Pick up or pay up: Fine firms that don’t answer in 10 minutes


Money Mail today calls for new laws to force Britain’s big businesses to pick up the phone — or face costly fines.

Service standards plummeted in the pandemic as call centre staff worked from home and staffing was affected by coronavirus and the subsequent government restrictions.

But they have still not recovered, and as we face a cost of living crisis and rocketing energy bills, the nation deserves better.

Our campaign: We believe that nobody should be left on hold for any longer than ten minutes. And if they are, the firms responsible should be penalised with hefty fines

Customers are now being left on hold for hours at a time, firms are concealing their helplines on their websites and automated voice recordings have replaced real human beings. At the same time, more companies are starting to charge us for calling.

That is why we are launching our campaign to end shoddy customer service.

We believe that nobody should be left on hold for any longer than ten minutes. And if they are, the firms responsible should be penalised with hefty fines.

We are calling on the Government to make this law by updating existing consumer protection legislation. 

We also want to see regulators such as Ofgem and Ofcom given the powers to fine firms who do not comply.

It comes as a Money Mail audit found that leading consumer-facing companies were leaving their customers on hold for up to 51 minutes.

To make matters worse, many firms hung up after several minutes as an automated voice said the high number of calls meant they could not answer.

Callers were told to ring back.

And the vast majority of companies had clunky and confusing automated processes: callers were forced to key in endless answers to multiple choice questions about the nature of their query.

Waiting times: Service standards plummeted in the pandemic as call centre staff worked from home and staffing was hit by coronavirus and restrictions

Waiting times: Service standards plummeted in the pandemic as call centre staff worked from home and staffing was hit by coronavirus and restrictions

The problem has become so rife a newspaper reported last week that a widow in her 80s was left needing anti-anxiety medication because she could not get through to her leading energy supplier amid skyrocketing bills.

This is not good enough. Customers should be able to speak to a human being and relay their concerns in a matter of minutes.

Time of need

Energy firms are by far the worst offenders as they struggle to cope with the influx in customer enquiries since wholesale gas prices soared.

Millions of households saw their energy bills rise by 54 per cent last month to an average of £1,971.

It has prompted a rise in vulnerable customers desperately trying to get to grips with the crisis by contacting their provider.

But firms are making it deliberately difficult to get through to a customer service representative.

Numbers are buried behind several pages on their websites and when you ring through on their helplines, the processes are overly long and convoluted. Callers would be forgiven for hanging up to avoid the confusion.

According to Citizens Advice, customer service ratings for energy firms are the worst they have been since 2017, with the highest-performing suppliers scoring less than four out of five stars.

Heating hike: Millions of households saw their energy bills rise by 54% last month to an average of £1,971

Heating hike: Millions of households saw their energy bills rise by 54% last month to an average of £1,971

The organisation said low scores were being driven by the rise in call waiting times.

But the trend is not just limited to energy firms.

Telecom providers, banks and government services such as HMRC and the DVLA are all just as guilty for failing to pick up.Money Mail was unable to get through to the DVLA or the HM Passport office yesterday morning. Each one said the lines were too busy.

We tried to call back hours later on the same day but were met with the same response.

Many companies had pre-recorded messages in place urging customers to resolve queries either online or via text.

Money Mail first highlighted the customer service crisis at the end of last year when we relaunched our Wooden Spoon awards.

We invited readers to vote for the firms they believed offered the worst customer service. British Gas got the most votes, shortly followed by Virgin Media.And since then the complaints have only continued to roll in.

So how could the guilty firms be made to pay? 

Money Mail is calling for a new consumer protection law which would make sure that customers never spend any longer than ten minutes on hold to Britain’s biggest businesses.

It would then be up to individual regulators to fine companies who are found to not comply.

Regulators currently enforce rules and impose sanctions, however they do not monitor or penalise companies for their call waiting times.

Who would be responsible?

Government bodies such as HMRC are overseen by agencies, though none have the power to issue fines. We want to see the Government do more to hold these bodies accountable.

