Inside the disservice industry


The roll of dishonour for bad customer service has been growing since PriceWatch began in this newspaper four years ago. But do dissatisfied consumers damage a company's business?

THERE IS A scene in the low-budget, high-impact Irish film Intermission that says a lot about this country. One of the characters is in a drab looking department store buying some vouchers for her daughter.

Woman: "A gift voucher, please."

Shop assistant: "How much?"

Woman: "Sorry?"

Shop assistant: "How much for?"

Woman: "€100 please."

Shop assistant: "No hundreds left. Do you want two 50s?"

Woman: "Please."

Shop assistant: "No 50. Five 20s do you?"

Woman: "Fine."

While the dialogue might not leap off the page, the 30 seconds of film reflects what it is like to shop in 21st-century Ireland. The sighs and the eyes thrown heavenward, the peevish tutting and weary head shakes, and all the other staggeringly rude mannerisms that punctuate the shop assistant's words ring wearily true.

When PriceWatch debuted in this newspaper more than four years ago, the focus was exclusively on prices. Very quickly, however, it became apparent that many readers were equally concerned by appalling customer service. Fed up with being mistreated and ignored, people started sending in their problems - some serious, some minor - on the off-chance we could sort them out. Sometimes we were able to help. Other times we hit the same brick wall of intransigence as our readers did.

The roll of dishonour has been long with cable television companies, airlines, a host of phone and broadband providers and a handful of supermarkets and utilities jostling for position at the top of the list of companies that routinely let customers down.

But which company has attracted the most complaints? Aer Lingus? Ryanair? BT Ireland? While these have featured, certainly, they don't come close to matching the unenviable record of NTL - or UPC, to give it its title since 2006.

Since the beginning of this year alone we have had more than 50 readers contact us in connection with the company. Many complained about service appointments not being kept, others were dismayed at the cluelessness of call centre operatives and the failure of the company to return calls, while more expressed bafflement at the difficulties encountered when trying to sign up to NTL.

Earlier this week UPC's managing director, Robert Dunn, told The Irish Times that he believed the company's customer service was good - but he accepted "there is a reasonable amount of room for improvement" and that the service offered by UPC is "not quite the finished article".

He admits the company "got a bit of a bad name" in late 2006 when the National Consumer Agency intervened after the volume of complaints grew so loud. The migration of Chorus into UPC in 2007 "caused a bit of problem for us", he adds.

However, Dunn maintains there has been a steady improvement since that rocky start and says the company is spending €30-€40 million annually on upgrading its networks to improve the TV and broadband packages it offers and to introduce a telephone service. "As you go through that upgrade it is a little bit of a bumpy road."

"Can it be better? Yes, I will be frank, of course it can. I want it to be better and I believe we are on a strong upward path. At the end of the day, people have choices. If I don't keep them happy they will go to Sky or they will go to Eircom or another provider," he says.

OR MAYBE THEY won't. Damien McLoughlin, professor of marketing at UCD's Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School, questions the received wisdom that customers who receive poor service switch to competitors. He uses the Ryanair model to bolster his argument, pointing out that while the airline might not be famous for service with a smile, its profits continue to grow "because it delivers what customers really want - low fares, on-time flights, safety and baggage arrives with the passenger".

Research indicates there is very little connection between customer satisfaction and a company's financial performance. He cites a study that showed that while 89 per cent of people who bought a car from a certain manufacturer said they were very satisfied and 67 per cent said that they intended to purchase another car from that manufacture, fewer than 20 per cent actually did.

Mary Lee Rhodes, a lecturer at Trinity College Dublin's School of Business, believes that customer service in Ireland, with few exceptions, "falls far short of what might be considered best practice", and says the vast majority of businesses ignore crucial elements of customer service and keep their focus on sales and price.

SUPERQUINN IS ONE company in Ireland that has been associated with good customer service. "It seems to me that the most important element is to take the long-term approach. I think that has slipped a little as accountants have taken over," says Fergal Quinn, the former owner of the supermarket chain.

"I think many companies have had it easy over the last few years, when business was so strong that they did not have to take that long-term approach." This has, he says, damaged businesses, particularly those where competition might not always have been particularly intense.

Despite what the money men may think, providing good customer care does not cost substantially more than not providing it, says Quinn, claiming that Superquinn was never more than 2 per cent dearer than its rivals in the retail sector. "It doesn't cost more to smile or to welcome people on to your premises."

He believes if there is poor customer service in Ireland, managements are to blame, as they set the tone, which their employees follow. If management is rude in its business dealings, it logically follows that staff will take their lead from that.

It is a testament to disgruntled Irish customers' patience that they haven't gone as far as some consumer vigilantes in the US. One 76-year-old retired nurse smashed up a keyboard and a telephone in a US cable company's office after it failed to install her service properly.

During her first visit to the company, Mona Shaw was left waiting hours to see a manager. Eventually she went home and returned with a hammer. Bellowing "Have I got your attention now?", she trashed the office. She was arrested and fined but also became something of a media sensation and won herself a grovelling apology from the company.

Then there was Michael Whitford, who put a video of him taking a sledgehammer to his broken MacBook up on YouTube. Apple had refused to cover the repair of the computer under warranty because they said he had a spilled liquid onto it, something he vigorously denied. In a few short months, nearly half a million people watched the video. Apple ended up replacing his laptop.

And in a move that could give some of Ireland's worst offenders pause for thought, not long ago the city of Los Angeles sued Time Warner Cable for causing "major havoc and distress" to its customers.

The lawsuit claimed the company violated its franchise agreement with the city by having subscribers spend hours on hold with customer service representatives and allowing excessive repair delays. "Hundreds of thousands of Los Angeles residents were ripped off," the city's attorney general said in a statement. "Time Warner must be held accountable for its promises."

Terrible Three: Bad Service

• A reader rang NTL to have a basic service connected. When he gave his address he was told it didn't exist so they couldn't connect him until he gave the right address. He lives there. The buildings have been there for 15 years. There is an NTL point on the wall and a discarded digital box from previous residents but NTL wasn't for budging.

• Another reader ordered a Dell laptop and specified she wanted Microsoft's XP software and not Vista. A laptop arrived with Vista on it. A new one was dispatched but the last line of letters on the keyboard was out by one letter. Her calls weren't returned and she was charged for both laptops.

• A reader travelled with her husband and twins to Portugal with Aer Lingus. Their twin buggy was badly damaged. They made contact with Aer Lingus upon their return and were told that it could take up to 10 months to get a response from the airline. "One of the most frustrating things about this whole thing is how hard it is to get through to someone in Aer Lingus. There are no numbers we can call and nowhere we can e-mail to find out what is going on," she wrote.

• Conor Pope presents a Prime Time Investigates special, Service With A Snarl, focusing on the sometimes shocking levels of customer service in Ireland on RTÉ1 at 9.35pm on Monday