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Is Britain’s customer service going down hill?

Angry customer service man

I’ve previously said tipping should be performance related, with good service being rewarded. Yet, our survey insinuates that rewards may not be deserved, as we think Britain’s customer service isn’t up to scratch.

Almost half of the respondents to our recent survey didn’t think the standard of customer service in Britain was getting better, while 50% believed that in the current climate it’s inevitable companies will cut corners on customer service to save money.

In a week where we’ve seen the demise of Moben, Habitat and Dolphin, it would appear that customer service is more important than ever. Indeed, 39% of people in our survey said they’d be prepared to pay more for better service.

Poor customer service must end

The attitude that tough times means cutting back on customer service has got to stop. Indeed, two thirds of those asked said they don’t want poorer service even if it brings a saving.

I witnessed a great example of the effects of poor service this week. My wife was trying to upgrade her mobile phone with a major provider. She was passed from one ‘service adviser’ to another and her problem was never resolved. Eventually, she became so frustrated that she cancelled her contract and switched to another provider.

But the story didn’t end there. She wasn’t refunded when she said she was leaving, her contract wasn’t cancelled on time and another direct debit was taken from her account. Sadly, stories from Which? members suggest she’s not alone. There are an army of people being poorly served across a whole variety of industries – from personal finance to utility companies.

Fight for better customer service

Thankfully, there is a solution – vote with your feet. The only way to fight the ever-growing poor service culture is to stop encouraging it. So, if you’re not happy with your bank account, for example, switch to a Which? Recommended Provider. If you can’t get a straight answer out of your utility provider, switch.

And if a shop assistant is more interested in selling you an extended warranty than a washing machine, walk away. We have the power to fight back.

Or perhaps I’m being too harsh? Are there still pockets of great customer service out there? And if there are, let’s find them, publicise them and let others learn from their examples.


Seems a bit ‘broad’ to comment sensibly.

But many sectors, especially those engaged in hard selling or defending bad contracts/T&C practices (ie; telecoms) are utterly dire.

I think it’s hit and miss.

Personally, I get good customer service if the call centre is based in Yorkshire.

I get bad customer service if it’s based in Scotland/North East/Off-Shore.

I think it’s definitely a cultural thing, Yorkshire folk have always been great with me (lived there for 7 years) and when they are on the phone the other end, they empathise and put themselves in your shoes immediately. They don’t want you to spend too much money (another Yorkshire trait) and they think inside your box instead of outside theirs.

I recently spoke to a lovely woman from “Wakey” at Nationwide, an absolutely first class service from someone who really appeared to care.

Sophie Gilbert says:
5 July 2011

That’s exactly what I do, I vote with my feet. There are one or two shop in Edinburgh I don’t set foot in because the shop assistants/till operators couldn’t care less, plus one restaurant with racist waiting staff, one coffee shop with permanently dirty tables, chairs and floors, and one with a permanently dirty toilet (cleaning all that up is part of customer service as far as I’m concerned, if not b****y essential). And I tell everyone who cares to listen who they are.

At other times it’s more difficult if you get rubbish and very good service from the same company. Virgin’s call centres has been fantastic (one help assistant happened to be Indian and the other one Scottish) when I’ve needed help with my modem and my new computer, but absolute garbage with my telephone service (English staff at the call centre). It’s only when I eventually threatened in writing to switch provider that they (re)acted. I advise a friend of mine to dot he same with BT, who was messing her about, and it worked!

Having mentioned Indian, Scottish and English in the paragraph, my experience with nationalities, regionalities and the likes is that more often than not, generally speaking, it’s down to the company and especially the managerial style whether you get food service or not.

I think the photo is starting to disturb me 🙂

Hi Dean, it is a bit intense isn’t it. Just don’t look into his eyes.

Sue Shaw says:
5 July 2011

Customer service in Britain is very poor and we put up with it. Today’s culture of ‘couldn’t care less as long as I’m alright’ doesn’t help. A smile and a civil manner goes a long way but unfortunately these days this does not come naturally to a lot of people so when their job entails having to deal with customers they have to be taught how to behave. Unfortunately a lot of companies do not do this. I do not tip anymore if the service is bad or I walk away and never go back but when I do get good customer care, it is out there, I tip well or the company keeps my custom.

