platform is crude, unlinked and time consuming. The call centres don't have capacity. Everyone else is always responsible for what you actually need. Even with the best intentions, the team isn't well enough trained to make it all happen smoothly.
It is time that someone Uber-ed this industry. We need mobile phone providers who give us clear prices, no lock-ins, phones that work on one charger, simple terms, technical help, smash-proof screens and repairs for a reasonable rate. All overseen by a lot more Zarahs.
If you are that game changer call me. If you are head of communications at EE and thinking of this as a PR rather than a business issue, think again. Either way, you definitely have my number.
Christine Armstrong is a contributing editor of Management Today, author of Power Mums (interviews with high-profile mothers) and founder of www.villas4kids.com
She can be found on Twitter at @hannisarmstrong