You keep me hanging on: BT customer service voted worst in UK

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TELECOMS giant BT was yesterday named and shamed as having the worst call-centre customer service.

The survey of 5,000 people found BT was almost twice as bad as runner-up British Gas when it came to dealing with issues and complaints.

The firm was accused of leaving callers on hold or struggling to get through its automated system to make complaints.

Sky came third, followed by Virgin Media and Vodafone in the survey by internet market research firm

BT – which recorded a pre-tax loss of 134 million for 2008-9 against profits of 2 billion the previous year – also came top for the longest holding times, followed by British Gas and Sky.

The survey gathered views from across the UK about 30 companies with call centres.

Among the biggest bugbears were foreign-based call centres with staff who struggled to understand British accents.

Nearly 47 per cent of Scots listed "the language barrier" and "call centres based abroad" as the most annoying aspects of call centres, topping the UK poll in this category.

Examples given of dissatisfied customers included a man who fell out with BT because an Asian-based call centre operator said his mild Scottish accent was unintelligible.

But overall the greatest irritation for consumers was the use of automated systems, which meant it could take several minutes of button-pressing to get through to a real person.

Rude staff and having to answer numerous security questions also featured on the list.

Other nuisances included being passed around different people and having to keep repeating the same complaint or inquiry.

Those interviewed believed they spent on average about 23 minutes on the phone each time they called. Just over 11 per cent said they often spent 30 minutes on the phone to companies.

BT also came top for the longest holding times, with 18 per cent of people complaining about the company.

Professor Bill Donaldson of the department of marketing at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, said: "It surprises me that BT hasn't got it right considering they are in the communications business.

"You would think they would be trying very hard considering they and the other large companies listed suffer from the 'churn factor' – customers leaving and going elsewhere if they don't deliver. But perhaps being dominant in the market has made them arrogant."

Prof Donaldson added: "Call centres are the way organisations look to reduce the cost of individual sales staff. In theory they should work because we all basically ask the same question and there is a set script of answers.

"But the 'back office' – that is, the call centre – has to support the 'front office', which means the person taking the call is vital to the organisation. The skill in management is making sure you have the answers when the customer doesn't get it right."

In the survey, phone and utility companies were rated equally as bad as each other, closely followed by banks and retail organisations.

It also emerged that six out of ten people had switched companies because of a poor level of customer service.

A spokesman for the telecoms giant defended its service, saying: "BT does not believe that this survey is a fair reflection of what our customers feel about the service we provide.

"Our own extensive surveys reveal far greater levels of satisfaction, especially for customers who make calls with us.

"The time it takes BT customers to get through to an adviser has dropped by 65 per cent over the last year and is now 32 seconds on average.

"Customer complaints have reduced by over 40 per cent in the last year."

Energy firms under fire over handling of complaints

ENERGY firms have been urged to improve the way they deal with complaints after a survey found that one in four customers were unhappy with how grievances were handled.

Research commissioned by regulator Ofgem found consumer gripes included the number of times they had to contact the supplier, the attitude of staff and a failure to return calls.

Ofgem said there were "low levels" of satisfaction across all suppliers – with billing and prices the most common grievance – but added some performed better than others.

Scottish & Southern Energy and E.ON rated joint highest with 29 per cent of customers satisfied, while Npower was lowest with 16 per cent.

ScottishPower recorded 24 per cent satisfaction levels, while Centrica and EDF each polled 20 per cent in the survey of 2,700 customers.

In a letter sent to heads of each of the major energy companies, Ofgem chief executive Alistair Buchanan said: "It is in suppliers' best interests to ensure that the service they provide is of a high standard. This is clearly an opportunity for them to raise the bar to retain existing customers and attract new ones.

"With the systems and processes in place, the challenge now for companies was to really listen to what their customers were saying and look at how they could address their concerns."

Ofgem said it was investigating "concerns" that EDF Energy had failed to comply with regulations requiring suppliers to "properly record" complaints.

Garry Felgate, chief executive of the Energy Retail Association, said suppliers were working to conform with regulations governing the handling of customer complaints.

"Energy suppliers take any complaint extremely seriously," he said. "The new complaint handling arrangements were put in place less than a year ago and we have worked closely with Ofgem and consumer organisations to ensure that the process works in customers' best interests."