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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 June 2007, 16:00 GMT 17:00 UK
Dealing with Third World systems
The BBC Urdu service's Masud Alam on the pleasures - and pains - of receiving mail from London.

River Thames
All accounts were settled before leaving London

Aah, the pleasure and the thrill of opening a letter: The old-fashioned letter, contained in a low-grade paper envelope with its peculiar aroma, sealed by moist human tongue.

But it is not just the traces of someone's DNA on the envelope's behind that make the surface mail special.

It's the excitement of the unknown: a surprise note from a long-lost friend; an irresistible invitation; cheque for a forgotten payment; a lottery win - the possibilities are endless.

I haven't had this pleasure since I arrived in Islamabad.

I'm told there are postmen in Pakistan, but I haven't had a visit from one yet. The only correspondence I get at home is in the form of utility bills, delivered by motorcycle-riding couriers.

From London without care

It was therefore with considerable delight that I received a large Sainsbury's shopper bag full of mail that a friend had picked up from my former home in London.

I'm now left to deal with two pesky Third World systems: One that I live in and the other that followed me from England

Even the fact that the majority of the crisp white envelopes betrayed the official nature of business contained therein did not dampen my enthusiasm.

Old letters are all the more intriguing in that they precede events which have become history in the present.

I settled in my reclining chair and slowly, deliberately started opening the mail.

There were two or three announcements of seasonal sales at high street clothiers. There was a postal ballot paper for the election of office bearers at the journalists' union I am a member of.

And the rest were all threats.

Why me?

Before I left London, I had spent the best part of a month informing various service providers and government agencies of my departure, organising final payments and cancelling direct debit instructions.

Why then have I received dozens of reminders of various bill payments, cautionary notes from debt collection agencies, a court summons and a bailiff order passed against me?

No, I'm not seeking an answer. I know why only too well.

Britons are professionally solid workers at many a job, like... ummm can't recall any at this time. But one area that seems simply beyond them - by genetic disposition or social and historical manipulation, I do not know - is the service industry.

Taxi cabs in London
Masud has bad memories of buses and cabs

And London, the big city, is probably the worst served.

Many local bus and train drivers take sadistic pleasure in shutting their doors to an out-of-breath commuter who ran the last 50 feet, but is still a nano second late.

I once went to a locksmith a little after midday, with an urgent job. The gentleman looked at his watch, then dismissively at me and said sorry it was approaching his lunch time.

The bathroom attendants at Charing Cross train station regularly chase away passengers in dire need of relieving themselves but who don't have a 20p coin handy.

When I left Toronto for London in 2001, Canadian papers were mocking the local telecom industry for pumping huge investments into broadband internet infrastructure while the number of projected users remained laughably small.


In London, almost none of the representatives of the telecom companies I called understood the terms "broadband" and "high-speed" internet.

I signed up with the only company whose representative recognised "broadband" as one of the services on offer.

The same company, I learnt much later, was placed at the bottom of a nationwide customer service survey.

And being the worst in customer care in Britain is not just extremely bad: it's atrocious and offensive.

From my own experience, I reckon the worst in North America will probably compete with the best in England.

Masud Alam
Masud's family and friends were surprised when he moved to Pakistan

I came home from work one day to find my wife crying.

The poor thing had called the phone company to tell customer services about a problem. She was kept on hold for ages, transferred from one desk to another, asked to enter customer info at every step, got disconnected twice and had to start all over again - and still couldn't get the problem fixed.

The ordeal lasted more than an hour, after which she announced she was never going to call that company again.

It was me who dealt with this company from that day on.

It was still me who worked out the final payments and closed the account.

And it'll be me again who deals with the debt recovery agency which is demanding, on behalf of this phone company, arrears of 4 a month for "not keeping an active direct debit".

Problems galore

Then there's the Borough of Bromley in which I resided - and paid my council tax to - till last November.

The borough's officials have used up reams of paper, dozens of man-hours and the precious time of a local court to get a bailiff order passed against me for not paying the council tax.

I am getting my own pleasure, imagining what the bailiff's face would look like when he or she knocks at the door and is told the person whose possessions they want to confiscate, moved out months ago!

There are also gentle reminders and harsh warnings from the electricity supply company (that is the only legitimate claim), a wireless internet service I've never used, a sports club that actually owes me money, and a mobile phone operator that renewed my subscription without asking or informing me.

As if I didn't have enough problems with the utility companies in Pakistan!

I'm now left to deal with two pesky Third World systems: One that I live in and the other that followed me from England, and just won't leave me.

This debate is now closed. Here is a selection of your comments on Masud Alam's column.