The FCA would monitor all major financial service providers, while Ofgem would be responsible for energy suppliers. Watchdog Ofcom would oversee telecoms giants such as BT and Sky.

How much could they fine?

Fines could run into hundreds of thousands of pounds. Ofgem can already fine energy suppliers up to 10 per cent of their turnover if they break licensing conditions. The FCA can issue unlimited fines to firms in its remit. Ofcom says it fines companies a fixed sum or a percentage of turnover, depending on the scale of the breach.

How would we monitor it?

Money Mail believes that businesses should publish their average call waiting times daily so breaches of the time limit could be tracked.

What do regulators say?

The FCA says it has already proposed a new consumer duty designed to ensure that customers do not face ‘unreasonable’ barriers when they contact financial service providers. But our proposal goes further by specifying a time limit on how long callers can expect to wait.

Ofgem says it would have to launch a consultation on any changes to the rules.

Ofcom agrees that companies must prioritise delivering a high standard of customer service.

Government bodies such as HMRC, whose fines the taxpayer would only end up paying, should be held to higher standards and senior executives held accountable for unacceptable call waiting times.

No excuses

Our readers have told us businesses still use the pandemic as an excuse for long waiting times — despite it being more than two years since the first national lockdown was announced.

In March 2020, providers found their customer service operations were severely disrupted as they had to adapt to having call centre staff working from home.

But since then restrictions have been lifted and there is no reason that employees cannot return to the office.

The Time test 

How firms fared when we called them this week… 

  • British Gas: Recorded message warned of waiting time of up to 51 minutes;
  • E.On  38 minutes 8 seconds on hold;
  • HMRC  34 minutes;
  • Scottish Power  20 minutes 4 seconds on hold;
  • BT: Cut off after six minutes;
  • BA: Disconnected within two minutes due to high volume of calls;
  • HM Passport Office: Disconnected after two minutes due to high volume of calls;
  • DVLA:  Call ended after 30 seconds due to the high volume of calls.

 

We asked dozens of companies what proportion of their staff were still working from home and most refused to answer the question.

What’s more, many big firms are also stripping back on their free telephone services, as we revealed a week ago.

Nationwide is going to charge for eight of its helplines by the end of the year, while Santander is axing ten free numbers from July.

These issues are causing unimaginable stress to Britain’s most vulnerable households.

It is little wonder that consumer champions and politicians are lining up to back our campaign.

Writing in today’s Money Mail, Conservative MP Robert Halfon says he will raise the issue in parliament.

He says: ‘Why should anybody have to wait more than a few minutes to get through to a company on the phone? It is very shoddy stuff.’

Martyn James, from financial complaints service Resolver, says: ‘Customer service is under attack on all fronts in all sectors as a result of cost-cutting, the aftermath of the pandemic and, most worryingly of all, some businesses simply not wanting to talk to their customers.

‘The Daily Mail’s campaign is vitally important to turn the tide of the customer service catastrophe that is rapidly becoming the single most complained about issue I’ve ever seen in my two decades as a consumer rights champion.’

Giovanna Speciale, who runs the South East London Community Energy group, says: ‘I have been saying for years that there needs to be a limit to how long customers should have to wait on the phone.

‘A lot of people in need of help often have more than one job. They only have half an hour on their lunch break to call firms — they do not have the time to wait on hold to sort out often urgent issues.’

Many firms also agree that new laws are needed to put an end to long waiting times.

An Octopus Energy spokesman says: ‘We totally agree with Money Mail’s campaign. It’s awful to see so much reported in the press about incredibly long wait times, or customers unable to get through at all.’

On hold: The vast majority of companies had confusing automated processes: callers were forced to key in endless answers to multiple choice questions about the nature of their query

On hold: The vast majority of companies had confusing automated processes: callers were forced to key in endless answers to multiple choice questions about the nature of their query

Lives on hold

A change in law could not come sooner for the customers Money Mail has spoken to.

Retiree Russel Weisberg has been trying to get hold of Neo Energy for nine months but has been unable to speak to anybody on the phone or via email.

