Dial 'T' for trouble: A nuisance caller takes on Britain PLC

Sick of shoddy service? Bored of getting the brush-off? Esther Walker certainly is – so she phoned some of Britain's biggest brands to find our how helpful they really are
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The Independent Online

It is a fact universally acknowledged that few modern rituals are more stressful than trying to telephone a major company. Any average person who wants to complain, or (heaven forbid) actually buy something from a larger than medium-sized firm faces endless frustration – and needs to have the patience of a saint. If you're not trying to deal with a computer service-centre in Bangladesh (with a two-second time delay on the line), you're faced with banks asking a lengthyseries of security questions while you stand on a Bangkok street corner, talking into a fading mobile, trying to find out why they have stopped your debit card.

All this is assuming, of course, that you are actually speaking to a real person. This normally means you've managed to navigate a series of automated sieves ("Please listen to the following options..."). In America, it's now so hard to get through to a person that there is a website called www.gethuman.com which lists companies on one side and then the magical combination of buttons that will get you through to an actual operator.

On this side of the Atlantic, the situation is just as desperate.In October 2006, British Gas received 15,400 complaints from customers because customer-service agents wouldn't pick up the phone. BBC's Watchdog rang British Gas's four most common customer-service numbers and it took an average of nine minutes for someone to answer; in one case, it was 47 minutes before the call was taken.

All of which begs one question: why? Why have the leaders of serious, multinational companies allowed their customer-service departments to degenerate into a state of hair-tearing disarray? Why do big businesses spend billions on advertising, but make a pig's ear of rare chances to communicate directly to their customer base?

After all, as the old corporate maxim goes, for every one person who complains, there are hundreds who don't, but will just never use the company again; one survey found that 80 per cent of UK customers will change allegiance to a company after just one bad customer-service experience.

So, in a spirit of frustration – and by way of research – I decided to put the misleadingly named customer-service industry to the test.

These pages contain transcripts of calls to consumer "helplines", in which I attempted to ask some tricky questions of the unofficial spokespeople for some of Britain's best-known brands. They include marks out of 10 for their response – together with the verdict of Paul Cooper, the director of the Institute of Customer Service.


Hi. I'm thinking about getting a pair of your trainers for my nephew, but I'd like to know where the shoes are manufactured.

Reebok: Right, um, we're not too sure to be honest, we're the online megastore. I can give you the number for the consumer helpline.

Thanks so much.

Reebok: You're very welcome.

Call Two:

Hi. I'd like to buy some trainers for my nephew but I'd like to find out where they are made.

Reebok: Right... we have obviously [long pause] processes right the way across, well right across the world, really, and so we can't pinpoint where exactly they're going to be manufactured. Is there some sort of issue you have with that?

I'm just not keen on buying anything that's likely to have been produced in a sweatshop or by people paid below minimum wage. Do you have a policy on that?

Reebok: Well, yeah we do. I mean, we do get a few emails and phone calls of this nature and also about what the actual leathers are made of, um, but we can't pinpoint each... for example we have manufacturing sites in places like Thailand, we have them all over. I mean some people seem to think we have a manufacturing area in Germany and only want boots made in Germany but we can't... each product is made in different areas and sometimes they're started off in Thailand and then moved across to Germany to be finished off, and we can't pinpoint a product to a certain area. Now, if you wanted a bit more information on that, if you wanted to email us I'm sure we could send you some more information.

The other thing is that my nephew's got really big feet, what size do you go up to? I think he's about a 14. Do have those in the shops?

Reebok: What sort of shoe is he after?

Well, I wanted to get him something that might make his feet look at bit smaller. I think he's self-conscious about them.

Reebok: [Silence]

I think there are some patterns that make feet look smaller than they are.

Reebok:: Right, well that really comes down to the individual's choice as far as whether he likes them or not. But there is a website that we use quite a lot that's useful. For some reason shoes go up to a 13 and then stop. Most people are over six foot nowadays so you'd have thought that would be taken into consideration. [...] There's a website we use called tenniswarehouse.com and they cater for larger foot sizes. [...] There's one on there now which is a Men's Swerve and Return white and steel, steel just means it's silver, size 14.

It sounds like there's less choice in big sizes.

Reebok: Not necessarily. [...] It can change on a daily basis. I've been in here before and there've been five or six in a size 14. [...]

