Jayne Dowle: We don’t have to put up with shoddy service

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GIVEN that they are in the business of communication, you might think firms like BT and TalkTalk would understand the actual business of communicating with their customers.

However, according to a new survey by the consumer organisation Which?, these two are amongst the worst offenders when it comes to call centre service. More than a third – 34 per cent – of BT customers rated the company’s telephone manner as poor, or very poor.

Having had recent experience of BT during a cataclysmic broadband breakdown, I can only agree. The problem here seems to be a classic case of one half of the company not having a clue what the other half is doing.

The tortuous two weeks it took to sort out my broadband turned into a Kafkaesque nightmare in which I began to seriously doubt my own sanity. Contradictory information. Conversations denied. No one ever calling back when they promised. As I struggled in this black hole of miscommunication, it struck me that sales staff and engineers have no chance of communicating with the rest of the world if they can’t talk with each other?

This is the tip of the call-centre iceberg, that menace which lurks beneath the shiny adverts and celebrity endorsements. It is just one person’s experience with one organisation. I haven’t the space here to outline all the others I have dealt with over the years. Or the time to share with you all those tricks telephone systems play on the paying customer.

My least favourite are the ones which ask you to verbally recount a sequence of numbers such as a security code to a machine. Is anything more frustrating? And embarrassing? Shouting into the phone like a loon? Since when did that pass for customer service? And as I was reminded when I rang my credit card company the other day, the ones which really wind me up are the “options”. Press 1 to check your balance. Press 2 to pay your bill. Press 3 to launder all your money, etc etc.

All I really wanted to know was, where’s the option for “please may I speak to someone to find out when the zero per cent balance transfer deal I am on ends because I can’t find that information anywhere on my statement?” It took 15 minutes of button-pressing to suss this out. Why not just have one button which puts you through to a real live person straight away? It was a shame, really, because when I finally did make contact with a human, she turned out to be really helpful and nice and had a lovely soft Scottish accent.

Which? asked 7,000 members of the public to rate their telephonic experience with 65 large companies, based on waiting times, helpfulness of staff and phone systems. Broadband providers and the energy companies came off worst, with Scottish Power particularly slated for long wait times, confusing phone menus and general all-round lack of care. It’s galling enough having to pay so much for gas and electricity. When you’re let down every time you pick up the phone, it makes it 10 times worse.

Complaining about call centres has become a national joke. It’s not funny, however, when they waste our time and cost us money. Why then do we put up with it? There are scores of companies vying for our business. Being British though, we’d rather moan about it in private and pour out our frustrations to a man with a clipboard doing a survey. Personally, I always tell the person on the end of the phone that I know the failings of the organisation are not their own fault. However, I make no bones about asking them to pass my concerns on directly to their line manager, rammed home with the comment: “I do hope you are recording this call for training purposes.”

The simplest and most effective thing is then to vote with your feet – and take your business elsewhere. If you’re not getting the service you expect, simply swap to a company that does its best to help you. You wouldn’t keep buying bruised and battered bananas from a sub-standard greengrocer, so why keep on banging your head on the telephone receiver?

I put up with the superior attitude of the bank attached to my mortgage provider for long enough. Whether this was a case of the North-South divide – the company was based in Essex – I will leave you to judge. However, when we finally paid off the mortgage – hurrah – the young man on the phone with the strangulated vowels was so snotty and dismissive, I decided there and then to close my checking account. I wasn’t expecting a round of applause, but 20 years-plus of customer loyalty and never a missed payment counted for something, surely?

That’s why I stick with First Direct through thick and thin. In the Which? survey, the Leeds-based bank came out tops for its telephone service. I’ve been a customer since the early 1990s, and I can honestly say I have never, ever had a bad experience on the end of the phone.

Coming from me, that is saying something.