Stephen Foley: Complaining customers need to do less talk talk, and more walk walk

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The Independent Online

Outlook My goodness, how fast the spinners went into action yesterday morning, when Ofcom published its league table of the UK's most complained-about telecoms companies.

You realise that the figures don't reflect how easy we make it to complain, Vodafone whispered. Our customers love us, really. It's just that we – and only we – put Ofcom's telephone number on our website, so no wonder we come out worse than O2.

And then there was TalkTalk, worst among broadband providers, worst among landline providers, and in each case by a country mile. A little more sackcloth and ashes with their spin (sorry, sorry, we did indeed inconvenience some customers when we were managing the "complex task" of moving to our new billing system), but spin, none the less. The problem, TalkTalk whispered, is that we just have too many customers coming to us, having heard about our great rates and great service from friends. And by the way, if you slice the statistics carefully, you'll see that complaints have tailed off now.

So it is turning into quite a jolly event, Ofcom's twice-yearly exercise in naming and shaming. The pillorying of TalkTalk, of course, knows no bounds, after its disgraceful string of bungles. On the mobile telecoms side, complaints from T-Mobile customers spiked in January when it changed its fair-use terms for mobile data, but patchy signal quality and poor customer service seems to be a pretty consistent grumble about 3UK, no matter what the month.

Over and above the issue of who is up and who is down, there is this question: why is the number of complaints so high? Ofcom gets 450 complaints about telecoms providers every single day. Yet this is one of the most comprehensively deregulated telecoms markets in the world, with a dizzying array of consumer choice – not a government-run monolith. The laws of the competitive marketplace would suggest we should have superb customer service. So why is it that Britons are so infuriated with their telecoms providers?

I think the answer lies in the speed of innovation. The pace at which internet services for home and for the mobile phone have developed, and the constantly expanding range of services we expect from an ever-shifting cast of potential providers, mean that businesses are genuinely struggling to keep up.

But that cannot be the full story, because the grim service we receive from these companies stems not just from imperfections on the cutting edge but from basic flaws in areas such as call centres. Press one for an interminable wait; press two to be cut off now.

The truth is that these firms are under-resourcing customer service because customers are not yet punishing them for doing so, at least not in numbers that make them stand to attention.

And that is because, in actual fact, we prioritise new-ness over good-ness, and cost over service. The excitement of a new, super-speed service or the latest Apple must-have trumps whatever you might have heard from your neighbours about the shocking quality of the experience. Just ask any American who suffered when the iPhone was available only on the AT&T wireless network.

But the gap between the fastest or the funkiest and the rest is narrowing. That is why the publication of Ofcom's league tables are timely and helpful – and why the industry is so keen to spin them. Customer service is moving up the agenda, and about time, too. Things can only get better.