29 April 2024

Can somebody help us? 

This article, written by Barrie Clement, was first published in the spring edition of The Pensioner.

Being a customer of the big companies these days is bad for your mental health. Trying to speak to a human being, or deal with one of their loathsome ‘bots’, can lead to anything from frustration to wild rage.

The number of complaints is rocketing. A customer satisfaction index published by the UK Institute of Customer Service, reported an overall index of 76.6 out of 100, the lowest since 2015, when it was 76.

Which? magazine is undertaking major new research into the issue. An email introducing the idea of a survey to Which? subscribers comments: “Whether you’re contesting sky-high energy bills or sluggish broadband speeds, all too often you’re left on hold, stuck in a loop with a chatbot, or simply ignored on social media. Contacting companies has become something of an endurance test … Something needs to be done about it.” Hear! Hear!

Flights of fancy
Clearly some sectors are better than others. Short-haul airlines, quite rightly, come in for a kicking. Ryanair once famously floated the idea of charging passengers to use the on-board toilet. Customers were incandescent and the idea was dropped. There is now speculation that the airline’s chief executive, Michael O’Leary, who often shows a jocular contempt for his customers, may yet introduce the charge.

I was forced to use the airline recently to go from Stansted to La Rochelle and back. They always try some money-making artifice to make you pay more than you envisaged. This time Ryanair declared they didn’t recognise the company through which I’d booked the flights and I’d have to ‘verify’ my identity. I’d accessed the tickets, by the way, through the much used Skyscanner website.

Inevitably, Ryanair makes identity verification online something of a trial. After trying and failing, I enlisted the aid of my computer-savvy 39-year-old son. You have to supply a photo of your passport or some other means of ID and, using your computer, you also have to take pictures of your face looking forward, to the left and to the right. One of the pictures was rejected by the bot because I had a smirk on my face.

After an expletive-ridden hour, my son managed it. If he had failed, Ryanair would have charged me £50 at the airport.

In its article on the best and worst airlines last year, Which? said: “Ryanair regularly sits at the bottom of our table, and only escapes last place this year through the horrendous experience offered by Wizz Air.”

Ryanair’s three stars for customer service was “notably better than Wizz, and the same as better regarded rivals like British Airways and EasyJet; although less than half of passengers said they could find a member of Ryanair staff when they faced delays”.

It added: “Ryanair boasts about rock bottom fares, which may be true, but its three-star rating for value for money gives a more accurate picture of the total price. Add in bags, or seats, or anything, and the cost quickly shoots up. Do your maths first before booking to see if better rivals like Jet2, which includes a much larger free luggage allowance, are cheaper.”

Road block
On the subject of transport 54-year-old financial director Clive from Shropshire brings us his tale of exasperation. At 4pm one day, his campervan broke down in Wales, just over the border from Oswestry. He called the RAC, who said that because Clive had a small child with him, someone would be there within the hour. An hour later, Clive rang them – and they said they were ‘escalating’ it, whatever that means. Not a great deal as it turns out.

Two hours later, they were still escalating. After three hours, escalating for all their worth, they said there were no patrols in the area. After another hour, Clive rang again and was delighted to hear that escalation was still in progress and someone would be with them by 8.30pm. At 8pm the RAC said one of their ‘trusted partners’ would come to the rescue.

Finally, at 10pm – six hours after he first rang the RAC – the cavalry arrived from Aberystwyth – 76 miles away. Said Clive: “When I asked the RAC why they didn’t phone their ‘trusted partner’ in the first place, they didn’t even bother answering! We have joined the AA.”

That was probably a good choice, according to Which? magazine. In its best car breakdown providers 2023, the AA received a score of 75 per cent, second to Asda (77 per cent). The RAC was 14th on the list with an unimpressive 52 per cent.

Hidden helplines
Many companies like to hide their ‘customer helpline’ phone numbers from the prying eyes of customers. Recently the editor of The Pensioner magazine, Christine Buckley, booked tickets for her and her daughter Anastasia to see the England women’s football team at Wembley. The tickets failed to arrive.

Christine said: “I sent a message on a ‘help portal’ and an auto reply said to get in touch two days before the game, but there was no phone number. I searched for a contact number on the website, to no avail. I could only find one to book a tour of the stadium and one for help with disabilities. So I called the disabilities out of desperation.

“After quite a wait, someone answered and I asked to be put through to enquiries about missing tickets. She said there wasn’t one! But she did help. “I know companies don’t like advertising customer service numbers but it seems extreme for somewhere like Wembley not to have one or to keep it secret!”

