Jeff Prestridge

Poor customer service is rife - it’s time to put consumers first

Poor customer service is rife - it's time to put consumers first
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Poor customer service is endemic across swathes of British industry. It plagues some of our biggest companies and as customers we should not have to put up with it. After all, this is the UK, one of the richest countries in the world. Or am I wrong?

It’s time, I say, to stand up, be counted and shout: ‘Poor service no more. Treat us as if you care, as if we are humans.’

Now that rant is off my chest, let me tell you about a recent personal experience.

Early in August, I did the good fatherly thing by ordering a new Panasonic LED TV for my eldest son who had just moved into a flat in trendy Sheffield (he’s a fitness coach at Sheffield United Football Club). I bought it online at Currys PC World.

Matthew, my son, was excited at the prospect of watching Poldark and Victoria and I felt momentarily useful and loved. Life couldn’t have been better. Father and son in perfect harmony.

Annoyingly, weeks went by and I didn’t hear a dickey bird from Currys about when it would deliver the TV I had paid good money for. Matthew began to pin the blame on me. Harmony gone, replaced by disharmony.

In desperation I decided to ring the Currys’ customer helpline. I wish I hadn’t. Whatever digits I pressed at its command, I ended up in a cul-de-sac with the phone cut off. Currys’ automatic system didn’t recognise my customer reference number and it refused to give me an option to speak to a human being. ‘Hello Currys, anyone there?’ ‘Brrrgh.’

Annoyance turned to near meltdown when Currys sent an email asking for my feedback on its customer service. Victor Meldrew would have been proud of my response (mother, of course, would have disapproved).

In desperation, in the middle of September I walked into a Currys PC World branch on Tottenham Court Road in London and went down on bended knee to plead for help.

After a number of phone calls, a kindly assistant informed me that the TV I had ordered was not in stock and was unlikely to be in the foreseeable future. He apologised for the fact no one at Currys had bothered to tell me of this crucial fact. ‘It’s a problem we have with our online service,’ he admitted. Too right it is.

A few days ago, a refund hit my bank account. No apologetic email from Currys about the order that was never ever going to be fulfilled (by the way, Matthew now his TV courtesy of John Lewis – delivered promptly, without fuss, and harmony restored). Naturally, I won’t be shopping online at Currys for some considerable while – if ever again. ‘Brrrgh.’

Of course Currys’ woeful customer service is not unique. Far from it. Financial services companies and utility providers (mobile phone and power companies) are particularly hopeless when it comes to dealing with customer queries and complaints. New business is what solely interests them.

Eighteen months ago, I wrote about customer service problems at ScottishPower. My email account literally went into meltdown as customers poured their hearts out to me online. Calls left unanswered, inexplicable billing errors and direct debit payments suddenly increased without rhyme or reason. I quietly wept.

A recent report from energy watchdog Ofgem on complaints handling indicated that 64 per cent of ScottishPower customers felt ‘very dissatisfied’ about how their specific complaint had been dealt with by the Spanish-owned company (up from 50 per cent two years ago).

How damming. If I were the ScottishPower executive in charge of customer service, I would now fall on my sword, resign and go on a long walking holiday in the Highlands to contemplate a career change. As I would if I were the customer service boss at rival energy supplier Npower (67 per cent of complainants were ‘very dissatisfied’).

Vodafone is no better. For the past year, Laura Shannon, my personal finance colleague at The Mail on Sunday, has been deluged with correspondence from Vodafone customers unhappy about the service they have received from the mobile phone network. A couple of weeks ago, she described its customer services department as ‘impotent’. A perfect description of an imperfect company.

Regulators sometimes intervene and fine customer service miscreants in the hope they will take customer service more seriously in the future. Earlier this year ScottishPower was fined £18 million for its customer service failings and I will put a small wager on Vodafone getting clobbered before the year is out.

But fines don’t change business cultures. Provided a majority of existing customers stick and new ones continue to sign up – on the back of attractive deals – customer service will remain a neglected area. Profit uber alles.

Thankfully, there are a select band of companies out there which do take customer service seriously. The likes of First Direct, Metro Bank, Nationwide Building Society and NFU Mutual.

Website Fairer Finance, set up by former financial journalist James Daley, is a useful starting point for anyone looking for financial companies which will treat you with a little bit of tender loving care. Monthly magazine Moneywise also runs annual customer services awards which separate the wheat from the chaff – this year, Metro Bank came out ahead.

So, if you want to help put an end to poor customer service, start voting with your feet. Jettison those companies which treat you with near contempt and move to those which value your custom.

No more ‘Brrrgh.’ Just TLC.

Jeff Prestridge is Personal Finance Editor of The Mail on Sunday