Ken says:
5 July 2011

I recently purchased goods online from Maplin. After assembling and testing I discovered that the hard disc in the unit would not boot up. I telephoned the customer service department and explained the fault. They contacted the technical department who agreed that it was faulty and recommended the item be returned.
It was picked up before 5pm that day, and after following the telephone return confirmation proceedure an exchange unit was despatched, and arrived two days later.
This is how it should work. Other retailers please take note. Maplin Electronics is now my online retailer of choice.!! I always dump the bad guys.

keith hodges says:
5 July 2011

I always tell companies when they are bad! they don’t call me grumpy for nothing!

In terms of customer service dept’s – I have a hit list of companies that don’t deserve my support – even if they offer the best price.

Full marks in my mind to British Gas, they have improved incredibly recently and I am now happy to use them again.. John Lewis is a model company that heads the list and most businesses would do well to copy them!

john.mccolgan says:
5 July 2011

My worst ever experience of customer care was from the Sony Corporation. I purchased a top line VAIO one piece computer with wireless keyboard and mouse. After a few months of domestic use, the lettering on the keyboard began to wear away. After calling the telephone support call centre for Sony VAIO computers i was told that this was not a fault and was considered to be fair wear and tear. Numerous calls later after urging them to escalate the complaint I was advised they would not replace the keyboard and suggested that to prevent further deterioration of the keys i should follow this advise.
2. LEARN TO TOUCH TYPE so that I don’t have to look at the keys
It took the intervention of a newspaper and the Sony PR department to Sony to reconsider their decision and replace my keyboard.
The most shocking part of the whole process was the aloof and indifferent attitude from the Sony call centre. I will NEVER knowingly buy a Sony product again

What gets me down and never fails to infuriate is when you phone any Customer Services with a problem which they fail to sort and then they finish the call with ‘Is there anything else I can help you with?’ Aarrggghhhh! You haven’t helped me with anything!!!!!! lol Just mindless people most of the time with a rehearsed dialogue.

tenire says:
5 July 2011

The arrogant rep working for EDF [the french electrictity utility now providing our new-house connections] put the phone down on me after I corrected him on the dimensions of the required installation. I went to his supervisor after being given the run-around,[he said he would refuse to quote me] and I had to contact a different office to find out who she is. I then was advised by the site technician that the contracts experience repeated problems, mine is not unique. The supervisor eventually said that they “had had a word”. I suspect that their initial quote of over £5000 pounds was the reason for their arrogance, in an attempt to put me off reducing it, which I eventually did – but that’s a whole different story!

Kev says:
5 July 2011

What I find SO annoying is when one contacts “Customer Services” by email and you are clearly not dealing with a human being. For example, trying to get PayPal to honour its customer protection pledge against rogue traders never achieves a reply to any of the considered points I raise but simply produces the following response, irrespective of what I ask in the email! – “We regret any inconvenience our request for documents to support your claim may have caused. Please do not misconstrue this request as suspicion that your claim is not valid. As we are an internet-based business, we do not have the opportunity to review the relevant items and evidence in question so we rely on the documents described in our request to continue with the investigation of your claim.” Ask them the time of day – probably get the same response again…….

Kev says:
6 July 2011

Just checked – I’ve sent 6 emails raising different points and got exactly the same paragraph back every time. I find it very discourteous after I’ve spent time writing proper emails to them…..

Barry Morse says:
5 July 2011

Best customer service? It has to be Lakeland. I bought a top of range Magimix from their Cardiff store (my old one jad finally died after 15 years) and it died within 2 years. I rang the store; the manager asked when I would next be in Cardiff to collect a replacement. We agreed that I would drive to the store at 2pm that day and return the faulty Magimix. I was 10 minutes early, but she was waiting outside with the replacement – didn’t ask for proof of purchase, didn’t even check to see if I was handing over a Magimix box filled with bricks. Assuming that customers are honest is all too rare these days!

