And the awards for the worst customer service go to …
Observer readers take a lot of holidays. I know that because you write in to tell me about them. Not happy postcards of sun and surf, but accounts of how a year’s savings bought you a night at an airport (the luckier ones who at least got a change of scene) or vanished into thin air (the unlucky ones who never left home).
I know why you take a lot of holidays. It’s to get away from the stress of corporate Britain, where bills arrive out of nowhere for heating a house you’ve never heard of, or parking a car you’ve never owned. Where your telecoms provider makes you pay to leave them when they can no longer supply you, where confusing a 0 with an O can cost you £160, where a typo on a credit file can cost you a career.
You can’t blame the companies. They’re simply fulfilling their purpose … to make money. No, it’s customer naivety that’s at the root of the problem. Extraordinary numbers of you still hand over your wages to traders in the belief that there’s a sentient human on the end of the line to fulfil your order and solve any problems.
If you are among that number, welcome to my annual prizegiving, which reveals the nature of 21st century customer service.
Most brazen profiteering
Three cheers for the car hire sector! It may refuse to hand over your vehicle until you’ve shelled out twice the hire price for unnecessary insurance, or debit your card for unspecified damage weeks after returning it.
But why supply the goods at all if you can get money for nothing! Hence the policy of cancelling a booking and withholding the payment if a customer arrives late to an airport collection desk. Since punctuality is beyond the control of passengers, this is a win-win. Goldcar even refused to honour or refund a booking when KB of Northumberland told them two months before he was due to collect his car that the airline had changed the time of his incoming flight. Goldcar omitted this crucial caveat from their terms and conditions, but insisted it was still enforceable.
This has to go to BT for its Keep Connected Promise. The £65.99-a-month deal pledges instant dispatch of a mini hub to get customers back online if they report a fault with their broadband. The rub is halfway down the terms and conditions, which aren’t visible on the sales page. Clause 10e mentions that “planned or unplanned outages on BT’s network or any third-party service” are not covered. Nor are faults in the “home environment”. Which essentially excludes many causes and is why MR of London was refused the promised mini hub after two half-days with no broadband.
Most lucrative blunders
Discount shopping website The Money Club is a perennial winner. Ever since a software update in 2013 it has had a habit of debiting customers’ annual subscription fees weekly, or even daily. SM of Croydon was relieved of £8,000 over two months after agreeing to a yearly subscription of £125. After six years of complaints from the Observer, the Club says it’s “looking at” updating the offending software.
Runners-up must be the utilities companies who send customers the tab for their own billing fiascos. Co-op Energy has not allowed the back-billing rule to impede its dash for cash from customers affected by its IT meltdown in 2015. The rule forbids utilities firms to chase unbilled debts over 12 months old. Nonetheless, CB in Cumbria faced selling his house to find the £12,600 it decided it was owed after it failed to bill him correctly for four years.
Then there’s Extra Energy, which ceased trading last year but is still demanding four-figure sums from ex-customers. Administrators PricewaterhouseCoopers appears to have been sending guesstimates because Extra’s record-keeping was too erratic to work out who owes what.
Flights of fancy award
Wondrous inventiveness is employed by airlines to avoid paying compensation for delayed flights under EU regulations. LK of Pontnewydd, Cwmbran was variously informed by easyJet that his flight home was cancelled due to air traffic control strikes, crew issues and technical problems. It only paid expenses and compensation after the Observer got involved.
BA, meanwhile, tried to evade payouts for a three-hour delay due to a damaged door. It claimed the door only caused 178 minutes of the delay, two minutes below the three-hour threshold for compensation. The remainder was due to “extraordinary” airport issues. When it did cough up, it twice claimed computers had prevented the payment.
Eurostar trumps both. DF of London booked a flight home after the website and customer services announced the train was cancelled. It then showed as running on time. Eurostar blamed a technical error and insisted it had never been cancelled, merely delayed. Its press office then insisted that it had been cancelled after all, but reinstated soon afterwards and arrived on time so compensation was not due.
Most ingenious moneyspinner
Travel booking agent Gotogate ensures that it profits from any problems by charging for its customer service line. Want a reply within 12 hours? That’ll be £8.90: £19.90 if you can only wait eight. There is a free option but no word on when, or whether, stressed passengers will get a response.
Special mention should also go to parking management firm Premier Park, which provides a number costing up to 65p a minute for drivers to report that one of its ticket machines is broken or to query a parking charge. It’s actually illegal to use premium rate numbers for customer services, but that small point didn’t bother Premier in the slightest when we pointed this out.
Chicken and egg award
Plaudits for Debenhams, which accepted an order for two bridesmaids’ dresses from FH of Hertfordshire. It couldn’t deliver them because the line had been discontinued but refused a refund because that can only be requested after an item has been received.
And for Peachman.co.uk, which refused to carry ST of Ashford’s commercial freezer beyond the doorstep but refused to let her cancel without a £230 non-delivery fee when she couldn’t shift it by herself.
Energy company Green Star declined to cancel a fraudulently opened account in the name of RM of Glasgow and call off debt collectors because she could not provide the email address the fraudster used, while Three refused to cancel ML of Rochester’s unwanted mobile phone account because he failed to guess the incorrect date of birth they had erroneously recorded.