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September 12, 2022

Broadband providers have a customer relations problem

Frustrations are boiling over among consumers about unhelpful advice and excessive hold times.

By Sophia Waterfield

Tannice Hemming has been struggling with her Virgin Media O2 broadband for some time now. A healthcare writer who works remotely, Hemming has been unable to organise or attend work-related video calls. Seeking help, she contacted her provider via Twitter, only to be told that her problem was better addressed on Virgin Media’s technical forums.

While other service users on the forum were happy to offer her help and advice, Hemming has yet to receive an official response from a Virgin Media employee. Attempts to reach a Virgin Media representative on the phone have also seen her directed back to the technical forums.

Industry regulator Ofcom has found that only half of broadband customers are satisfied with how their complaints are resolved. (Photo by chainarong06/Shutterstock)

“They won’t tell me how to talk to someone,” she says. “They won’t admit they don’t provide a telephone method of customer service. You cannot speak to a human – there is no way to do so.”

Hemming’s case is hardly unique. While the UK’s leading broadband firms dream of record profits this year, a recent survey by industry regulator Ofcom found that only half of customers were satisfied with how their complaints had been resolved. That dissatisfaction is laid bare in the thousands of angry complaints directed at company accounts on Twitter about unclear advice, long hold times and, in some cases, representatives simply hanging up the phone. On Facebook, meanwhile, a small community of users have clustered in groups to vent their frustrations – one, with the evocative title ‘Virgin Media BAD INTERNET customer service support group,’ has more than 5,300 members.

Poor customer service is not the preserve of broadband companies – a recent survey by Business Financing, for example, found that hotels, airlines, banks and energy companies all performed worse than the telecoms sector when it came to resolving complaints to customers’ satisfaction. In our post-pandemic era of hybrid work, however, the feelings of isolation and anxiety that accompany an unreliable internet connection have only grown more acute. Amid a cost-of-living crisis, those emotions can boil over into anger and despondency.

“We are still no closer to resolving the situation,” says Hemming. “I spend all day turning the Wi-Fi on and off and using data sometimes to avoid the service disruption as it just drops out.”

Customer service in a cost-of-living crisis

James Davis feels the same way. A corporate health and wellness coach at 38ºN, Davis found himself and his family in dire straits when their landlord evicted them with only a month’s notice. Forced to move back in with his parents, Davis called BT to cancel his contract at his old property.

“I called BT to give a month’s notice, explaining the circumstances,” he says. It took conversations with six different customer representatives over 45 minutes, Davis claims, before a manager informed him that he would have to cancel his existing broadband contract and port his account over to his parents’ house or face paying a £188 cancellation fee. “In the midst of a cost-of-living crisis and housing crisis, it seems unfair that when you’re being forced out of your home, BT wants to penalise you,” he says.

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It was only when he rang back and requested a deadlock letter he could provide to the internet regulator Ofcom that BT changed their minds. “I was put on hold for five minutes, then they came back on to say they were waiving the charge,” says Davis, explaining that BT hadn’t told him about its complaints procedure or his right to raise his concerns with the industry ombudsman.

When approached for comment, both BT and Virgin Media said they prioritised the delivery of good customer service. A spokesperson from Virgin said that the company was “always happy to help customers experiencing difficulties,” including by phone, its online community and its instant messaging service. They added that it was untrue that customers are unable to speak to the company over the phone about issues or complaints, and that the company would “never intentionally leave a customer without support.”

A spokesperson from BT, meanwhile, told Tech Monitor that the company is “committed to supporting all our customers who are worried about their finances,” and that its call centre staff “are trained to identify and offer those who need help products that meet their needs.” The spokesperson also confirmed that, if a customer cancels their service while in contract with BT, they could be subject to early termination charges included in their broadband contract terms and conditions.

Improving customer satisfaction

It is true that the majority of consumers feel satisfied with their broadband provider. According to Ofcom, only one in five users contacted their provider about a problem in 2021 – a decrease of 6% on the previous year. Those that did, meanwhile, spent an average of 2 minutes and 16 seconds before they spoke to an operator, although this doesn’t seem to account for hold times after customers have been transferred to another department.

However, only half of the customers who do complain are satisfied with how the complaint is handled – with 37% on average obtaining a resolution on first contact with their provider. What’s more, the number of customers feeling dissatisfied with the performance of their broadband is now at its highest level since 2016, according to the Institute of Customer Service, with 20.6% of consumers feeling that the service provided is inadequate. “Customer satisfaction within the telecoms sector overall still lags behind the UK all-sector average,” says its chief executive, Jo Causon. “As a group of providers, they still have a way to go in terms of delivering consistently excellent service to their customers.”

The path forward for telcos is clear, explains Causon. Firms should, she says, make it easier “to contact the right person with a choice of channels and developing more knowledgeable staff trained to deal with customers who have a range of different needs.”

Telcos also need to overhaul their legacy IT systems and upskill their staff, says Global Data analyst Natasha Rybak. “Telecommunications companies are finding themselves under pressure to improve poor customer service at a time when people’s technical support needs have become more varied and complicated, as have available service and device options,” she explains. “The companies’ legacy systems need to be integrated and overhauled, and support staff trained up on everything from WiFi and interactive TV to the fine details of billing for four or five or six different services per household, or even more.”

Creating new channels through which customers can reach a dedicated company representative is also beneficial, adds Rybak. The UKCSI shows that customers are happier with telecommunication providers who use apps to communicate with consumers (82%.)

Investing in these types of channels, explains Rybak, is a simple way for telcos to adapt to the complicated reality of communications in modern Britain. Companies like BT, Virgin Media and others “need to cater to everyone from my granddad, who wants to speak to ‘a real person,’ to my mum who is comfortable negotiating with automated voice interfaces, to my niece who prefers to just go online and take care of everything herself with a few taps and swipes.”

Many internet providers have, in fact, already begun to approach resolving customer service enquiries through this multi-channel approach – as Hemming discovered when she was directed by Virgin Media’s Twitter account to the company’s technical forums. Even so, data from Ofcom shows that 86% of customers prefer calling their provider rather than messaging them, suggesting that for the moment at least, further investment in training call centre representatives should be a priority in avoiding scenarios like Hemming’s and Davis’.

It’s not easy for broadband providers to chart a course forward, explains Rybak. “That’s no excuse, but the problem is, there’s also no simple guidebook to follow,” she says. “They’re having to write it as they go along, and they often get it wrong - or at best, not quite right enough.

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