/ Technology

Which call centres keep you waiting longest?

What’s the most annoying sound you can think of? A crying baby on a plane? A neighbour with a drill? A car alarm at 3am? For me, it’s bubbly pop music while on hold to call centres.

It seems that many of you agree with me judging by our latest research into the best and worst call centres.

We asked people to rate how long they waited to get through, how complex the phone menu system was and whether the staff’s knowledge was good.

BT, Scottish Power and TalkTalk were the ones you most dreaded ringing. More than one in five of you who phoned Scottish Power waited more than 20 minutes to get through (enough time to listen to half of ABBA’s greatest hits album).

Broadband call centres

Broadband firms attracted the most rancour, with comments for financial institutions positively glowing by comparison.

I wasn’t surprised. Calls to my own broadband supplier are an extreme test of patience – and I don’t mind admitting it’s one I rarely pass.

You know what it’s like. Your internet’s down at home, so you try turning the router off and on several times – delaying ringing the call centre for as long as possible.

Have you tried turning it on and off?

When you do finally pick up the phone, the first thing they suggest you try is… turn the router off and on again.

If you tell them you’ve done that, they won’t believe you. They wait as you try to fill the awkward silence with second-by-second updates on what’s happening to your router.

The lights on the box splutter into life, and the call centre tells you there should be three green lights. You can only see two. They’ll seem surprised, and say, ‘sounds like there’s a problem’. At this point, you stifle a sarcastic response.

They’ll try a few mysterious things at their end (I always imagine they’re checking a cleaner hasn’t ‘unplugged the internet’ to hoover). Only then is an engineer booked. The call takes ages and the call handlers stick rigidly to a script.

How can call centres improve?

If they could pick up the phone quickly that would be a good place to start. If your call could be answered by someone who knows what they’re talking about, that would be a bonus. And if we say we’ve turned the router off and on, trust us. Also, ditch the hold music. Please.

What are your biggest bugbear with call centres? How long have you waited to get through?


I don’t want to speak to call centres when the task could be carried out online. I want to speak to someone only when it requires someone in a position of authority to resolve a problem; most call centre staff don’t have sufficient authority.

Talking of broadband suppliers, current ISP Hyperoptic answers within a few seconds, and I often get through to the same individuals. My previous ISP Be Unlimited used to answer very quickly too. Both ISPs were created by the same entrepreneurs. Go to one of the big six ISPs and you will get bad service with annoying call centres. Go to a smaller niche supplier and you will get better service and a better connection.

AW says:
22 May 2015

Calls to the Tax Office (HM Customs & Excise) require very long waits. The response is that they are experiencing a busy period, but I have needed to phone at different times of the year and the wait is 20 min usually, the same for previous years.
This is not a recent issue and I believe this is unacceptable, especially for a Government department.


thanks for your comment. Yes, we’ve heard from so many people about HMRC that we’ve started a poll so you can tell us how long you’ve waited on the line. You can find it here https://conversation.which.co.uk/money/hmrc-call-helplines-waiting-self-assessment-tax-return/

To be honest my biggest bugbear with call centres is when the calls aren’t free. Everything else is bad enough, but having to pay for the ordeal is worse.

I don’t see why the call should be free, but it should not be charged at above the basic rate (i.e. the cost to call a standard 01 or 02 number which often comes out of inclusive minutes). Regulation 41 of the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Payments) Regulations 2013 has already banned most call centres from using numbers costing above basic rate. Although the best companies operate on free 0800/0808 numbers, this should not be expected as standard.

I thin when you are a customer and need something sorted out it’s not unreasonable to expect the call to be free of charge, especially if they’re not going to answer the phone for a long time.

A telephone line specifically for complaints should probably be free to call, but where the line is for general customer service queries, for example where customers possibly could have resolved their query on the company’s web site, it’s fair for the call to be charged at basic rate. Otherwise a majority of customers subsidise a minority who communicate with the company in a costly way.

I agree with you on that NFH as a fair basis, but as soon as a company publishes a free call number people will use it whether justified or not. Companies without a costly physical shopfront or completely interactive website should not also expect all customer contact to be paid for by the customer, and certainly should or treat them with contempt by making them hang on the line for ages waiting to connect. Sometimes the engaged signal would be more beneficial.