Don’t bank on it
Banks aren’t quite so secretive about their customer helplines, but they have other ways of driving us potty. As I wrote in the Winter edition of The Pensioner, an estimated 5,000 or so bank branches have closed in the UK since January 2015. That’s been made worse by a massive reduction in the number of cash machines.

It’s a huge problem for those of us who don’t bank online and for people who prefer to use cash rather than a card. To be fair, there is ample evidence that the use of cash has plummeted over the years and Covid accelerated that. But more recently, the cost-of-living crisis has prompted a move back to notes and coins on the basis that it helps people to budget.

According to the British Retail Consortium, around 19 per cent of purchases were made with cash in 2022, up from 15 per cent in 2021 – the first time the use of cash has grown in a decade. The creation of ‘banking hubs’ – where banks share premises in an attempt to compensate for mass branch closures – has only scratched the surface. As we went to press, only two dozen had been opened.

Not that cash is necessarily useful if you want to park your car. Increasingly you can only park if you have a particular app on your smartphone. But not every older person has a smartphone or is a dab hand with ‘apps’. It has meant many older people have been effectively banned from parking in Brighton, for instance.

The problem doesn’t end with installing the app. Those who have managed to do that have vented their fury on the Trustpilot website, giving the Smart Parking company’s technology a one-star rating out of a possible five One review said: “Truly appalling company and business model. I must have been a few minutes late returning for a parking session I paid for, it would have cost me another £1 for another hour but I didn’t realise I needed it. I got a £100 fine seven weeks later. Utterly egregious. I was told an appeal will take 35 days, which is absurd.”

Yet Trustpilot itself isn’t perfect. One BBC Watchdog viewer said he’d lost £20,000 after investing with a company with positive reviews on the site. The company was on a Financial Conduct Authority list warning consumers against investing with them. But when the viewer posted a negative review, the company reported it to Trustpilot and it was removed.

Watchdog’s research found many more financial companies on Trustpilot that were on the warning list – some with ratings of three stars or more.

Virgin credentials
To be fair, one of the country’s least favourite organisations, Virgin Media, gets a sound thrashing from Trustpilot. When I last looked, it had received 86,387 reviews, yielding a one and a half star rating. This review on Trustpilot in December did not mince its words: “Absolutely disgusting. They owe me about £100 for issues with bills, overcharging, false promises, lies, I’m seeking support from Ofcom and will be taking legal actions. Left on hold for hours. Put phone down on me. Rude employees shouted at me. Disgraceful company.”

In a WhatsApp group I belong to, I asked people how they were treated as customers. The least popular service provider, and the one most mentioned, was Virgin Media. Having talked to one of her older neighbours in London, a colleague said: “If you’ve just turned 80 and awaiting a hip replacement and suffering from arthritis, don’t even phone Virgin Media to complain your broadband isn’t working. You’ll be on the phone for ages, talking to a nine year-old who wants you to get down on your hands and knees underneath the TV cabinet to plug and unplug infinitesimal cables and electric plugs.

“It was all so easy when that nice 20-year-old man came and fitted it all. But now she was expected to be a contortionist – if only she could hear what the nine-year-old was saying. Oh well, next call is to the audiologist.”

If you can get past Virgin Media’s bot, the person you’ll speak to will probably not have English as their first language. It’s also clear they are reading from a script from which they cannot deviate.

It will come as a great comfort to Virgin Media customers that at least one person gets a fantastic deal from the company – Virgin Media O2 co-owner Liberty Global chief executive Mike Fries was paid a total of $62 million in 2021.

Moving to another big name, British Gas might be the largest supplier of household energy in the UK, but it’s not the most customer-friendly, according to Which? The supplier received a score of 60 per cent (10th place) compared with the highest rated, Octopus, on 78 per cent.

On customer platform Review.io one woman declared: “British Gas seriously need to get their act together if they want to keep their customers and train the appalling staff they employ!!! Disgusting.” Trustpilot reviews were considerably more positive however, giving it a four-star rating out of five.

We could go on of course: the pubs and restaurants that insist you order online; the kerbside delivery firms that refuse to take anything in the house; the self-assembly kits with incomprehensible instructions. And then there’s that nemesis of customer relations, artificial intelligence (AI). The Customer Service Institute confirms that some businesses are already misusing AI, of which the chatbot is an example. At some companies it may soon literally be impossible to speak to a human being. Would that Kafka were still alive, he would relish the absurdities. Perhaps the best way to make sure you’ll get a decent service is through the recommendation of a friend, relative or neighbour. But even that’s not perfect…


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