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Ofcom says UK telcos just keep customers hanging on

UK telecoms operators are not making it easy for customers to contact them, keeping them hanging on the phone for longer, according to new research from Ofcom.

Mary Lennighan

May 18, 2023

4 Min Read
Bad Customer experience

UK telecoms operators are not making it easy for customers to contact them, keeping them hanging on the phone for longer, according to new research from Ofcom.

The regulator this week published its latest annual customer service report which showed that customers are still keen to speak to a customer service rep on the phone when something goes wrong, but also that average call waiting times in both fixed and mobile are on the up. While some providers have improved their performance compared with the previous iteration of the study, others have not, and overall some are clearly offering way better service than others.

Spoiler alert: EE is the one to avoid on the mobile side, unless you happen to like listening to the phone ring then ultimately giving up before speaking to an agent, while in the fixed broadband and landline market it might be wise to give Shell Energy a wide berth…and there are others too.

Ofcom notes that the phone is still by far the most popular way for customers to contact their service providers, accounting for 77% of mobile customer contacts and 90% of landline and fixed broadband contacts last year. Webchat was the second most popular, but some way behind at 17% and 6% respectively.

“In 2022, despite the impact of Covid-19 subsiding, mobile customers spent an average of 2min 23s in a queue, up from 2min 15s the previous year,” Ofcom said. “Broadband and landline customers waited 2min 37s on average, compared to 2min 16s in 2021.”

While spending a couple of minutes waiting for someone to answer the phone doesn’t sound particularly arduous, it’s worth remembering that these are average waiting times – there are doubtless some who waited much longer, turning slowly purple with rage, while others got through straight away – and that some service providers pick up the phone quicker than others.

Shell Energy’s average waiting time for fixed broadband customers came in at a slightly shocking 8 minutes and 14 seconds, while a staggering 28% of calls were ended before the customer made contact with an advisor; essentially, more than a quarter of those wanting to complain to Shell Energy by phone lost the will to live while waiting on the line and simply hung up.


The next poorest performer was Hull-based KCom, whose customers waited an average of 4 minutes and 13 seconds for their calls to be answered, but in fairness to the telco, it is working to improve its call waiting times, that number having come down from 2021. Vodafone, Virgin Media and BT also took longer than average to answer customer calls; of the three, only Virgin Media improved on 2021.

In general, UK customers have less cause for complaint with their mobile providers; the Ofcom study reveals that 87% are satisfied with their mobile operator compared with 82% for fixed broadband and 77% fixed line.

But for any EE customers with something to complain about, the waiting times are far from up to scratch. The operator’s average call answer time comes in at 3 minutes and 41 seconds, which, while not exactly an eternity, is significantly worse than most of its rivals and represents a poorer performance than in the 2021 report. The second poorest, and the only other mobile operator to exceed the average, was another of the major networks – O2. However, O2’s call waiting time of 2 minute and 33 seconds was significantly better than the previous year, when it was the worst performer at 4 minutes.


Fastest on the phone lines, as Ofcom puts it, was Three with a call waiting time of just 47 seconds, but it’s worth noting that the figure is triple its 2021 score. Clearly the telco cannot afford to rest on its laurels. Then again, that could be said of all the UK’s major mobile and fixed service providers.

“We’ve asked telecoms customers what frustrates them most with their providers, and the message is clear: they want to get through to the right person on the phone quickly, and have their complaints dealt with first time,” said Ian Macrae, Ofcom’s Director of Market Intelligence. “With switching becoming simpler, providers that continue to let standards slip should expect customers to show them the door.”


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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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