Jayne Dowle: Some care and thought for customers goes a long way

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In the past week alone, my parents have had a run-in with their contents insurance company and I have spent 45 minutes holding on the line to my mobile phone provider, only to speak to three different people who each gave me totally contradictory information.

And there was me thinking that in a competitive commercial world companies were vying for our custom and doing their utmost to keep us onside. If this is the case, why did one of them ask a 73-year-old lady – my mother – to photograph individually the entire dripping contents of her malfunctioning freezer and email the evidence over?

If only. And, to add insult to injury, to also demand that she searches through her purse, shopping bags and bins to track down all the receipts that illustrate her food spending for the past month or so?

It’s ridiculous. These are law-abiding pensioners we’re talking about, insured to the hilt and religiously wedded to regular payment by direct debit. When a freezer-full of meat and fish and bread is melting all over their kitchen floor, surely it’s not beyond reason to attempt to recoup some of the losses through a contents insurance policy?

No-one gets anything for nothing, I understand that. However, this assumption on the part of my parents’ insurers, that they were about to pull off some major scam involving ruined scampi and chips is beyond belief.

In the end, mum told the insurance company not to bother. If her claim had somehow been successful, no doubt her next annual premiums would have shot up anyway. It raises the question of why we even bother to have insurance if claiming on it is so difficult.

I know that insurance fraud is rife in the UK, and this goes some way to explain why the business of risk has become so risk-averse. The latest figures from the Association of British Insurers (ABI) suggest that there are at least 2,400 fraudulent insurance claims every week, amounting to £1.3bn worth throughout the year.

However, despite these mind-boggling statistics, the instance of insurance fraud has generally dropped over the past two years, with a five per cent fall by number and a three per cent decline by value of claim.

In that case then, why are insurance companies still coming down so heavily on everyone, not just the dodgy claimants? Could it be that they are more interested in their own profit margins than protecting our interests?

And whatever happened to the mantra: the customer is always right? These days, all too often, the customer is frustrated, confused and apparently guilty until proven innocent.

I’m not going to name the companies involved in these two particular skirmishes because they get very annoyed when their faults are held up to public scrutiny. And to be honest, it’s not about particular companies. It’s more to do with consumer culture in the widest sense.

It’s across the board. Energy companies, banks, utility providers and communications firms. They can run all the friendly advertising campaigns they like, but the words ring hollow when the company is too big to care.

That’s certainly seems to be the case with my mobile phone provider. As I eventually came off the line, my head spinning with instructions that didn’t make sense, I came to the conclusion that some things have become just too complicated.

All I wanted to do was to give my old mobile to a friend, as I have recently paid for an early upgrade and got a new phone. However, the old phone was still “locked” to the network, and I’d removed the Sim card.

I won’t bore you with the details, but surely it should be a simple step? I pay monthly, I wasn’t trying to sell it on to some unscrupulous dealer in battered iPhones. And all I got for my trouble was a headache and the sinking feeling that no-one really had the actual solution.

I must say that in some cases, as recent happy experiences sorting out my central heating boiler cover and car insurance proved, the person on the other end of the phone will go the extra mile. In others, as in the sterling example of Yorkshire Water, who retains my crown for customer service across the board, you don’t even need to speak to them to realise that they know what they’re doing.

I find our regional utility company’s online “live chat” service quick and efficient. And if you do have the urge to pick up the phone and ring them, they even play brass band music while you wait. Much better than the Michael Buble on a loop my mobile phone company played to me for the best part of an hour whilst I waited for one mobile phone call centre worker to connect to another.

A bit of thought. A lot of care. And employees who are well-trained and confident enough to make judgement calls without reverting automatically to the rule book. We live in a world increasingly dominated by technology. However, the companies we pay to make our lives safer and easier would do well to remember that we’re all human after all.