Analysing The Political Economy

The Era of Terrible Customer Service

By Rob Woodward: In the UK, many companies just couldn’t care less one way or the other when it comes to reputation. Many seem to think that the cost of doing business is not bothering about customer service at all. They shrug off the idea as not important that their brands languish in lists of worst customer service. For example, in 2009, Sony, one of the world’s largest tech companies was voted ‘coolest’ brand on the planet. Today it ranks No. 1 for terrible customer service in the UK. Welcome to the era of terrible customer service.

British Gas languishes at the top end of the most complained about energy companies. Virgin Media, Shell Energy and TalkTalk are the most complained-about telecoms providers in the UK. Jet2 is by far the most complained about airline company in the UK with double complaints versus its nearest rival. HSBC ranked No1 for most complaints. Not wishing to be outdone, Lloyds and Barclays were chomping at the bit to keep up.

Last year, the number of UK customer complaints about car manufacturers hit a new record, rising nearly 19 per cent from 11 to 13 per cent of all customers, according to the UK Customer Satisfaction Index (UKCSI). The Institute of Customer Service, which has run the index since 2008, attributes this increase to the impact of covid on product availability and reliability. And they would – wouldn’t they? It’s easy to blame everything on Covid and parts. And yet, whilst Skoda was the least complained about car manufacturer, the least reliable car manufacturer was Porsche – both owned by the same company – Volkswagon Group. And it’s telling that the least expensive of those two brands has the best reliability and customer complaints handling, whilst churning out a higher volume of sales.

Meanwhile – the ICS stated in its January 2023 report that more organisations have declined (63 per cent ) than improved (37 per cent) their customer service record against the previous year. One-third of energy company customers think the service is awful and 50 per cent of Royal Mail customers do as well. Shoppers were unhappy too. Home delivery complaints at 32 per cent were closely followed by customer service and communication in the same industry at 31 per cent. The Local Government Ombudsman reports that – some councils regard resolving complaints as ‘optional.’ The list of customer teeth-grinding keeps going.

My personal top three pet hate brands are British Gas (of course), Vodafone and, rather unexpectedly BMW. For me, British Gas is frustration on steroids. Each month I input meter readings onto their dysfunctional website and each month I end up dialling the call centre and then wait for god knows how long to submit the same readings. And if I don’t – I get a rude text demanding the meter readings. It niggles me that in an age of tech, this is the best that one of the largest companies in Britain can do. But then again, who would be surprised about a company that faced widespread criticism earlier this month when it emerged that they were breaking into the homes of vulnerable customers forcing them onto prepayment meters!

As for BMW, well, here even I’m surprised. In December, I was very carefully driving in a country lane, hit a pothole on the other side of a brow in the road and ripped a hole in a run-flat tyre. The car came with ‘BMW assistance,’ so I didn’t bother with AA or RAC roadside when I bought the car.

The ‘BMW-Assistance’ call centre was non-existent. A very poorly trained individual working from home couldn’t find the road I was on, couldn’t fill out the information on their screen and couldn’t assure me that assistance was on the way. I was stranded miles from the nearest town. An hour later, I called for an update only to be told by another ‘agent’ that the work had been declined and no one was coming to my aid. I was then told I had to wait another three hours until 9.30 pm for assistance.

I called an emergency tyre company who arrived in 35 minutes, replaced the tyre and charged me £320 for the £200 replacement. I called BMW again to politely inform them and they could cancel my request for help – as they hadn’t helped. The agent couldn’t find the booking but assured me it was cancelled. Well over six hours after my initial call, BMW ’emergency service’ called to say that they were 30-45 minutes away!

I complained to BMW soon afterwards about this and several other annoying issues I had with the car. It is now six weeks later, and aside from the usual we’ll get back to you, have heard nothing. Frankly, when forking out this type of money, I would have expected something better than a shrug. But then again – why do they care, as I am just one customer? If Porsche doesn’t care a jot about what their customers think, why should BMW?

In Britain, we are now facing a wall of useless no-can-do customer service responses. Heating and hot water complaints rocketed by 60 per cent last year. Problems with customer service that followed buying an Electric Vehicle sparked the most complaints to the Motor Ombudsman last year. The insurance industry is facing its highest-ever level of complaints with a 16 per cent rise in one year. The reality of all this is that customer service complaints have hit their highest level on record in the UK and is now costing British businesses more than £9bn a month in lost staff time, research has found. If someone ever wanted to ask why British productivity was on the wane – ask here.

When it comes to customer service – it matters when a customer needs it most. Take UK Power Networks. It is the best-rated company for handling complaints in the latest index after strong communication and compensation payouts after Storms Eunice and Franklin earlier last year. They had to do both, it’s just that they did it well. Customers who went through this difficult time rated UK Power Networks highly for trust, being open and transparent, having helpful and competent staff and an easy-to-use website. It’s a stark contrast to BMW, which didn’t once ask if I had a vulnerable person in the car with me. It didn’t bother to apologise when given six weeks to look into it. And still hasn’t bothered.

Things are getting so bad that more than a third of customers say in the Institute of Customer Service index that they would pay more to guarantee excellent service. It’s just a guess, but I think BMW customers probably think they are already paying that premium and expect a bit more than just a cursory eyeball-rolling when reporting a problem.

Almost two years ago, firms were being accused of using the pandemic as an excuse for long waits on the telephone or late deliveries, the UK Institute of Customer Service said. Not much has changed, except now they charge more for this ever-declining service. And that brings me back to BMW again. The car came equipped with an option to pay for ‘High Beam Assistant.’ To activate it cost £160. A few months later, as we approached winter, I decided to pay for it – only to find that this same service (which BMW switch on remotely) had increased by more than double our highest inflation peak. Two months later, on the approach to Christmas, I was offered a huge ‘discount’ and could buy that service for … £160. I don’t know about you, but I was truly annoyed at being unashamedly played by BMW.

Having had no response to my complaint – I’ve rather gone off the brand, not because there is anything significantly wrong with the car (actually, it’s rather good) – it’s just the arrogant shrug-off, can’t-be-bothered attitude of the manufacturer.

I’m not a natural complainer – I usually just walk away from companies that don’t deliver and change brands, but at this rate even I am having to accept that this is now the new era of terrible customer service. Perhaps all these companies are taking their lead from the very worst in delivering what they promised – the government! And perhaps we are all getting too used to it.




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