Charles Dunstone, who regularly features in polls of Britain's most admired business people, could have been forgiven for throwing his phone at the wall yesterday after his fast-expanding telecoms spin-off TalkTalk was exposed for mistreating customers.
New figures from communications regulator, Ofcom, showed that TalkTalk, founded and chaired by the entrepreneur, came top of the complaints league for major telecoms providers for the four months to February.
Ofcom was bombarded by complaints after the company sent in debt collectors to demand thousands of customers pay phantom bills following a botched transfer of Tiscali customers.
TalkTalk received four times more complaints than any other landline firm and three times the average number of complaints about broadband, performing much worse than its major competitors BT and BSkyB. The complaints are a second major hiccup in an otherwise distinguished career for Mr Dunstone, who is worth £604m.
Dunstone, 46, who founded Carphone Warehouse with £6,000 in 1989, apologised four years ago after TalkTalk was swamped by demand from landline customers for free broadband. In an interview with Management Today last year, he said: "I ended up writing an email to the whole company: 'The idiot who thought of free broadband.' It had become my own version of the Iraq war – I don't know how we got into it or how we get out."
TalkTalk, which has five million customers, experienced fresh problems last year after its £236m takeover of the UK arm of Tiscali in 2009, including the aforementioned harassment of customers for bill non-payment.
One thousand customers complained to Ofcom and, following an an investigation last July, TalkTalk agreed to pay £2.5m in refunds and compensate a further 62,000 people. The action staved off a multimillion-pound fine.
Yesterday, Ofcom said that revealing its complaints data on telecoms companies with more than 5 per cent of the market would allow consumers to shop around. They showed that while TalkTalk received 1.78 complaints per 1,000 landline customers, BSkyB had 0.41 and BT 0.37.
Virgin did best of all, receiving one-eighth the number of TalkTalk's complaints. TalkTalk, which was floated on the stock market last year, received 1.27 complaints per 1,000 customers about its broadband, double those for BT and triple BSkyB's. Mobile phone provider O2 had just 0.04 complaints per 1,000 customers.
3UK was the most complained-about firm, followed by T-Mobile and Orange. Calling for telecoms giants to publish their own complaints figures, Robert Hammond, head of digital communications at Consumer Focus, said: "These [Ofcom] complaints are likely to be the tip of the iceberg."
A TalkTalk spokesman said: "We recognise that in the period in question not all customers received the service they deserved."
However, he added that customer complaints had decreased towards the end of the period.
1. TalkTalk, which received 1.78 complaints per 1,000 landline customers
2. BSkyB – 0.41 complaints per 1,000 landlines
3. BT – 0.37 complaints per 1,000 landlines
4. Virgin Media – 0.21 complaints per 1,000 landlines