When is the best time of day to phone energy firms or banks for help?

Since Money Mail launched its Pick Up Or Pay Up campaign, businesses have fought back furiously against claims their customers are forced to spend hours on hold.

Big names, including Scottish Power, BT and Santander, insist their callers typically wait no longer than five minutes before speaking to a human.

Yet we know the average wait times claimed by major firms simply don’t mirror reality for many of our readers.

Swamped: Money Mail’s Helena Kelly with some of your letters supporting our Pick Up Or Pay Up campaign

In the past week alone, we received thousands of letters from people backing our campaign to fine firms that don’t pick up the phone within ten minutes.

So why do companies’ advertised average call-wait times differ so much from what you are experiencing?

To put their assertions to the test, we carried out an audit of nine of the worst offenders highlighted by readers.

Over the past three weeks, we called each firm on three occasions, at various times and on different days, including at weekends. 

We then compared the time it took for us to speak to someone with the average call-wait time provided by the company.

The result? Somewhat predictably, we struggled to get through to human beings.

We called Santander late on a Friday afternoon and were left on hold for 41 minutes. This is about nine times longer than the bank’s supposed average wait time of four minutes and 48 seconds, which was calculated from its wait times two weeks ago.

When we tried Scottish Power last Tuesday morning, it took us 36 minutes to get through. Yet the energy giant claims customers spend an average of between four and five minutes on hold.

When we called BT on a Monday afternoon, it took 18 minutes for someone to answer. 

According to Ofcom, the telecoms company answers within 55 seconds. But when Money Mail asked BT for its average wait time, a spokesman said three quarters of calls are answered within 60 seconds and outside of this, customers are still waiting ‘less than three minutes’.

In fact, for six of the nine firms we tried, the average wait time we calculated was considerably longer than ten minutes. And for almost every company, our average was much longer than its own claimed wait time.

E.on, for example, says its typical call-wait time is ‘significantly less than ten minutes’. Yet the average of our three attempts was 18 minutes and 36 seconds.

Only Barclays’ claimed average call-wait time of four minutes and 30 seconds came close to matching what we found.

‘Businesses have quiet periods and these are accounted for in their averages,’ says Martyn James, of complaints service Revolver. 

‘But also lots of companies disconnect customers immediately if they have a high volume of calls. Are they including these calls in their averages? Companies should be transparent about this.’

We found the busiest times for all firms seemed to be between 10am and 3pm on weekdays. We had more success ringing after 4pm and at weekends.

We tried both Scottish Power and E.on at 4.30pm on a Wednesday afternoon and were able to get through within two minutes.

Calling on a Sunday proved especially quick. BT picked up in 11 seconds and we got through to British Airways within two minutes, after weeks of trying.

However, many companies close their phone lines at weekends — despite this being the optimum time for customers to call.

British Gas, Scottish Power and E.on, for example, are not open on Sundays and most offer a reduced service on Saturdays.

Peak times: We found the busiest times for all firms seemed to be between 10am and 3pm on weekdays. We had more success ringing after 4pm and at weekends

Peak times: We found the busiest times for all firms seemed to be between 10am and 3pm on weekdays. We had more success ringing after 4pm and at weekends

Campaigners say that, given the scale of the energy crisis, these firms should invest in extending their opening times.

Peter Smith, of National Energy Action, adds: ‘Energy suppliers are central to tackling the impact of the energy crisis and it’s essential their most vulnerable customers are able to get in touch.

‘This means ensuring call centres are adequately resourced.’

Many companies also close their helplines at 6pm during the week, which is no use to those who can’t call during the working day.

Some offer a 24-hour service, which could mean average wait times are skewed if they are including calls made during the middle of the night.

Most firms told us their call-waiting times are measured from the minute the customer is officially put ‘on hold’ to the time they get through. 

This means they don’t include the time spent clicking through various options asking about the nature of your query — but we did.

And we found some businesses are not putting customers through at all. During our four attempts to speak to British Airways in the week, an automated voice said: ‘We cannot take your call right now as we are experiencing a high volume of calls’. Then the line went dead.

Both the DVLA and HM Passport Office did the same thing.

Scottish Power and E.on say the energy crisis means they are experiencing particularly high call volumes, while British Gas and HMRC insist they are recruiting extra customer service staff.

Santander and Jet2 also say they have experienced heightened pressure on their phone lines.

British Airways has urged customers to try to call during quieter periods, ‘such as mornings or weekends’. BT says there is a variation between wait times for different functions.


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