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Our sector’s customer service image is changing for the better. But we still have a long, long way to go

Our sector’s customer service image is changing for the better. But we still have a long, long way to go

In early September, a prominent British computer journalist called Stuart Lauchlan published what some might call a rant but others a heartfelt piece born out of years and years of frustration with Openreach headlined, ‘Broadband Britain can be done, but it needs to stop being so damn difficult to achieve’.

To give you some of its flavour, here are just a few snippets: “‘Broadband is not a utility - and it never will be.’ Those words stick in my mind—and my craw—over ten years since they were uttered blandly by a BT call centre operative… once BT did grant me the privilege of being connected, the next surprise was how appalling the service was… ten years of fruitless pursuit of speed enhancement options.”

‘Each set of vehicles promised a nirvana of super-fast connections--a temptation not supported by the sales team’

You probably get the gist. Yet to be fair, Mr Lauchlan hasn’t had bad experiences from just one operator—he’s had the very bad misfortune to have had it off more than one, including Sky, Virgin Media and BT. To give just one example: “Virgin Media vans full of people digging up the sidewalk became a regular sight, vying with their BT Openreach counterparts for the few viable parking slots to be found. Each set of vehicles promised a nirvana of super-fast connections, a temptation not supported by the sales teams from each company when contact was made to try and sign up… [Yet] a residential property with over 40 occupants, the majority of whom, even then, were working from home, in the city centre of a ‘digital economy’ urban conurbation, but BT and Virgin et al didn’t want to know. There were no plans to install fibre, insisted BT, not now and not in the future. Virgin echoed the statement, while happily laying down fibre to commercial premises nearby, presumably on lucrative private network mark-ups?”

Luckily for his cardiac health, Mr Lauchlan did find a broadband solution in the end, via a company called Fair Fibre: and finally, things started to take a turn for the better (“It’s been over two weeks now since we had the installation done and the performance has been excellent and consistent… one outage, triggered by a third party provider, I gather, that was resolved in just over half an hour and was followed up immediately with an apology and an explanation via email to all clients”).

But he alleges that, “If that had been BT, I’d still be hanging on the phone trying to get through to someone who wouldn’t be able to help me anyway”. We’re not agreeing or disagreeing with any of this—but the fact that these articles still get published in a country with surely one of the best legacies for telecom innovation in the world should give us all pause for thought.

Complaint handling: one of our worst failings?

Perhaps a bit more than that. Let’s be honest: UK telco customer service sucks. Here’s another damning headline and article with facts to back it up, from long-time telecom sector watcher Ray Le Maistre: ‘Virgin Media O2 needs a dose of humility and a revamp of its culture’. What justifies that stinging summary: “The latest Telecoms and pay-TV complaints report from UK regulator Ofcom shows that, during the first quarter of this year, Virgin Media was the most complained-about broadband, landline and pay-TV provider in the country, and ‘the main reason customers complained to Ofcom about Virgin Media was to do with how the company handled their complaints’.”

That same Ofcom poll, incidentally, shows that in the first quarter of 2021, it received higher complaint volumes than in the preceding quarter for most services, with the number of fixed broadband and landline complaints reaching a three-year high.

Read that again: a three year high.

And the bad news for our sector keeps on coming: since 2008 and twice yearly, a body called The Institute of Customer Service (ICSI) publishes a national barometer of UK public customer satisfaction with brands, which it claims to be an independent, objective benchmark of customer satisfaction on a consistent set of measures on over 250 organisations and organisation types across 13 sectors.

So, this is a very indicative study on the state of customer satisfaction in the UK. And its latest snapshot, published in July, details how although satisfaction with complaint handling is at its highest ever level, almost a quarter of respondents believe some organisations have used Covid-19 as an excuse for poor service—and that of the top 10 highest-rated organisations for customer service, only one was a telco, and I have to say an MVNO at that (which we will meet again in a second).

‘Consumers expect the service of the provider to be excellent’

Yes, we can take some comfort in the fact that the Index also shows that the public services, retail (non-food) and telecommunications and media sectors each improved their rating by at least 1 point, compared to July 2020: telco has hit 74.2 out of a possible max of 100, compared to 81.2 for non-food retail, and is just about ahead of transport, at 71.5.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. There is nothing inherently, intractably difficult about providing a great CX (customer experience) for subscribers: Sky Mobile and GiffGaff just won big in the Expert Reviews Mobile Network Awards 2021, for instance: as well as that and that sole telecom sector entrant in the ICSI research, Tesco Mobile.

Here, customers were asked to rate their network’s customer service, value for money and reliability, as well as whether they’d recommend their network to a friend. Sky Mobile was voted the network the winner in all four categories And as the magazine put it, “With phone technology so good now, consumers expect the service of the provider to be excellent, too, but this isn’t always the case.”

No, it isn’t “always the case”. Bad customer service, be it for your mobile or your broadband or your baked bean delivery service, is just not acceptable anymore. To be crass about it, we’re now so fed up with it we’d even pay more to get it (ICSI datum: “the number of customers who are willing to pay more for excellent service has grown to 32%”)... though we’d really not be impressed if that chance of a bit of extra margin was why you decided to clean up your act compared to the inherently decent desire to be a good business to work with.

Some sobering thoughts here. The technology is there to improve things at every level – on which, more in a future post. But, it’s the little things that cause friction points – and which get compounded that matter. Things like re-entering your details after passing the first security checkpoint (why? Data should be persistent), or failing to respond within a reasonable timeframe. Let’s all strive to stop giving journalists reason to slag us off anymore—and much more importantly, aim to be much, much more like a Tesco Mobile going forward.