John, you make an excellent point about companies without a completely interactive web site. I remained puzzled why nearly all mobile phone networks cannot process all tasks online. For example, with giffgaff (a Which best buy), it is possible to do everything online, including ordering a replacement SIM card and porting a number in or out. It is pathetic how most mobile networks make you sit in a call centre queue and speak to a human in order to carry out such simple tasks. A lot of new giffgaff customers complain about the lack of a call centre, but once customers get used to it, they actually prefer it.

I had a seven to eight minute wait for BT today [0800 number] over a billing and direct debit issue, but when the call was answered the adviser was very polite, helpful, and conscientious and the problem was resolved very quickly. I’ve waited longer in banks and at checkouts and for ages in the post office and station ticket offices.

All call centres with a queueing system should tell you where you are in the queue and keep updating you with your position. Callers can then try later if they are at the end of a very long queue.

There would be a lot less irate callers and call centre staff would not have to put up with all the moaning they get and waste their time listening to and calming down irate customers therefore shortening calls and queueing times.

Happier staff and happier customers.

Alfa, you are absolutely right. Without knowing one’s place in the queue, it doesn’t resemble a queuing system but a waiting system. Sometimes I have to wait so long that I start doing other things, which might include other phone calls. Then when they eventually answer, I have to ask the call centre worker to wait a minute or two. I explain that if their system had informed me of my position in the queue, then I would have been ready to speak to them when I reached the front of the queue.

I’ve just had a mixed negative and positive experience with BUPA. I pay my premiums by continuous payment authority to my Amex card; it earns me lots of Avios this way. My previous Amex card expired, but BUPA’s procedures were deficient in that:

1. Whereas most companies would have sent me an e-mail asking me to update my card details before the expiry date, BUPA tried to collect payment on the previous card and failed. They then sent me two letters by post to inform me of this failure. This communication method increases costs for all customers.
2. I then logged into BUPA’s web site but there was no option to update my payment details, so I had to phone their call centre. Employing call centre staff to handle tasks that should be done online increases costs for all customers.

However, when I did phone BUPA, two things were very positive:
1. They operate on an 0800 number.
2. They answered the call immediately with no queuing system and no annoying menu options.

So BUPA uses a call centre for tasks that should be carried out online, but its call centre is better than most companies.

Alas, BUPA no longer answ er the phone immediately – recent calls have taken 15-20 minutes before being answered

Liz says:
25 May 2015

Last week I made a mid morning, mid week call to BT and had to queue for 12 minutes to tell them they weren’t sending me my email billing. They said they were and wanted another email address. I refused and said the bills were not delivered to my pc, ipad or online at BT.com. After 35 minutes and two brief conversations lasting 5 minutes with staff in India they said someone would ring me in 7 days time…?

I then tried to complain. Although the system accepts the verbal response of ‘complaint’ it won’t direct the caller to someone to deal with the complaint. It’s not the call centre staff, it’s the process and the service that’s at fault. Where is the evidence that they have taken on hundreds of new staff and set up dedicated complaint teams in the past year. It’s fiction or more probably arrogance. I would rate their service as appalling. (So why am I still a customer? – as a rural dweller with poor broadband connections it’s important to have the closest link to Openreach).

I would like to see restrictions on UK companies offshoring to non-EU call centres. I don’t suggest a total ban, as it can work in some cases, e.g. Dell which offshores to India, leveraging India’s strong IT skills. Another one that works well is Admiral insurance which offshores to Halifax in Nova Scotia. But most offshoring doesn’t leverage local talent but cheap labour, which comes at the expense of customer service.

If UK companies insist on offshoring their call centres, then I prefer to see greater use of EU call centres. For example, my previous ISP had its call centre in Bulgaria, and their standard of English was better than some countries that claim to speak English as an official language (e.g. India).

There need to be better quality controls on non-EU call centres’ standard of English and quality of service.

sports direct i ordered some items and as an item was out of stock they where gong to make me 2 months before they would send the rest of my oder i phoned waited an hour and they had a song playing we are tired of waiting for you by Bill Frisell the call cost me £15

Phantom says:
29 May 2015

Why do they charge you when ordering online to have orders delivered to a local store, With other sites this is free ?

Sarah says:
27 May 2015

I can’t stand the waiting in a queue with awful hold music. I’d almost rather wait in silence! For tackling the god awful menus, I sometimes use a site called pleasepress1.com. It gives shortcuts for most menus if you type in the company you want to call. Has saved me from throwing the phone across the room in a rage a few times! Now, we just need something to stop the queues! Anyone?!