Masud is bang on the money. At least in the US, service industries pay lip-service to the idea that your main job is helping the customer get their job done. This simply hasn't sunk in for British utilities, travel agents, the Home Office... pretty much anyone who provides a "service". Forget about the Customer is Always Right: in this country the customer is clearly an annoying distraction from some other, higher, calling (putting the kettle on maybe?)
Dushyanth Narayanan, Cambridge

I won a competition held by BBC Learning English in September 2006 and was supposed to receive an MP3 player as a prize. To my surprise, I'm still waiting for it to reach me.
Muhammad Asim Munir, Gujranwala, Pakistan

You are so correct about high standard of services in North America. I moved back from USA to India after living there for some seven years. And all accounts with several utility companies and tax authorities were closed smoothly with minimum effort. Also, I had a pleasant and a gratifying experience with a local government car registration office, when they helped me get the title of my car, even when I reached there after their working hours. I needed that title to sell my car and that was just one day before I was leaving USA. Only problem I had was with the travel agent company, who charged me twice on my credit card for our family tickets back to India. But that was resolved with just one e-mail to the credit card company cced to the travel agent.
Sandeep, India

The postman who delivers mail in my father's locality of Jadavpur in Calcutta is especially prompt and courteous, especially when he knows he may be delivering a money order. On other days he can be seen dawdling around the neighbourhood and having tea at the local tea stall.
Lina Sen, Evanston, Illinois, USA

Don't get me started about my cable company or my DSL service provider here. The only mail I get are bills and more bills.
Ravi, Washington DC, Us

CDs are not allowed because they know very well that virtually all you get in Pakistan are pirated copies. Probably stops people from doing some profitable import-export business. You can send CDs within the country, I've done that.
Hickie, Islamabad

I moved from London to India in 2003. I settled all my bills, everything was perfect and I feel the service in London was great, I even got my TV license refund money transferred to my bank account after my departure from London.
Sathish, Salem, India

Be glad you get your mails, Mr Masud. Here in Malaysia, there has been many cases of postmen throwing away letters. Only God knows whose life has been ruined by a missed interview or college application. There was even a case of a postman who stacked up mail he was supposed to deliver in his flat.
Krishna, Kuala Lumpur

Interesting article indeed. I can relate to Mr Masud's problems as I decided to go back to Pakistan, for good, in 2000. Bills always seem to make it back home.
Imran Ahmad, Ottawa, Canada

As far as my knowledge goes, British phone companies don't have a contract with Indian call centres, and even if they had one, each call is monitored for quality purposes. Furthermore, each of these call centres are headed by graduates from the one of the top business schools. Secondly British phone companies generally do not out-source their operations to an ordinary call centre, there would be due diligence checks that are conducted by companies, and all these companies would have to adhere to a quality certification system. On top of that, there would be a contracting process, whereby any company would be eligible to apply for the contract, and if an Indian call centre is awarded the contract then so be it.
Ashish Shukla, Hyderabad, India

I completely empathise with your situation! I feel being a student can be worse - I have moved from different private accommodation twice, and on both occasions have been asked (actually threatened) to pay utility bills from the previous tenants! I ran up a bill of over 50 calling these "help centres" for the various companies... This is one story of many I have of being British and living in Britain... My book should be out soon... Watch this space!
Annika Bahulayan, London

Having lived in UK for several years and visited Canada several times, I must say that Canadians must be the most polite people on the face of this earth. After that experience, I had to encounter rude and uninterested salespeople at stores throughout the UK. What you wrote about UK broadband brought a wry smile, as I have been having problems with my broadband connection for more than a month but somehow the largest British telecom company cannot or does not seem to want to resolve it.
Abid Khan, Milton Keynes

This reminds me of the fact that even though I bought my house more than two years ago, I still don't get gas bills. I get gas, just not any bills. I must have called the company at least 20 times, but they seem to be unable to send one person along to my house and fix the meter so that I could start paying them for the gas I use. I try and be a responsible person, but this mess has left me feeling justified for receiving gas without paying for it.
Jacoba, London

Better go to woods and live with nature. Small is beautiful. Less is more.
Muzaffar Saeed, Muzaffargarh, Pakistan

I used to work for a global market-leader in networking technology at their European headquarters, and part of my job involved communication with sale people and managers throughout Europe. I can safely say that the UK salespeople need some nappies and dummies to settle their fragile egos! They were notorious for their bad-mannered behaviour and penchant for throwing their toys out of the cot! And in most cases they were wrong when they made on-the-spot assumptions and accusations! It seems that being British is not an easy-going experience!
Darren, Sint Niklaas, Belgium

Letters are just not as exciting as they used to be in pre e-mail days. Now I neither write nor receive many personal letters. It seems most people can contact me by faster means... even if my replies are still as slow. Meanwhile the official mail seems to be no better. Nine months after my departure from UK the Inland Revenue has decided that I owe them 0.00 pounds, but due to the small amount concerned they will not pursue repayment. Still I do love to get newspapers and magazines in the mail.
Darwin Smith, Moka Mauritius

"She was kept on hold for ages, transferred from one desk to another, asked to enter customer info at every step, got disconnected twice and had to start all over again - and still couldn't get the problem fixed." Hey this might have been an Indian call centre! Seriously though, if the BBC is still looking for a replacement for Alistair Cooke, you might just be the answer - great stuff.
Adrian Tan, Singapore

I still have my family dealing with my post back in the UK, but thankfully nothing as bad has happened to me. There is a postal service here. I'm not sure how good it is in comparison to other services, but I once had a package that had taken 14 days to leave France, and took less than 24 hours to get to me here. Sadly they do have a habit of opening everything to have look at what is inside, and CDs are not allowed to be sent in the post for some reason. That is the worst aspect of the service I have found so far.
Usman Ansari., Gojra/Pakistan

So true!
Kaiser, Islamabad

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