Be wise: beware companies bearing gifts. John Mitchell writes from experience
Last October, my wife, who is a teacher, received an offer she couldn't refuse. She was invited to join the BT Home Computing scheme, whereby a new computer could be offered on exceptional terms.
We were given the chance to buy a relatively recent state-of-the-art computer, supported by a Scottish Executive initiative.
Payment was to be made via salary reductions over three years, prior to tax and national insurance deductions, and relieved of VAT payment.
It all seemed too good to be true. Alas, in certain respects, it undoubtedly was.
If I am completely honest, it performs admirably enough, but I have wondered more than once whether it might not have been simpler to trot over to a computer store, pay the VAT, and bring a machine home, because the BT Home Computing supply arrangements left absolutely everything to be desired and the customer interface arrangements were completely non-existent.
The diary of events went something like this.
October 13 Place order online: an extremely efficient website deals with the order swiftly, before informing us of our December 7 delivery date. I arrange to take the day off work.
December 6 Leaving nothing to chance, I decide to give BT a ring to confirm delivery arrangements. An automated message service leaves me in a queue.
After 15 minutes I decide to trust in the arrangements. This was foolish.
December 7 Day off. I find things to do, but it is frustrating being tied to the house. I begin to grow suspicious and at 4pm I telephone the helpline. The automated menu system assures me that my call is important to them, but takes some time to direct me to the correct enquiry centre. When it does, the number rings and rings and rings.
It rings for 25 minutes. I leave it on speaker setting as I potter around my study, hearing irritating reminders of how busy they are today. Eventually, a loud click signifies they have cut me off.
I bite my lip and remember that stoic acceptance is what made Britain great.
December 8 Ring the helpline again, with exactly the same outcome as yesterday.
I ring our council offices, whose employees have commended this scheme to us. They are unfailingly helpful, courteous and obviously just a little bit frazzled. We weren't the only family to have been let down by BT, and they were compiling a list, which was being passed on that very day. IF BT hadn't been in touch by early next week, I was to let them know.
When I arrive home from work, a letter from the intriguingly named Mr Money, head of BTHC's customer services, is waiting. He apologises that it will not be possible to deliver our computer as promised (on the previous day) and says a new delivery date of December 14 has been arranged.
"Funny," I observe to Mrs Mitchell, "that the country's major provider of communications equipment couldn't have thought to send that information by email or on either of the two mobile numbers provided."
December 12 A lady named Sarah from BTHC rings my office, presumably in response to the council's proddings. Unfortunately, I am out, but she leaves a number asking me to call back.
Whether this is to advise me of a delivery day or to apologise for the problems, I shall never know. It is the same number that I rang before and when I ring it again, I hold for 20 minutes in a queue and then I have to leave for home.
December 14 The new delivery date: another day off. No delivery.
Send an email to BT and receive an automated reply assuring me they will be in touch as soon as possible to answer my query.
December 15 Same response as usual from helpline. Arrive home from work to a delivery card that announces a parcel couldn't be left as we were out.
The parcel can be collected between 6pm and 7pm that night but "please phone beforehand if you are coming to collect". Ring the number five times: am connected, then cut off on each occasion.
December 16 Parcel is redelivered to neighbour. It's a printer.
December 17 I ring the helpline again and a recorded message tells me: "The office will reopen at 10am on January 4."
A feeling of utter and complete helplessness descends until, an hour later, Parcelforce arrives with the rest of the shipment. The delivery driver has obviously met a few irate teachers who have held him personally responsible for their inconvenience. Not me. I know who is really responsible.
The delivery instructions advise me to ring a number within 24 hours if there are any problems with the contents. Unsurprisingly, there are: the wrong speakers and the wrong ink cartridges. Even more unsurprisingly, the number also gives me the same recorded message advertising the office closure until January.
During the holidays, I email BT with details of the problems (another automated reply, and no response to date) and I also take the trouble to write to Mr Money, he of the laughingly entitled customer services department.
When it comes to communicating with BT, I reckoned that the old-fashioned approach of paper, envelope and stamp might be more efficacious than anything as up-to-date as telephones or email.
Alas, at the time of writing (four weeks after delivery) I am proven wrong.
They just don't answer anything.
* BT replies: "The BT Home Computing scheme was so successful in Scotland that in the run-up to Christmas we received 50 per cent more orders than anticipated. This, combined with supply and courier problems in trying to meet the demand, caused delays for more than 3,000 customers.
"We did manage to deliver 15,000 computers, having pulled out all the stops.
"We're really sorry and would like to assure customers that we have been working flat out to get their computers to them as quickly as possible.
Vouchers are being given as a goodwill gesture for late deliveries and we have doubled our call centre capacity."