The customer service phone test
Forced to put your life on hold while you're stuck on hold? It's all too familiar and we know it drives you crazy. Last year and the year before we did an experiment to see how long it took some of the UK's biggest names to answer your call. When we last put them to the test it did seem they were getting faster.
This year times are tough, so we've tried it again, to see if companies are doing everything they can to keep customers on side and not on the phone. We searched Watchdog's database to work out the five companies whose customer service lines you said, since January, had kept you waiting the most. They were BT, Sky, Three, Tiscali and Vodafone. Sky is the only company we've tested every year.
All of these companies are in the business of communication but, according to you, they're not that great at communicating. Watchdog conducted its own survey to see how long it would take these companies to answer our calls.
Hanging on the telephone
We made one hundred calls to each company, phoning their main customer service line at different times of the day, over a three-day period. We timed each phone call, from the moment we finished dialling, to when we first heard a human voice. All in all, we made 500 calls. On average, the companies answered in less than three and half minutes. The fastest by far was Three, with an average of just one minute, 39 seconds before we got through to someone. The quickest single call of all was to Vodafone: they put us through to a human in 50 seconds flat.
BT and Sky were the two companies that kept us waiting the longest. On one call, BT took 24 minutes and 47 seconds to connect us to a human; Our longest single wait of all was to Sky who took even longer at 29 minutes and 33 seconds and then cut us off.
Paul Cooper is a customer service specialist and he told Watchdog that these waiting times are too long.
"Thirty minutes is obviously too excessive in any time. I would have said anything over a couple minutes is far more than we have time to waste waiting for an organisation that actually either wants our business or has already got it. See, we start out actually being reasonably loyal to a company until they drive us away and one of the ways of driving us away is not answering the phone quick enough."
It seems a lot of you agree with our expert. Watchdog hit the streets to find out whether being kept on hold on a regular basis would make you take your business else where.
One man we spoke to told us, "Life is too short really; you don't want to be kept waiting for 30 minutes or more on a telephone call trying to solve a problem. Anything would be better, even working."
Most of the companies we tested, charge to call their customer service lines so the cost can add up when you've been waiting and you still may not get anywhere. Even more frustratingly you could be wasting more time because, sometimes, however long you've been waiting, they might just cut you off.
That's what happened to more than a third of our calls to Vodafone: they simply disconnected us before we'd had a chance to speak to anyone. Sky weren't much better: 30 out of our 100 calls to them were disconnected too. Sometimes, though not always, that was after a recorded message suggesting that we call back when they were less busy. However, we got this message even when we called between 2pm and 4pm - well outside the supposedly busy times - when they should be able to answer.
On hold for two hours
Sky cut us off so often, we wondered if they were just having a bad day. A few days later we called them again one extra time just to be sure. On call number 101, Sky blew all previous records out of the water. They kept us on hold for a marathon two hours and ten minutes. We could have gone to the movies in that time. We asked you what you thought of the amount of time Sky kept us on hold;
One man said: "I can't believe you were on the phone for two hours man. I don't know what sort of company would let you wait for two hours and if they are even worth letting you wait for two hours to be honest. I would have put the phone down."
One of our experts, entrepreneur Sarah Willingham said: "What I want to know is, has the managing director of Sky ever called the helpline at 7 o'clock at night? Two hours. It is an absolute joke."
When we did our phone test last year the credit crunch wasn't really biting. Since then the economy's got worse and so have our results. Big companies are keeping us on hold longer and now they're cutting us off too! In a recession that's not really the best way to keep their customers happy.
"BT has more than three times as many customers as other phone companies, so it is not surprising that we attract more comment, both good and bad. Normally, it will take around a minute and a half to speak to an advisor, after you pick up your phone to call us. On the first day of the Watchdog test we were having teething problems with an updated system, so it was harder to get through to us than normal. We are really sorry."
This survey was carried out on a day when a systems upgrade we were undertaking ran into problems. This meant that customers calling us couldn't get through, and it took several days for us to work through the backlog. We would like to say sorry to any customers who called us then and reassure them that this does not reflect our normal service levels. In the last three months, we've handled 13.5 million calls, with an average waiting time of just 42 seconds.
Note: Calls made to Sky are free for customers with Sky Talk, our home phone package. For all other customers, calls cost 5p per minute plus an 8p connection fee.
"We answer over 80 per cent of calls made to our contact centre within 20 seconds, a target we have exceeded all year. Last month, we answered 86 per cent of calls within this time. To make sure we do this, we have a dedicated team in the UK who monitor calls every 15 minutes. There is also a 60-strong team in our contact centres who help ensure our customer service agents are handling calls effectively. Our monitoring shows that on the days Watchdog refers to (27th April, 28th April and 29th April) we achieved this target.
Watchdog's research doesn't reflect the experience of the vast majority of the people that call our contact centre as it was conducted from a landline. This prevents our systems from immediately accessing the customer's records by recognising the customer's mobile number. This slows down our response rate as it requires more key presses. Watchdog's researchers would have saved both time and money by calling from a 3 handset as handset customers are recognised automatically and calls to our contact centre are free. Landline calls are charged at a national rate.
For 45 minutes on the 27 April we experienced a technical problem at the time of one of the test calls. This resulted in our contact centre staff being unable to access customer records as quickly as usual and led to calls being placed in a queue. This is why, on this occasion, the BBC researcher was on hold for five minutes and not our target time of under 20 seconds. Fixing a fault like this is a priority and was done in under an hour.
In addition to our contact centre we are able to provide online help to all our customers via My3, our self service portal, on the handset and our website. We are always looking at ways to improve the customer service experience and take any customer feedback, as well as yours, seriously.
Customers are asked to complete a simple process to confirm their identity and to enable us to be ready with their records, after which over 80 per cent of calls are answered in less that 20 seconds. We're always looking at ways to improve customer service and take customer feedback seriously."
Ensuring that customer calls are answered as swiftly as possible is one of the key performance measures we have for out contact centres, our target is to answer 80 per cent of calls within 60 seconds after the options at the beginning of the call. Our statistics show that we are largely meeting or exceeding this target. It's obviously impossible to maintain this standard for every call so we do apologise when we do not meet the standards we have set for ourselves.
The amount of time customers spend waiting to be answered by our call centres varies depending on the type of customer they are and type of query (ie business, consumer, pay as you go). There are also peaks at different times of the day and peaks linked to new product launches. For instance, new Smartphones where customers want to use more advanced internet services often prompt more demand.
Recently, we've been upgrading our IT system in our various call centres which can also slow down call centre agents for a few weeks as they learn the new systems. Overall, the trend is for customers to interact more online and we are enabling more services so customers can take advantage of this. In addition we are expanding our e-forum so that customers can gain support online, so they don't need to call us.