Opinion: Covid-19 is a flimsy excuse for dire customer service


“Due to coronavirus, it will take longer to answer your call.” Who, exactly, are they kidding? A year into the crisis, some of the biggest institutions are still blaming Covid-19 for their monstrous incompetence and callow indifference. All those hours saved on the commute by working from home are now being wasted in the vortex of banks, energy and phone companies’ customer services whose idea of accountability is chatbots.

We are used to thinking of the public sector as defensive and stodgy. Last year the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency left Britons without passports and driving licences when it took the email address off its website in response to the pandemic, and sat on passports which had been sent in as ID. But parts of the private sector are no different. In the past, at least they would occasionally apologise. Now, everything is blamed on Covid.

Last week I found myself in a queue of misery at Halifax building society, as part of a year-long attempt to extract some money for my aunt. Were Dante alive today, his fifth circle would surely involve queueing among social distancing signs while a clerk unhurriedly staples together odd bits of paper behind a plastic screen.

I was feeling quite hopeful, having obtained an actual appointment in the branch after interminable waits on hold. But as I presented my documents, the clerk snapped: “We don’t have anyone accredited to deal with that.” I was told to come here, I pleaded, as other customers glared. Is there another branch I can go to? “Maybe Tottenham Court Road — but you’ll need an appointment.” Would she call them? She shrugged. “We don’t hold branch numbers. But in any case”, she added, “it’s too late. All branches close at 2.30 because of coronavirus.”

I have given up wondering what kind of training courses teach retail staff to perfect such hostility. Then again, an organisation which won’t let its staff phone other branches, makes customers irate by keeping them on hold for hours and then gives them incorrect information, probably isn’t much fun to work for.

I’m not sure which is worse: the chirpy folk at head offices who assure you they are on your side, or the embittered frontline who know they’re not. Thames Water sent me into convulsions by taking £1,000 out of my current account after a faulty meter reading (subsequently restored), despite a friendly man at head office having assured me they wouldn’t. A lady at NatWest recently gave me her “personal mobile number” to call. But when I rang it out of curiosity, it just linked to the same old menu of “press 1 for hell; press 2 for purgatory”.

In the first lockdown, we all sympathised with businesses struggling to cope. A year on, there is no justification. Why should someone answering a phone at home, in front of a screen, be any different from someone doing the same thing in a call centre? Companies are quick to chase customers when they want our cash. This summer, DHL hounded me for customs duties they claimed were due on a product I hadn’t ordered from Austria. They bombarded me with so many calls, texts and emails I thought it was a scam.

If DHL or Thames Water had accidentally paid me, or I’d called the NatWest lady on her day off, I would have apologised and set it right. But most businesses make mistakes in their own favour. In the wake of the pandemic, National Savings and Investments raised its interest rates, prompting an influx of customers. It then slashed them to almost zero in the autumn with very little warning and posted a message on its website warning people not to call “unless you absolutely have to”. After criticism from the Treasury select committee, the head of NS&I has admitted there are still 6,700 outstanding complaints from people who’ve struggled to get their money out. “We’re sorry if you’ve had trouble getting in touch recently,” its website now says, under the banner: “How we’re supporting you”.

In many cases, Covid is just the latest excuse for years of poor service. Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, has fined the operator O2 £10.5m for a decade of overcharging departing customers. Scottish Power is under fire again for its complaints procedures, five years after it was fined by the energy regulator for failings it blamed partly on IT.

Blame is the game, and the ultimate wheeze is the requirement to verify identity. My 18-year-old can’t get his hands on a small sum I saved for him in childhood, because the bank has misspelled his name and refuses to change it without a certified copy of his passport. To get this, he needs to visit a solicitor. But all the solicitors’ offices are shut because of Covid. Estonia’s digital ID system has never looked so attractive.

I face a similar catch-22 in managing the finances of my aunt, who has Alzheimer’s. To keep paying her care home fees, I need to liquidate her assets. One provider has lost my power of attorney document but won’t admit it. Another is insisting on seeing her utility bill. She doesn’t have a utility bill, because she lives in a care home. I need to track down a human, though I fear they may be as unhelpful as a chatbot.

This week I went to a different branch of Halifax, where no expense had been spared to make customers feel at home. There were gleaming coffee machines and scrubbed wooden tables. I was greeted by a lady who actually made eye contact, though her name was not the one I’d been emailed. She and her manager tried to usher me into a tiny, airless room. Since we were the only people on the whole floor, I suggested we sit instead at one of the big tables because of coronavirus. They looked surprised. At that point, I couldn’t help feeling, the pretence was over.

– Camila Cavendish is a former head of the Downing Street policy unit, is a Harvard senior fellow

– Financial Times

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