The problems this page deals with tend to follow a pattern. Mary buys something or orders some type of service. The product or the service doesn’t do what it is supposed to, so Mary contacts the company that sold it to her. The company either ignores Mary or says it can do nothing for her. So Mary contacts them again. And again. And again. Nothing gets done and eventually Mary contacts Pricewatch and we contact the company and, because companies tend to hate bad press more than they hate bad customer care, they suddenly swing into action and the problem is resolved.
Every time this happens, Pricewatch is left mystified as to why companies don’t do the right thing earlier in the process. Surely it is in their interests to resolve the problems their customers have, we think. Maybe they could even make more money if they simply did the right things from the start rather than stringing people along and letting them down.
We have often wondered how much more companies might make if they were just better at doing the things that we paid them to do. Well, we don’t have to wonder any more. According to the annual CXi survey from the CX Company, which looks at customer service in Ireland, we are prepared to pay substantially more for better customer care and will reward companies if we believe they are doing the right things.
“Customers who have seen tangible improvements in their experiences with organisations are willing to pay up to 36 per cent more for a better experience,” says CX Company chief executive Cathy Summers. “Listening to customer feedback, acting upon issues, and putting a process of continuous customer experience [CX] improvement in place is an effective way of reducing customer churn and this in turn enables companies to manage their pricing strategy, including increases, much more effectively.”
The idea that companies need to be told that outcomes will be better for them and for their customers and they will actually make more money if they simply listen to what the people who want to give them money say about them and then act on any issues that arise might seem so obvious that it verges on the stupidly pointless but it clearly is a message that many companies are not taking on board.
The vaguely good news is that things might be getting better, albeit marginally. After a dramatic fall last year precipitated by companies struggling to come to terms with wave after wave of Covid-19 in 2020, Ireland’s overall customer experience score has climbed by 3 per cent over the last 12 months, with credit unions, pharmacies and supermarkets all performing well. On the flip side, companies and organisations such as Eir, Free Now, AIB, Facebook and the Health Service Executive all performed — how can we put this kindly? — less well in the survey of about 150 brands which was carried out by Amárach Research on behalf of the CX Company.
Pharmacies did very well indeed, with McCauleys, Hickeys, Life Pharmacy and Boots all finishing in the top 10, ranked second, seventh, ninth and 10th respectively. Their strong performance in the eyes of consumers is due to them building on the strong relationships they established with customers during the pandemic, the reports says.
Marks & Spencer moved up 31 places to claim fourth this year, due in the main to what the CX Company suggests was “an improvement in the way staff relate to customers and deal with issues”. It was a similar story for Dunnes Stores, which jumped 19 places to secure a top 10 position for the first time, with the chain’s success put down to improvements to its app and online offering while “helpful staff continued to garner positive reviews”.
Ireland’s undisputed CX champions, however, remain credit unions. They finished in the top spot for the eighth year in a row and improved their CX score in the process. It is also the only brand to have maintained a constant presence in the top 10 since the survey began, something the CX Company said was “unheard of in any other market in the world”.
So what are credit unions doing so right? According to Summers the values and ethos of credit unions “are not just words framed on the wall or a slogan from an ad campaign, but actions put into practice daily by friendly, people-focused staff”.
She said the customer experience culture in credit unions “is so ingrained ... it just comes naturally to staff” and she points out that “rather than resting on their laurels they are continuing to develop their online offering. Unlike other financial institutions they are not replacing people with digital but using them in a different way to offer other products and services and to deal with member issues quickly and effectively. They understand better than anyone the importance of balancing the digital experience with the human touch.”
Paul Bailey, head of communications at the Irish League of Credit Unions, believes the poll-topping result is “a huge endorsement of the excellent customer experience offered by credit unions to their members on a daily basis through face-to-face engagement in credit union offices across the country and through online and digital offerings”.
He notes that in a year which has seen Ulster Bank and KBC withdraw from the Irish market — or at least start the process — “more and more consumers are realising the importance of excellent service from a financial provider with a social ethos who puts their members’ needs at the heart of everything they do, and one which will always be there for them”.
PhoneWatch, Specsavers and VHI Healthcare also make it into the top 10 alongside the credit unions, the four pharmacy chains and the two supermarket chains.
When it comes to companies going in the right direction, Currys, Woodie’s, Abrakebabra, DoneDeal, DHL and Amazon Prime all recorded big jumps, with Currys climbing 80 places to 40th, Woodie’s jumping 66 places to 17th and Abrakebabra moving up 62 places to 65th with Summers suggesting that a common denominator for these companies is “helpful, reliable staff, an empathetic response to resolving issues, great offers and ease of use when online”.
A key trend which emerged in this survey is loyalty and a desire for it to be recognised and appreciated by the businesses lucky enough to get it from their customers. Summers says companies which looked after their customers during the pandemic will benefit from that loyalty, but she warned that they shouldn’t take it for granted.
