United Kingdom

Telecoms firms told to improve customer service by watchdog

Telecoms companies need to go further in tackling customer service problems, despite the support they offered during the pandemic, the industry watchdog says. 

Ofcom's warning comes after it revealed that customers waited an average of four minutes and nine seconds to get through to an adviser about their broadband and landline in 2020, an increase of one minute and 59 seconds on 2019 - more than double the time.

Mobile users were also held up for around two minutes and seven seconds, up from one minute and 18 the previous year.

Although the regulator acknowledges companies were forced to implement new working arrangements for staff due to the pandemic, it said it expects performance to return to at least 2019 levels as restrictions ease.

Call centre waiting times increased by nearly double during the pandemic, new research says

In 2019, the UK's biggest broadband, phone and pay-TV providers committed to putting fairness at the heart of their businesses and going beyond their legal obligations for how they treat their customers.

However, Ofcom's review of progress against those commitments found that further action is needed to provide fairer deals, clearer information and better support for their customers.

Lindsey Fussell, Ofcom's networks and communications group director, said: 'Telecoms companies adapted quickly to meet soaring demand for their services last year – helping to keep the country connected.

'But some have struggled with customer service problems. We're challenging them to act now, so the telecoms industry becomes the gold standard for customer service.' 

Which firms came out best and worst?

For broadband customers, Virgin Media customers waited the longest for their calls to be answered at an average of 7 minutes 40 seconds, according to Ofcom's comparing customer service research.

It also revealed 26 per cent of broadband customers had a reason to complain about their service or provider – with Vodafone and Virgin Media customers more likely than average to have a reason to complain.

Meanwhile, BT customers were less likely than average to have a reason to complain.

Overall, four in five broadband customers said they were satisfied with their service. 

When it comes to mobile customers, at six minutes 44 seconds, Virgin Mobile customers had the longest average wait to get through.

Overall, 90 per cent said they were satisfied with their mobile phone service, with only 3 per cent of customers saying they were dissatisfied with their service overall. 

Overall satisfaction with mobile service was in line with the average for all providers except Three, whose customers were less likely than average to be satisfied with their service overall.

EE customers were also more likely than average to recommend the company to a friend. 

Meanwhile, both Giffgaff and Tesco Mobile customers were more likely than average to recommend their provider to a friend, while Three and Virgin Mobile customers were less likely than average to do so. 

Virgin Media customers waited the longest for their calls to be answered, Ofcom data shows

Justina Miltienyte, policy expert at Uswitch, said: 'Telecoms companies faced huge challenges over the past year as they attempted to keep customers connected at a time of unprecedented demand.

'For the most part they have done a good job, and many have given out free mobile data to pupils who don't have broadband, and acted quickly to assist vulnerable customers.

'However, customer service levels have suffered during the pandemic, and people are waiting about twice as long to get through to an advisor than they did in 2019.'  

What needs to be improved?

Ofcom research today reveals only 52 per cent of broadband and 57 per cent of mobile customers were satisfied with how their complaints were handled. 

Customer service levels are the regulators main concern as, at the start of the pandemic, many providers' call centres were significantly affected by social distancing rules and staff sickness.

It said companies should improve complaints handling as a priority, as well as ensuring customers do not find it harder to leave, compared to signing up.

Other improvements include more broadband providers offering affordable 'social tariffs' for people on low incomes and more support on identifying vulnerable customers.

On the positive side, the regulator said most major mobile operators have reduced prices for out-of-contract customers on bundled airtime and handset deals.

All major broadband providers have also introduced price reviews for vulnerable customers and most have also made wider changes for out-of-contract customers.  

Rocio Concha, director of policy and advocacy at Which?, added: 'It is important that Ofcom holds phone and broadband providers to account and ensures they live up to the Fairness for Customers commitments they made in 2019.

'In a time where being connected is more important than ever, providers need to take their commitments seriously and do more to meet consumers' expectations - particularly on customer service, pricing and ease of changing contracts.' 

Customers who are frustrated by long waits to get through to their provider on the phone are encouraged to see if they have a live chat function, which could be quicker.

If they're still not happy with the service they're receiving, customers are urged to talk to their provider in the first instance but if there is no improvement, they can switch to another supplier without any charges if out of contract.

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