Service with a snarl


PERSONAL FINANCE:Surely an upside of the downturn has to be better service, as businesses try their very best to keep customers happy? Not so, according to a new survey

THE CUSTOMER is supposed to be always right, but as Irish consumers have so frequently found to their cost over the past decade, they are more frequently right off the radar. As companies moved to automated phone-based systems and invested heavily in sales teams at the expense of after-sales ones, customer care has often been found wanting.

Times have changed and with companies having to fight hard to win – and hang on to – customers with less cash in their pockets, you would imagine that things have changed over the last 18 months. Not so much, according to a study carried out by W5, an Irish customer experience research company. The company polled over 2,000 people last month and found that people were considerably more inclined to moan about businesses than praise them.

A third of those surveyed said they believed customer service in Ireland had actually worsened since the recession began. If our weekly mailbag is anything to go by, they’re not wrong.

The survey, from a company which specialises in evaluating customer service for private firms, found that consumers considered supermarkets and hotels to have the best customer service and government agencies and broadband providers the worst.

It also reported that fathers aged between 31 and 40 who earn over €30,000 are most likely to give out about how they’ve been served while mothers of all ages are considerably more likely to share good and bad experiences than any other grouping. They are also more likely to share bad experiences than good.

The research found that 79 per cent of consumers polled had made a complaint about some service, a figure which matches almost exactly research carried out by the National Consumer Agency earlier this year. In a study of consumer attitudes carried out in June and published last month, the agency found that consumers were more confident about their consumer rights and more willing to complain than they had ever been.

The NCA research indicated that 73 per cent of consumers were more confident about their rights than they were five years ago when the last major State-sponsored study in consumer trends was carried out. Back then, 83 per cent of people believed they should complain more but most believed the complaint process was too lengthy so they did not bother. Last June, 80 per cent said they had complained – the highest level since the NCA commenced tracking Ireland’s complaining behaviour.

Last week, we asked users of Twitter if they believed customer service in Ireland had improved since the downturn took hold. While some people said they thought it had, most answered in the negative. “No, I think customer service is as bad as ever,” said Niall Ó Sioradáin. “Tesco is a good example of a company that hates its customers and isn’t afraid to show it,” he concluded.

Several people had good experiences to pass on. Jennifer Foxe said the manager in her local Lidl lent her a euro for the trolley out of his pocket when she had no cash on her. Marie Flynn said she spent three nights in the Connemara Coast Hotel earlier this month and “it was start to finish faultless.” Paul Kerins said that the best service could be found in the hotel sector. “Anything from reception to booking a meeting room and the worst is dealing with the likes of eircom.”

Martha Madden was one of a number of people who said the best service “by far” was from the Revenue. “I kid you not, a pleasure to deal with.

“I think it has improved,” said Laura Mulligan. “Especially in restaurants and hotels as the staff want tips.” She said the best service she had come across in the last few months was Milano’s on Baggot Street in Dublin and Pamela Scott on Grafton Street.

A tweeter called Aisling said she hadn’t noticed any major improvements. “In my experience the best customer service seems to be in cosmetic departments of Brown Thomas and Debenhams.” She said it could be because they are trying to make a sale but “in general they are more helpful and better trained than other staff.”

In the W5 survey, participants were asked to rate customer Service across 13 sectors using an industry standard Net Promoter Service (NPS) score which is used by companies worldwide as the standard for measuring and improving customer loyalty.

The principle of the assessment method says customers can be divided into three categories: promoters, passives, and detractors.

Promoters are those who give a company a rank of nine or 10 on a scale of one to 10. These are considered loyal enthusiasts who will keep buying and recommend the company to others. Just imagine the most die-hard iPhone enthusiast you’ve ever met and you’ll be close to the mark.

Passives score seven or eight and are satisfied but unenthusiastic. They are vulnerable to competitive offerings.

Detractors are zero to six and are considered unhappy customers who can damage a brand and impede growth through negative word-of-mouth.

By asking “How likely is it that you would recommend [company X] to a friend or colleague?” – the three groups can be tracked and a company’s performance measured through its customers’ eyes.

The 13 sectors include supermarkets, financial services, mobile phone operators, broadband providers, utilities, petrol stations, car and health insurers, Irish airlines, fast food restaurants and high street stores. In all cases more people were keen to give out about the level of customer service than to praise it.

The top three sectors for customer service were supermarkets, hotels and high street retailers while the sectors which were most heavily criticised were government agencies, financial services companies and broadband providers.

Some companies do recognise the importance of customer service. The AA, which has around 600,000 customers in Ireland has never come on to the Pricewatch radar for its customer service although people do occasionally contact us to give out about some of its prices. Its spokesman, Conor Faughnan, says it won’t hold onto its customers unless we are serving them well.”

He says the company sets itself “very demanding targets around the quality of customer service we provide, and those targets are the ones we watch most closely every day. If you let a customer down even once you will probably lose them, and deservedly.”

Faughnan points out that “smarter companies appreciate that customer service isn’t a cost, it is an opportunity. When people are delighted with your service, or when you surpass their expectations, you grow a loyalty and a faith in the brand that can’t be bought”.

He says it makes “long-term business sense to invest the money and have the resources in place so that you don’t let people down. One of the worst mistakes you can make is to have a sales line that is answered instantly and a service line where people have to hold interminably. You won’t fool people, at least not for long.”


1 DON’T DELAYIf you’re not happy with the service you’re getting don’t let your rage build up. Make your complaint quickly and calmly and never raise your voice – even if you feel like screaming.

2 KEEP RECORDSIf customer support lets you down, make sure to document all the contact you are having, including dates, times and names of the people you have spoken to. If you are taking a complaint to a regulatory authority, the more extensive your documentation, the better your case. It is also important to hang on to all receipts, invoices, letters and e-mails in connection with products and services you have bought.

3 PUT IT IN A LETTERIf you are being ignored by a company’s telephone support, don’t keep ringing them over and over again. Send a letter to the company detailing your concerns. Make sure you send it to a named person and don’t ramble. Clear and concise letters are more effective thaN 16-page epics written in green ink.

4 TARGET ITThe old trick of sending a complaint to the most senior people in the company does occasionally work, but don’t rely on it. A more foolproof way to make sure your letter is at least read is to send it via registered post. Someone has to sign for it and therefore can not dodge responsibility at a later date.

5 KNOW YOUR RIGHTSDon’t be fobbed off by bullish talk of warranties expiring or the like. If you are making a complaint, contact the National Consumer Agency or visit their website to find out exactly what your entitlements are.

6 KEEP AT ITSometimes it is hard to escape the notion that companies make it difficult for you to complain in the hope that you will just give up. Don’t.