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Hung out to dry on the phone line. By Matthew Norman

Blog | By Matthew Norman | Jul 05, 2024

Telephone 1980, Jonathan Mauer, Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Where do you stand on the matter of coincidence?

God and Albert Einstein famously didn’t believe in it, the latter describing it as the former’s way of staying anonymous. But, much as I respect both chaps, I find myself horribly conflicted. What provoked the confusion is a recent divorce from Virgin Media.

The economic vista having developed not necessarily to my advantage – and despite my relishing the kindly invitation to pay £165 per month for a broadband and cable TV package available to new customers for seven and sixpence farthing – sacrifices must be made.

Now experience counsels that no phone call to Virgin Media should be undertaken lightly.

It should never be attempted, in fact, without the prophylactic ingestion of 10mg of diazepam and several fingers of malt whisky. A coma or death is a small price to pay (not words that come naturally in the VM context) to deaden the pain.

Shockingly, the call was answered by the usual recorded message warning of ‘an unusually high volume of calls’ and ‘longer than usual’ delays.

The ensuing 63 minutes were strangely unleavened by 14 renditions of Eurovision runner-up Space Man. But an equally insistent recorded message advocating the use of the website instead was very sweet. Who wants to hang on long enough to grow a ZZ Top beard when everything can be done swiftly online?

And yet it transpires that there is one thing that even the mighty Virgin Media website cannot facilitate. That solitary thing is... But why ruin the fun? Take a moment for a guess.

The only thing you cannot do on the website – the one recommended time and again to those calling to cancel a contract – is this: you cannot cancel a contract.

Is this a coincidence? Was it also coincidence that, after I had finally reached one human voice, and then waited a further 25 minutes to be transferred to another, the line went dead 2.37 seconds before the cancellation could be completed?

What I do know is this. Regardless of any trivial failings in customer service, you have to admire Virgin Media’s cleaving to tradition. It took a while to become alerted to the digital tech firm’s charmingly incongruous love of nostalgia. Not least because, in keeping with the Einsteinian definition of insanity (doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result), I made a second call.

This one cut out, unanswered, after a refreshing 64 minutes of Space Man, alternating with directions to the website. It is here that I must offer some advice. In circumstances such as these, ring the press office. There’s no need to lie. You needn’t claim to have won a Pulitzer. Merely tell them that you are eager – as you will be – to warn the public to avoid the company as if it were bathed in the lambent glow of a uranium rod newly removed from the main reactor at Chernobyl.

So it was that a nice press officer called Luke, deeply regretting the ‘unfortunate accidents’ with the calls, roused a colleague to effect the cancellation.

If the contract terminates on a certain day, said Lynnette, I’d be due a refund of 45 quid.

‘That’s tremendous,’ I said. ‘So you’ll transfer it to my bank account.’

‘Absolutely not,’ said Lynnette. ‘It will be returned by way of a cheque.’

‘Forgive me,’ I said. ‘My hearing’s not all that. Did you say a cheque?’

A cheque, confirmed Lynnette, was precisely what she’d said. After recovering from the paroxysm, I asked why Virgin Media would go to the bother of issuing and posting a cheque when it could send the money in exactly the same way that it takes it. Lynnette wasn’t sure.

Now it’s not that any of us lacks affection for nostalgia. Being British, we can seldom escape the sense that things were better when we were huddling from the Luftwaffe on tube platforms, singing about hanging out the washing on the Siegfried Line and fretting about our children’s rickets.

For all that, I went on, and not to spoil the fun, surely you have the ability to transfer money to an account from which you have, for more than a decade, taken it?

‘Sadly,’ said Lynnette, ‘this cannot be done.’

I remain racked by indecision as to whether it is an exquisitely cunning ruse, or some recherché form of coincidence, that a firm priding itself on its hyperspeed digital communication chooses to delay the process by several weeks (or several months, given the unpredictability of the second-class post).

God and Einstein could easily calculate how much the company pockets a year by clinging to its customers’ money. My best guess is enough to make it worthwhile.

As I write, meanwhile, a ping announces the arrival of the daily email. ‘Reminder’ reads the subject line. ‘The Virgin Media team would like to hear your feedback.’ For old times’ sake, and out of respect for the company’s faith in tragically outmoded technology, it feels seemliest to do that in print.