That's great, thanks very much indeed.

Reebok: That's OK, you're welcome, bye.

Paul Cooper's verdict


On call one, they should know the answer to this question, even at the online megastore. At least the caller was re-routed to a free number. I'd give the second call a B-minus. All the facts and responses are there, but delivery could be improved. They are much better at hard facts and sales than questions that might seem critical.


Could you explain to me what 57 Varieties means?

Heinz: Basically, HJ Heinz, the founder, was travelling on a train in America and saw a sign for 21 varieties of training shoe. He thought it was catchy and so he thought he'd go through some numbers to see if anything caught his eye, and 57 seemed to him a nice, rounded figure. And that's where 57 varieties comes from. But, at the time, there were more than 57 varieties, even then.

And now there's just one?

Heinz: [Pause] Oh no, there's thousands of varieties in the Heinz range now.

Do baked beans count as one of your five-a-day?

Heinz: We used to have that on the label of the can but the guidelines changed [...] There was some discussion as to whether anything in a can could be counted as part of a five-a-day – so we decided to take it off the label.

OK, thanks for your help.

Heinz: OK. Do you mind if I take your name so that I can log the call?

Oh, I don't really want to be on a database.

Heinz: Well, it's not that, but I'll just jot down that you rang.

OK, thanks, bye.

Heinz: Bye then.

Paul Cooper's verdict


A little clumsy, but basically there. The rep needs a bit more practice. There could have been more bonding from the rep. Did they really want the name for a database? If so, they should have been honest about it up front.


Hi, I was thinking about opening a savings account with you but I'm a bit worried about all that stuff I've been reading in the papers about you. How safe is it?

NR: At the minute there's actually no safer bank in the UK to deposit your funds in because we're, sort of, under this temporary nationalisation. 100 per cent of your funds are guaranteed, whereas other banks will only be able to guarantee anything up to £35,000. [...]

I quite like the look of your fixed-rate bonds. Can you tell me more?

NR: I certainly can. We've currently got four fixed-rate bonds at the minute. We've got a one-year fixed-rate bond at 6.15 per cent, or you can get one for two or three years at 6 per cent, we've also got a fixed-rate access bond, which is at 5.15 per cent but if you needed to make a withdrawal at any time you can have your money penalty-free without notice.

Do other banks do that?

NR: Not with bonds, to be honest, um, it's mainly you put the money in and then you can't sort of touch it unless you want to incur a penalty. [...] [With] the 5.15 per cent one there's access to your funds.

The 5.15 per cent one, is that more than other banks are offering?

NR: [Pause] It's pretty competitive. I don't really know exactly what the other ones are offering at the moment but I know it's certainly up there with them as one of the best rates around.

It says on your website that these bonds are limited issue. Do you know when the offer ends?

NR: No. We don't know. It could be at any time. When it's launched it comes with a set amount of customers that can enter the bond. As soon as it's full, it's full and then we'll get told. And then they launch another one. [...]

Have you still got all those queues outside your branches?

NR: [Laughs] No, not any more. That was just a couple of days that, er, that we won't talk about!

Ok thanks, I'll think about the bonds.

NR: There's lots of information on our website if you need it or ring us back, OK? [...] Thanks for calling.

Paul Cooper's verdict


Oh, do get rid of "sort of", and "to be honest" and so on! When giving facts you don't hear this uncomfortable sort of language. It's a tough time for them, but the call was well-handled.


I was thinking about finally getting a mobile phone, but I've heard that mobile phones give you tumours, is that right?

Orange: No

Right, so why has there been so much in the papers about it? Is there no evidence at all?

Orange: I'm not saying that there's no evidence at all. But if you just use it sensibly, then it's not going to affect you.

What do you mean by "sensibly"?

Orange: [Long silence] Well, I mean, what are you going to use the phone for?


Orange: I mean, if you're not happy about it you're probably better off not using one, if you haven't used one before. The thing is, if you're just on it all the time with the phone stuck to your head, it's... mobile phones have been going for so long now that, you know, have you ever heard of anyone having a tumour caused by it?

No, but I thought that you might know about the risks.

Orange: Yes, but we just sell them. We don't know the ins and outs of people dying of tumours. I mean, I've had a mobile phone for 10 years and I'm, touch wood, still here.

Right, so...

