Ofcom tells UK telcos to pull their socks up on customer service

UK telecoms operators need to buck up their ideas when it comes to customer service, Ofcom reckons.

Mary Lennighan

May 10, 2021

3 Min Read
Bad Customer experience

UK telecoms operators need to buck up their ideas when it comes to customer service, Ofcom reckons.

The regulator has cut the telcos some slack due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but is now (very gently) urging them to up their game.

“Telecoms companies adapted quickly to meet soaring demand for their services last year – helping to keep the country connected,” said Lindsey Fussell, Ofcom’s Networks and Communications Group Director, in a statement accompanying the regulator’s review of telcos’ progress against fairness commitments and the publication of its annual customer service report.

“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.”

The regulator praised operators for sticking to a series of fairness commitments they agreed to just under two years ago. The commitments cover giving customers are fair deal that is right for their needs, identifying and assisting vulnerable customers, and ensuring it is not too onerous for a customer to switch provider, amongst other things. But they still need to do more, it said; more broadband providers need to launch social tariffs for people on low incomes and there needs to be more support for vulnerable customers.

And, of course, the ubiquitous customer service issue. At the start of the pandemic many operators’ call centres were affected by social distancing rules and staff self-isolating or on sickness leave, and that naturally took its toll on waiting times. But more than a year on and Ofcom is pushing – albeit in very carefully-worded terms – the telcos to work harder to reverse that impact.

Fixed broadband and landline customers waited an average of four minutes and nine seconds to get through to a customer service advisor last year, which was around twice as long as 2019 waiting times, Ofcom said. Waiting times for mobile customers rose to two minutes and seven seconds from one minute 18 seconds. Meanwhile, only slightly over half of customers were satisfied with the response they got once they got through: 52% of fixed broadband and 57% of mobile customers were happy with how their complaints were dealt with.

“While many firms have been able to bring call waiting times back down, some companies have struggled. More than a year since the pandemic began, we expect performance to return to at least 2019 levels, as restrictions ease,” Ofcom said.

Customers doubtless agree…but much probably depends on who their provider is.

Ofcom’s annual report on customer service levels, based on customer research, shows that fewer than half of TalkTalk and Virgin Media customers were satisfied with complaint handling at 47% and 48% respectively, and Virgin also ranked highly in the ‘customers with a reason to complain’ category, with 29% of customers needing to complain, ahead of the industry average of 26%.

On the mobile side, Virgin customers were also amongst the biggest complainers. The cableco and 3UK both scored 13% in that category, ahead of the 10% average, but top of the shop was Vodafone, with 16%. In terms of overall customer satisfaction, 3UK performed worst at 86%, behind the industry average of 90%.

But it was Virgin customers who waited the longest to have their calls answered. The firm’s broadband customers waited an average of seven minutes and 40 seconds, while Virgin Mobile customers waited six minutes and 44 seconds.

It’s also worth highlighting that those are average waiting times. Have pity for the customers who found themselves listening to hold music for significantly longer than that.

About the Author(s)

Mary Lennighan

Mary has been following developments in the telecoms industry for more than 20 years. She is currently a freelance journalist, having stepped down as editor of Total Telecom in late 2017; her career history also includes three years at CIT Publications (now part of Telegeography) and a stint at Reuters. Mary's key area of focus is on the business of telecoms, looking at operator strategy and financial performance, as well as regulatory developments, spectrum allocation and the like. She holds a Bachelor's degree in modern languages and an MA in Italian language and literature.

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