Nastiest? The aggressive and suspicious ‘customer service’ staff at Marks & Spencer’s furniture call centre – somewhere like Hull to judge by their accents – who refused to accept that a piece of conservatory furniture had been damaged in transit despite insisting on an independent report from the Furniture Research Association confirming the fact. It wasn’t properly sorted until I’d threatened to reject the goods (paid for on an M&S credit card, so there was extra leverage as the credit card company was jointly liable) AND I’d written a steaming letter to the Chairman.

Worst AND best in one go? Step forward BT. They changed my telephone number at the request of another customer who wanted to transfer her number to an address similar to mine but with a different postcode. First thing we knew about it was when she rang us up (on her number) at 7 in the morning to check if it had happened. Later that day, we had a letter from BT (dated a fortnight earlier but postmarked 2 days before) asking if we could confirm that we agreed to the transfer – and telling us that we had three days from the date of the letter to do so. Every time I tried to contact them to sort matters out I got someone different, mostly in Bangalore, but eventually got through to someone in the UK. She took immediate action and our telephone number was restored by 1030. Even better, the customer who really had wanted her number transferred was sorted out by 1100 with her own original number, and a local engineer even drove out to tell her so. So complete procedural incompetence by BT was at least rescued by local staff who responded quickly and sorted a problem of their firm’s own creation. It didn’t end there, of couse: three steaming letters to the local ‘Customer Service’ centre (whose address I’d been given to complain to) went unanswered – and so another steaming letter to the Chairman of BT finally provoked a response. They still didn’t seem to accept that not checking out a full postcode for a transferred number, or posting letters to check with affected customers (rather than ringing them up!) was sloppy procedure – especially when a BT bill could be used fraudulently for money laundering – but I did get two quarters’ phone charges refunded.

Nick says:
5 July 2011

yep, bad customer service infuriates me. i should be classed as a grumpy old man, but i’m only in my 40s!! and yes, from my experience, it is getting worse. sadly.

i had to call my mobile provider today and was really disappointed. i’ve been with VIRGIN for ages and i’ve always had great customer service. but over the last six months or so, it’s been rubbish. it was a fairly simple problem with my voicemail, but took forever to speak with a human, and then got fobbed-off with standard answers read from a screen! i wasn’t speaking with a “technician”, i was speaking with someone who could read answers off a screen!! i gave up in the end. i simply couldn’t be bothered to argue about it. sad isn’t it?!

Hi Nick, bet you got the last comment on the screen read,”Is there anything else I can help you with today?” ScReEmS Lol

Mike G says:
6 July 2011

Customer service in the UK is patchy. I don’t know why, because good customer service is a sure fire way of upping your business profile and turnover. It’s cheaper and easier to keep an old customer than to get a new one. Good service is a matter of luck (which of course it shouldn’t be). Although there are notable exceptions, the banks and utility companies are serial offenders – plus of course, Ryanair!

Maybe it’s down to poor staff training and rock bottom wages. The UK is a high cost, low wage economy, but even so, good bosses can motivate staff. You always get good customer service from people who are proud of their company – Waitrose/John Lewis?

On the positive side, my on line experience with internet sellers has been 100% good, with some suppliers providind outstanding service.

Also – maybe controversially – I think service from government departments has improved massively in recent years. I’m thinking of HMRC, The Courts Service, The Pensions Service, Vehicle and Licensing etc. The bureaucracy can still drive you mad but the people are pleasant and helpful. Of course, their pay and conditions are better than shop assistants! Food for thought.

I will definitely be voting with my feet, after been left at the side of an unlit country road for over 3 hours last night, I will be leaving the RAC with all speed! This after I was assured the patrol would be with me in 45 minutes, then another hour, then another hour. They then have the cheek to tell me the ‘investigation’ will take 7-10 working days, and I should be ‘patient’!

I feel the AA or Green Flag will be getting a new customer very soon!

-Thames Water – 6 months of idiocy, still unsolved

-Barclays forgot to pay themselves the termination cheque (internal Cheque???) when my mortgage finished, then threatened me regarding payments – total fools, it took 2 complaints and 3 months to get to speak to a human.

YES, British customer service is a poor excuse – just deal with an american company once and you’ll see the difference

It has been for the last 30 years