Orange: I mean, it's like a lot of these scare stories, you know: "don't eat eggs and don't eat this and don't eat that", um, you can't kind of believe everything you read. But we've been selling phones since 1999 and even before that and we haven't had any issues with the radiation... scares.

And what about mobile phone masts?

Orange: Yeah, I mean... it's the same thing. We don't... we would always... we don't just lop 'em up wherever, we'd always make sure, we try to keep them away from... houses or whatever. You know, it's like progress: if you don't have the masts then you can't have the mobile phones.

Ok, but why do you try to keep the masts away from houses?

Orange: We disguise them so you haven't got a great big transmitter standing there. You sometimes see a tree and actually it's a mast.

Ok, well, I'll think about it, thanks.

Orange: Bye.

Paul Cooper's verdict


This is terrible, from the first “No”. These are classic questions being asked and should be covered by training. These are “public scare” issues for which there aren’t any definitive answers, but one can empathise and reassure confidently. The responses aren’t good for company image either, especially the bit about trees disguised as phone masts!


[...] Oh, hello. My husband is thinking about buying a Land Rover but I'm worried about emissions. How bad are Land Rovers for the environment?

Land Rover: Well, er, on a green note they are, um, they're not the best, um, but there's a lot of manufacturers who would be... I've just got some information here, just bear with me a second. [Hold music] [...] Yes as far as the, um.... the... what they call the green-offset programme where they talk about the emissions for different brands... Now, we come in with a CO2 emission of 194 for the Freelander, which matches the Audi Quattro, the Nissan, the Renault Mégane and the Beetle. Um, what vehicle were you looking for?

I just wanted to know which one performed best in terms of emissions.

Land Rover: It's the TD4, the Freelander. The Range Rover comes in at 376.

So that's the worst-performing one?

Land Rover: Yes. [...] The next-best-performing is the Discovery, which beats the Volkswagen Golf, the Mercedes ML and the Audi TT. [...]

What is emissions dependent on?

Land Rover: It's dependent on the amount of carbon dioxide it gives out, per gram, per kilometre.

How come one car produces more than the other?

Land Rover: It's solely on the engine sizes.

So the bigger they are, the more CO2 they produce?

Land Rover: Yes, that's right, and it's also the way that they're built [...] how well the technology is developed.

Will the congestion charge be higher for Land Rovers?

Land Rover: It will be. If you have a look on the congestion site they've got more in-depth information. [...]

[...] OK then, thanks.

Paul Cooper's verdict


This call gets better as time goes on. The number of “um”s and “er”s is too high at the start, but as it gets more about facts, the confidence creeps in. Clearly the rep had facts nearly at their fingertips; overall it’s good and they weren’t afraid to give “bad” news.


Hi, I was wondering if you could explain to me how your anti-viral tissues work.

Kleenex: Um, well, you know, it just prevents contamination, really. For when you sneeze. It doesn't cure a cold, but when you sneeze the anti-viral is against germs

Are other tissues unhygienic?

Kleenex: It doesn't necessarily mean they're unhygienic, but they don't have the necessary ingredients of the anti-viral that kill germs.

So it kills the germs, so you can leave them around and it won't give other people colds?

Kleenex: It's not very tidy to leave tissues around, especially with bits of sneeze in them [laughs]. Obviously, they won't prevent colds, but it's an anti-viral.

But if you sneeze and then put the tissue in your pocket and someone else wears your coat or something, will it stop them catching a cold from the tissue in your pocket?

Kleenex: Yes, obviously that would be the object of the anti-viral ingredient.

Actually, I've always wondered how many times you're supposed to use one tissue. [...]

Kleenex: It's just a personal thing, isn't it? It really depends on how big the sneeze is. Some sneezes are very, very large, and you'd want to discard the tissue straight away. [...]

That's a good point. I hadn't thought of that.

Kleenex: Anything else I can help you with?

No, that's it, thanks. Bye.

Paul Cooper's verdict


This call is impressive. Customer service answers must tell the truth – if you’re selling something medical, it’s a responsibility


I'm a musician. I've got to play in a concert in Rome next month and I was going to have to fly with my cello in the hold. But I'll be flying out of Terminal 5, and I'm worried that my cello will get lost. Is there anything I can do to make sure it gets there with me?

