Sam Dunn: Broadband must get its act together

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'Twas the season to be merry - at least it was until people tried to go online.

According to readers who have got in touch recently, broadband problems killed all the Christmas and New Year cheer. Anguished testimonies have included not just tales of slow download speeds but of internet services vanishing for weeks while the cash was debited from customer accounts.

The latest complaint from an apoplectic customer involves threats of bailiffs being sent round despite payments being made.

Customer woes with internet suppliers - TalkTalk in particular but also BT and ntl - are multiplying at an alarming rate, and in one sense we shouldn't be surprised. We've seen it all before with the deregulation of the UK's electricity and gas markets in the late 1990s, when the benefits of lower prices and flexible deals, thanks to fierce competition between suppliers, were blighted by the industry's struggle to get its billing and customer services into gear.

The complexity and cost of doing so caused huge administrative problems that continue to bedevil consumers - the wrong amount on the bill, the wrong address, the wrong person.

In the case of the broadband and telecoms industry, regulator Ofcom is now stamping on the worst behaviour by forcing providers to react more quickly to consumer problems.

Of course, no company thrives on poor customer service - or the damaging publicity that follows - and most are making at least some effort to do better.

However, it's important companies realise just how much needs to be done to retain customers or win new ones. As competition in not just broadband but the mobile phone internet and digital TV intensifies, people won't be loyal to any provider - no matter how big their profile - if their prices are amazing but their product, service and support isn't.

This sounds like the most basic advice imaginable but it's been sadly lacking in many of our major financial services companies.

Much is being made of the promise of 2007 as a magical year for telecoms wizardry in our homes.

That's as maybe, but providers need to make sure that it's the customer service that is magic - and not a mess - to make it a really happy new year.

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