“Customers have remembered the brands that looked after them during Covid and this is very relevant in tough times, so continuing to demonstrate care and reassurance for customers is key. As we see from the CX table that isn’t always easy, especially when there are challenges around recruitment and demands for flexible working practices. This is where training and recognition of the work employees do is so vital. If the employee experience is negative it’s highly likely the customer experience will be too.”
She says the one of the key points to emerge over recent years is “the importance of actively listening to customers and using these insights to drive actions. It doesn’t have to perfect, but you must keep doing it. Creating a culture of continuous improvement is fundamental and you have to be okay with not getting it right every time. Allowing teams to fail is a big part of this as our mistakes often give us our greatest learnings. And it pays off, because customers who see tangible improvements in their experiences are willing to pay more, giving organisations that all important flexibility and headroom to manage pricing and increases.
She says that while “digital is an essential part of CX delivery and offering customers the option of doing certain tasks through these channels is a no-brainer, from both experiential and cost management perspectives” such channels “are not enough on their own to maintain and drive high CX scores. When customers interact with humans it has a bigger impact on their likelihood to pay more for better experiences; but humans are expensive, so using them where they will have most impact is key. This is where your employee experience really kicks in. Investment in recruiting the right people, training, recognising and rewarding them will pay dividends in terms of CX delivery and ultimately lead to improved business performance.”
We like to focus on the positive on this page — no, honestly we do — but we can’t ignore the negative. And there are a lot of negatives to be found in the CXi Report. In last place was Eir, followed by Facebook and Irish Water. Then came Ulster Bank and RTÉ, Flogas, Ryanair, Free Now, the Department of Social Protection and DAA.
The CX Company said AIB had an “annus horribilis”, dropping 51 places to 125th, while utility companies such as Bord Gáis Energy, Electric Ireland, Energia and Flogas did poorly as a result of confusion over billing and difficulty getting through to call centres. Free Now fell 53 places to 132nd over perceptions of “no-shows, long wait times and unfriendly drivers”, according to the research.
“While Eir sits at the bottom of the table it’s clear that they, along with Ryanair and Irish Water, have been putting effort into improving their customer experience delivery,” the report suggests. “All have seen increases in their scores this year, which is positive, and it will be interesting to see how they progress in the difficult times ahead.”
The report adds: “Looking at the wider picture, stark differences clearly emerged between companies within the same sectors and facing similar challenges. This year three sectors in particular faced internal challenges brought about by external events, namely utilities, finance and travel. The survey findings show that companies which failed to prepare adequately and to adapt to a rapidly changing customer experience environment were left behind. Unhappy customers will inevitably vote with their feet, and these are the customers competitors are looking to pick up.”
Credit union glory aside, it has not been a great year for the financial sector, which has had to deal with the withdrawal of two banks — Ulster Bank and KBC. Despite the extra workload and some glitches, Bank of Ireland, Permanent TSB and EBS all managed to improve their scores and standings in the league tables. The departing banks both fell, with customers expressing anger and frustration at the closures while offering severe criticism of the banks’ failure to communicate meaningfully with them. In the survey 39 per cent of Ulster Bank customers said their experience had worsened in the last year, while the brand fell 22 places to 136th in the league table — fourth last.
The news was particularly grim for AIB which, the report says, had an “annus horribilis”, falling 51 places from 74th to 125th, the third biggest fall this year, with one in four of its customers saying their experiences dealing with the bank worsened over the last year. The record €83 million fine for the tracker mortgage scandal and its ill-advised decision to remove cash services from 70 of its branches — which it ultimately reversed — definitely impacted its standing with customers.
“Customers complain about the lack of staff, the inability to talk to staff on the phone or in person, the lack of foreign exchange and cash facilities as well as increased fees and charges. AIB badly needs to focus on CX as a core strategy if it wants to exceed the expectations of its existing customers and if it wants to attract a high proportion of new business from the 500,000 Ulster Bank and KBC accounts yet to move. It could start by putting some ‘Backing Brave’ or ‘Backing Doing’ into its CX strategy,” the report adds somewhat acerbically.
Energy companies were also badly affected by external factors, and they passed on multiple and savage price hikes to us all. While customers of Bord Gáis Energy, Electric Ireland, Energia and Flogas were naturally unhappy with the price increases — and such increases may well be unavoidable as a result of what is happening in the world — people are also angry over the lack of customer support; frustrated over the companies’ inability to take their calls; and, in many cases, confused over billing and in particular how the first €200 Government grant was applied.
Energia was one of the biggest fallers, going down 46 places from 69 to 115 this year, while Bord Gáis Energy’s CX score has dropped by 10 per cent over the last three years, one of the highest on record. At sixth from bottom Flogas is the lowest-ranked energy company on the league table.
“Yes, customers are angry with the price increases but they won’t forget being ignored,” the CX Company chairman Michael Killeen says. “That’s adding insult to injury. They will also be asking questions like: if they won’t answer me now, what will their attitude be like if I go into arrears or can’t pay my bill? This will be a long game and energy companies should know better than most that it costs less to retain customers than to acquire them.”
This year demand for travel services shot up post-Covid but many companies within the sector were taken by surprise. Free Now recorded the biggest drop of all brands in its CX score this year — down 12.5 per cent — and fell by 53 places from 79th position to 132nd in the league table, with users criticising it for no-shows, long wait times and unfriendly drivers. Airport authority DAA came in at a lowly 130th with customers highly critical of the chaotic scenes, high prices for parking, long queues and even longer wait times they had to endure at Dublin Airport in early summer.
While other companies in the sector still have relatively lowly positions the positive for some of them is that their scores are trending in the right direction. Bus Éireann, Luas, Aer Lingus and even Ryanair have all seen their CX scores rise, even if from a low base.
Twitter users have their say
Last week we asked Twitter users which providers they thought offered the best and the worst customer service. In less than 24 hours we received more than 600 responses. Here are just some of them.
“Credit unions are great, every bank seems to think we owe them rather than vice versa. Banks service getting worse and they charge us more for worsening service.” — Gráinne Murphy
“I found Revenue to be great (I was owed [money and] they sorted it very quickly). Also Blacknight very good. Eir/Vodafone/Virgin all equally bad as broadband providers.” — Siobhán McHugh
“I think Revenue are always so helpful, Aer Lingus bottom of the pile.” — Orla Broderick
“Revenue (not a company per se) — great customer service. Eir — disaster.” — Rory English
“Arnotts staff are wonderful at customer service, particularly on the women’s fashion floor. I’ve had poor experience with Virgin.” — Mairéad Lawles
“I had excellent service recently from Eir through their shop in Ballincollig. Really accommodating and helpful, ensuring I wasn’t left without wifi, meaning no issues wfh. Thank you. Local authorities can be hit and miss. Rarely answer phones and at desk not empathetic.” — Sandra Morrissey
“I think Dunnes Stores are amazing — best. Worst = Halfords. They’re all over the gaff!” — Ruth Halley
“Core Credit Union, personal, face to face, available to talk through online issues, in short excellent. On the opposite end, Bank of Ireland. It is a disgrace the major banks seem to somehow get away with causing so much stress and distress to their customers.” — Janie Lazar
“Nespresso brilliant, Eir awful.” — Paula Nolan
“Great service from Dingle Bookshop — really impressive, friendly and helpful. At the opposite end of the spectrum: Vodafone Ireland.” — Ciairín de Buis
“Believe it or not, Revenue Commissioners. They are so helpful. Virgin Media, the length of time you wait and you get shoved from pillar to post.” — Liz Dillon
“An Post are great and Royal Mail the absolute worst.” — Annie West
“Best are usually the small artisan businesses and independent bookshops, so to represent them I’ll choose Kenny’s Bookshop. The worst, now and ever shall be, are service industries like banks and comms — gamely represented by Eir.” — Karen J McDonnell
“I think SuperValu in general are fantastic. I only shop there occasionally but when I do it’s always a good experience. They just seem to hire lovely people! Worst is Sky, hate the bouncing from person to person and time-wasting.” — Annie Power
“Dare I say Ryanair? Same-day ticket refund. Eir on the other hand...” — Stuart Clarke
“I find Chill Insurance give good customer service. Eir are the worst company I’ve ever dealt with by far. Their customer service is just woeful.” — Shane O’Connor
“Nespresso for top customer service, Sky for poor service merely down to how difficult it is to get through to them.” — Emma Darcy
“Aer Lingus is getting a bad press, but they have been helpful to me. CityBin are so nice! I never answer their emails, but always very nice.
“Vodafone Ireland will win in the not so good, I am scared to ever need them for anything…” — Nicole Baker
“Specsavers: really good, very professional. Harvey Norman: awful! Sloppy service, poor product knowledge, inattentive, disinterested staff.” — Paul Waldron
“Raven Books — amazing service throughout Covid — local delivery of books via owner on bike. Eir — worst ever — sent registered letter to CEO 13 months ago. Zero response. Their treatment of vulnerable customers: shocking.” — Patricia Carey
“I’m usually the biggest critic of the HSE but I’ve recently had to deal with them regarding the Fair Deal scheme and honestly they’ve been brilliant. Worst: SSE Airtricity. By a mile!” — Sarah Molloy
“With so many terrible courier companies operating here, it baffles me when Irish sellers don’t use An Post, who are consistently excellent. If they all did, the couriers would have to offer great service in order to compete.” — Donal O’Flynn
“Worst Aer Lingus. Best An Post insurance — always get super helpful staff.” — Kay Aderbee
“Lennox Hearing Aids in Cork have the most amazing customer service. It’s niche but they define how to look after customers. Bank of Ireland phone support the worst… 45 mins… two ‘advisers’, no idea!” — Anne Moore
“Irish Life so good, especially when you’re trying to survive chemo. Professional and kind. Eir are awful, dreadful treatment of elderly parents cut off at the start of Covid lockdowns, no warning and that’s after 25 years with them.” — Noleen McLaughlin
“To be fair, Bank of Ireland are very good once you get them. SSE are the worst by a distance.” — Tony Wolfe