BA: Right, the only way to guarantee it would be to purchase a seat to have it on the flight next to you.

Sorry? I've got to buy a seat for it?

BA: Yes, so you make your own reservation, and when you've made the reservation, if you do it on ba.com it's less expensive. Then when you've made the reservation, give us a call and we'll request an extra seat so you can have it on board the aircraft with you.

Is it less expensive than if a person was in the seat?

BA: The actual ticket is the same but you'll not pay any tax.

I see. Ok. I read somewhere that if you check in very early then your luggage is less likely to get lost.

BA: That's a load of rubbish [laughs]. If you're late checking in and there's a time issue then yes, maybe, that'll be a problem, but it can still go missing if you check in early because it could be hanging around somewhere, couldn't it?

So the problem is with the system and not the baggage handlers?

BA: Well, it was the baggage system, but to be honest it's been resolved at the moment.

So you're getting fewer complaints now?

BA: Exactly, yes.

Ok. I'll think about the seat.

BA: Ok, thanks for calling.

Paul Cooper's verdict


The fourth response is a hoot – it wouldn't please the company, but it's brutally honest! The rep makes a good recovery in the next one, though. This is a good, brief but accurate answer, even if it wasn't what the customer expects or would necessarily think is fair.


Call #1 (3pm)

[Recorded message]: Sorry, but the person at extension 5610 is not available to take your call. Please leave a message.

Call #2 (3.15pm)

[Recorded message]: Sorry, but the person at extension 5610 is not available to take your call. Please leave a message.

Call #3 (3.39pm)

[Recorded message]: Sorry, but the person at extension 5610 is not available to take your call. Please leave a message.

Call #4 (16.04)

[Recorded message]: Sorry, but the person at extension 5610 is not available to take your call. Please leave a message.

Call #5 (the next day)

RB: Hello, Red Bull.

Hello, may I speak to the customer services department please?

RB: May I ask what it's regarding?

I've got a question about Red Bull.

RB: May I ask what it is?

I was just wondering how many cans you should have a day.

RB: Hold on one moment. [I am put on hold]

RB: Hi there, I'm afraid customer services can't answer that question for you, I mean, it would be an individual thing. Have you drunk too much of it?

No, it's just that my flatmate drinks quite a lot and I think it makes him a bit weird.

RB: Yeah, it's caffeine, remember, so if you do drink too much it will affect you.

I was also wondering about taurine. Is it a made-up word or what?

RB: Is that one of the ingredients in there?


RB: Um, no, it's not. If you Google it, you should get the, um, what it is and where it comes from as well.

It's not made from cows, is it? Because my flatmate's a vegetarian.

RB: Pause. No, I don't think so.

Ok, I'll look it up.

RB: OK [laughing] bye.

Paul Cooper's verdict


Customer service lines should not go to a message and the system of connecting customers via a receptionist seems flawed. Answers to questions about things such as taurine should be known. There’s nothing wrong with, “I’ll find out and call you back.”


Hello. [...] When you say "free range", how much space do the chickens have?

Tesco: Um, just hold the line for a sec and I'll see if I can find that information out for you [hold music plays for 58 seconds]. Sorry to keep you waiting there. In all the information on the system it doesn't actually state the size of the pens they're kept in, but it does say that all the farms meet legal requirements. [...] I could try to find out for you if you want me to.

Oh no, that's OK [....] I was reading about those chickens that cost £1.99. How come they're so cheap?

Tesco: [...] The chickens were just on promotion, there was nothing wrong with them or anything like that, but because of the programme that was on at the time people thought they were being reduced to get rid of them.

Where do you get your chickens that aren't free-range?

Tesco: [...] We have different farms – I'd need to know which exact product it was. If you phoned me up with the barcode, then I could tell you where it came from, but the majority of the chickens we sell in store these days are free range anyway.

And what does Tesco mean when it says something is organic?

Tesco: It means there's been nothing added to it to make it grow any better. It's just... organic.

Ok thanks very much.

Tesco: OK then, bye.

Paul Cooper's verdict


This is the sort of information that must be asked frequently, so should be given to the representative during training. Hopefully, there's feedback in place to ensure this rep is ready next time. Not knowing once is forgivable, but not knowing twice wouldn't be. The number for the line, 0845, is bad as it costs the caller, and with a 58-second hold is expensive, especially for no help.