Phantom says:
29 May 2015

I needed some pre flight information from BA, never again! Tried to get through off and on for 2 weeks, when I did eventually get through was cut off, tried again but was impossible. Hint always take a name and give them your phone no, because if you’re not cut off they will leave you on a timeless loop and not let you know they are trying to resolve your problem. No music, and not repeating themselves would help too. Their website needs looking at too. Not blaming the staff, they must be frustrated too. Get a grip BA, the business is too competitive these days to have sloppy customer service. While we’re on the subject, why do so many companies not have a phone contact now, a two second phone call is often enough. Phone calls are expensive now , if time is money that applies to the customer also. Why cant they all be like, and take a lesson from John Lewis, efficient, polite and immediate service every time

Derek R says:
5 June 2015

Ref BT’s call centres.
Totally agree that what the customer really wants is a quick access to a human agent -no doubt.

Here BT often does not do well. But I consider that they should get some credit for 2 aspects of their response.

If the waiting queue is long, they will volunteer to call you back, on th eland line no or on a mobile. It does work, and is better than just sitting on the open line.

Also they do have the ability of.r one to use online text chat facility. Have used it a few times, and it does work.

But, no doubt, quick access to a human is best.

How about a survey to find out the worst ‘call queued’ music – my vote goes to Virgin Media where the music is not only horrible but also way, way, way too loud – or are they trying to stop me calling?

Alan says:
26 June 2015

My iPhone3 broke beyond repair so I decided to replace it with another Apple phone because in my experience they cannot be beaten.

I telephoned EE Orange to cancel my monthly SIM only contract and obtain a PAC code as I had decided, because of Customer Support issues, not to remain with them.

This decision was entirely vindicated. I had to telephone an 07973 number at a cost of 15p per call plus 12.5p per minute. (This is the quoted cost from an EE landline, but I use BT-why don’t they quote the BT cost?).

I had to phone twice. The first time I was cut off after 12 minutes, waiting for their Connection Team, their words not mine. I got through on the second attempt and the call took 13 minutes, giving a total call quoted call charge of £3.42. My actual cost would be slightly lower because BT charge 12p per minute.

It is very irritating for these admin issues take so long-more so when one gets cut off. On this occasion a lot of the time was taken up waiting to speak to somebody and when I did, operators trying to ascertain why I wanted to leave and trying to talk me into changing my mind.

I’ve decided to go to Giffgaff where I will not be able to speak to an operator as everything is carried out online. At least I haven’t got to enter into a contract and if I don’t like it, should be able to change quickly.

Call centres are one of the customer interface models that handsomely rewards poor performance. Often we only pick up the phone when something has gone wrong, and then the longer the wait, the slower the provision of a solution and the more time being transferred between teams all boosts revenue by the minute without increasing costs significantly. In any other environment, charging the customer more for giving a poorer service would be classed as a scam and ridiculed.

David Bannister says:
24 August 2015

Have any of your subscribers heard “I`m sorry, we are unable to answer your call because we havent employed enough advisers !!” No I thought not. I was kept waiting 50 minutes on the phone by Lloyds bank before I gave up in disgust. Am I too impatient??

Has any one experienced problems with John Lewis broadband, am unable to get an answer after 8 attempts in one day, to try and arrange installation . Have now given up, thought Talk Talk were bad !

Stephen Barlow says:
20 October 2016

How about my recent experience of trying to contact the Charity Commission.
Firstly their telephone line is manned 9.00am to midday only, and it is for problems encountered with completing online forms.
I telephoned and whilst waiting in the queue was informed regularly about my position in the queue. However there is a 20 minute maximum being held in the queue, and yes, when I was number one in the queue my 20 minutes were expired and I was cut off!!
Most frustrating!

Lesley pavitt says:
20 October 2016

My John Lewis MasterCard was refused on Monday. I tried to call them, they apologised they were very bust. I tried to get help via the web site they too were too busy. Being trying daily ever since spent over an hour on the phone still no one will talk to me. I love John Lewis but this is making me think I might have to change allegiance

I was kept waiting for 10mins by TFL Congestion Charge Disability help line with inane music and every few seconds a message saying that we will be with you in 2-3 mins I must have heard that same message with same waiting time nearly 20 times !!!
Help me then I managed to get through to an operator, dealing in car numbers, who did not know the phonetic alphabet