Around three or four months ago, the 62-year-old, who lives in Manchester, says Neo Energy introduced an automated message saying his call could not be answered.

He says: ‘Following a number of mistakes made by Neo Energy, I am being billed twice because I have two accounts and it has the wrong address for me. It has cancelled my direct debit so I am paying by standing order but it is not being credited to my account.

‘I cannot switch to another supplier — but I cannot speak to anyone at Neo Energy.’

Neo Energy did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Similarly, business owner Tasnime Rotherham has spent around five hours on hold to HMRC. The 37-year-old had been trying to chase up a £253 refund since May last year, but every time she rang she spent at least 20 minutes listening to the hold music before she could speak to anyone. The longest she had to wait was 36 minutes.

Our Manifesto 

Today we are calling on the Government to introduce new consumer protection laws which would penalise firms that do not answer the phone quickly enough.

Our demands are simple:

  1. Companies must answer the phone within ten minutes.
  2. Firms found to be leaving customers any longer must pay a fine.
  3. Providers should offer to call back customers within hours if they cannot answer the phone.
  4. Businesses must publish their average daily call waiting times on their website.
  5. Firms must provide a working phone line service for customers.

Tasnime, who lives in Peterborough and runs a tea company, says: ‘There was no explanation for the delay. There wasn’t even a “Your call is important to us, please stay on the line”.

‘It was just the music over and over and over. When the agent answered, they didn’t acknowledge it either.’

HMRC says it needs to balance its performance across different areas, including processing payments as well as answering calls.

It says it continues to improve its helpline service and is currently recruiting extra staff.

Meanwhile, pensioner Gloria Spencer has been struggling to speak to someone at the Court of Protection for more than a year.

Her father, who has dementia, is currently in a care home and desperately needs to sell his house to pay for the fees.

As Gloria, 70, who lives in Lincolnshire, does not have power of attorney, which would allow her to manage her father’s affairs, she applied to the Court of Protection for permission to sell his home 12 months ago.

But the department’s lack of communication means that he has had to take out a loan to cover the cost of his care, putting him in debt for the first time in his life.

Gloria says: ‘You feel so angry and frustrated.

‘They do not answer their phone lines or correspondence except to write back to say that the appropriate department is dealing with it.’

A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice says: ‘We apologise for the issues families have faced when trying to contact the Court of Protection by phone.

‘We are hiring more staff to deal with enquiries by phone or other means — part of a £324 million investment to reduce waiting times in the civil and family courts — which will improve response times.’

I plan to tackle this problem with a new law, says MP Robert Halfon 

Consumer protection law: Robert Halfon MP for Harlow

Consumer protection law: Robert Halfon MP for Harlow

Commentary by ROBERT HALFON MP for Harlow

What’s one of the worst phrases in the English language? ‘Sorry, we’re rather busy right now, but your call is important to us. Please hold the line.’

How many millions of customers hear these dreadful words when they phone service and utility companies? How many more wait 15, 20, 30, 40 minutes plus on the phone to get through? And that is after spending the first five minutes being asked to press 1, 2, 3, or 4, 5, and 6 with the phone usually being cut off in between.

The companies that do this earn billions of pounds in profits, pay their chief execs multimillion pound salaries and yet think it is OK to keep customers waiting on the phone for up to 30 minutes or more.

There is always one excuse after another: Covid or efficiency savings. All nonsense. This has gone on for years. Companies such as EDF can spend millions on TV advertising, yet can’t provide a proper phone service for their customers.

Enough is enough. Consumers deserve a quality telephone service.

The internet is not good enough, especially for those vulnerable people who don’t have access to it.

I intend to propose in Parliament a new consumer protection law which would guarantee the following: no one would have to wait longer than ten minutes on the phone, they would get through to a real human and companies would get rid of ‘press 1, 2 or 3’ options which are all about trying to get customers off the phone rather than on it.

If businesses fail on this, they should be given huge fines with money being given back to consumers through rebates.

Only with a change in the law will these big businesses wake up and realise that their job is to serve the paying customer, rather than themselves.

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk