NCT good, RTÉ bad: The best and worst customer service from the public sector

Pricewatch: From the Passport Office, to the NCT and the HSE, some do it better than others

When it comes to customer service, the public service is routinely found wanting and performs even worse than many companies that regularly feature in this column, according to research from the CX Company.

Every year, the CX people rank almost 150 of the best known brands and companies in Ireland, assessing the level of care they offer and how we view that care.

Since 2016, the Credit Union has had a vice-like grip on the number one position while pharmacies, supermarkets and other retailers tend to perform exceptionally well in the studies.

At the other end of the table, made up of around 140 companies, are telecoms providers, banks and social media sites as well as brand names that will be familiar to everyone.


Alongside the individual rankings, there is also a sectoral analysis conducted on behalf of the CX Company by Amárach Research with the public sector at the very bottom of the pile.

But, of course, not all public services are equal and some do better than others. The NCT, the Passport Office and Revenue all made it into the top hundred last year with the NCT finishing in 76th position, the Passport Office 10 places behind that and the Revenue Office in 88th. Other public bodies featured were the Garda Siochána in 122nd, the HSE at 128th and the Department of Social Welfare at 130th. RTÉ was put in 135th position out of 139 brands.

As with private enterprises, the public sector seemed to struggle most with the “You Deliver On Your Promise” question. The HSE recorded a decrease of over 12 per cent in the numbers, saying it delivered on its promises in just 12 months, something the CX company said was unsurprising “as the HSE waiting lists get longer and a severe shortage of staff impacts their ability to care for and meet their patients’ needs”.

When it came to trust, the Revenue Office was top of the public service pile while RTÉ was at the bottom.

The folk at the NCT were the highest scoring for knowing customers’ needs while RTÉ was said to be the lowest. The NCT was also the highest scoring brand for making customer interactions easy while Social Welfare fared worst. The NCT scored highest when it came to showing empathy to customers while Social Welfare scored lowest. The Passport Service was the highest scoring brand for meeting customer’s expectations with the HSE the lowest scoring brand.

Revenue scored highest when it came to fixing customers’ issues efficiently while RTÉ scored the lowest.

Now, for what it’s worth, we feel compelled to interject at this point. This page appears regularly on RTÉ so we may be accused of bias but here’s our hot take all the same.

Many of the public services featured on the list have real-time, real life dealings with the general public and offer services driven by real time results. Either your passport arrives or it does not, you get a tax rebate or you do not, your car is NCTed or it is not.

When it comes to RTÉ, however, we can’t help feeling at least some of the negativity is based on pretty subjective feelings. Scoring the organisation badly because you don’t like the roster of guests on the Late Late Show or because you find the voice of that gombeen who appears every Monday on the Ray D’Arcy Show on Radio 1 to talk about consumer issues grating is not the same as complaining about the HSE because your mam was left waiting for 36 hours on a trolley in an accident and emergency department or you were denied a social welfare payment because of a bureaucratic mistake.

Anyway, we digress.

The survey also asked people about their experiences dealing with the public sector. The guards were described as “very kind and informative” by one respondent. “As a family, we have had to deal with the Garda during the year. We have dealt with the new victim station in Fitzgibbon Street. The police there [have] shown great understanding and have kept in constant contact with our family,” said someone else while “very compassionate and helpful in a domestic violence situation” was the assessment of another person.

The flip side was the guards were also described by someone as “hard to deal with [and] unhelpful”.

When asked about the HSE, one person said they “had to get more chemotherapy and nurses are brilliant” while another said: “These people are exemplary, both digitally and in person. Their handling of the Covid vaccination roll-out has impressed me hugely. My interaction with them in this area was, altogether, a very good experience. In addition, hospital attendance requirements that I had were very well managed.”

Another person had a dimmer view, unsurprising as they were “still waiting for an appointment six years later. No correspondence in the past year.” Another person said the HSE was “difficult to contact and waiting times are very long”.

When asked about the passport service, one person said: “Renewed passport online. No hassle. Arrived within three weeks.” Another said the online service was “excellent”.

“My sons passport got delayed. I was totally stressed out – Firstly, trying to get through to the office and when I did after 150 calls, I got nowhere,” was the alternate view.

Revenue was described as “extremely friendly, efficient and helpful” by one person while another said they’d been given a tax rebate “automatically”. They added: “No more queuing or forms to fill in or phone calls.”

Others complained that it was “slow to engage”.

When asked about RTÉ, some people said “that Conor Pope fella is amazing”.

No, that’s a lie. No one said that. Not ever.

People did say they liked the staff and noted improvements since the pandemic. One critic said it had shown “huge discrimination to those who chose not to get vaccinated. No open debate on this,” while another said it was guilty of repeating “programmes continually. License very expensive. Presenters way overpaid.”

Cathy Summers of the CX Company noted that the public sector “has been one of the poorer performing sectors over the last seven years since we introduced it into the survey in 2016″.

She said the “main organisation that stands out is the Passport Service, who ranked in the top 20 brands between 2018 and 2020 but have dropped down to be ranked in the mid 80s since Covid, highlighting the challenges faced by this sector, particularly from a staffing and customer response perspective”.

She notes that many of the public sector brands have adopted digital means of interacting with customers which have had varying levels of success across the different organisations.

“With complicated systems, large workforces and many different processes, being able to simplify things for customers can often turn into an extremely large and complex tasks,” Summer said. The Passport Service and Revenue “have been most successful at this” but the Department of Social Protection and the HSE “are still grappling with [it]”.

She pointed out that Covid-19 and the huge vaccination programme “demonstrated that technology can be used to good effect when it is really needed so there is hope that further improvements will be made across the sector”.

When asked about the main differences between public and private sector operations, Summers said the former tends to be “much larger than the majority of private organisations. They have many disparate departments who often don’t interact with each other. They also have very broad customer bases and their knowledge about their customers is limited. Public Sector organisations are focused on delivering a service but, often, the real focus is on processes and systems, rather than the end customer.”

She describes it as “interesting” that many of the public sector organisations don’t use the word “customer” and, instead, refer to citizens, patients, users and other such terms. “Recruitment of employees into customer facing roles is often driven by the need to be able to follow a process and use a system rather than the ability to interact with a customer and be able to understand their needs and show empathy.”

She believes that when asking why the public sector always props up the customer service table, “one thing to consider is that we are often interacting with them at a point of relatively high stress in our lives. For example, we are sick and need treatment; we’ve had our house broken in to or something stolen; we’ve lost our job and need to get support; we have to make an urgent trip and need a passport; or we are completely reliant on our car passing the NCT to live our day-to-day lives.

“Trying to navigate large complex organisations with a multitude of processes, forms and points contact would be a challenge at the best of times. Doing it when we are under physical and emotional pressure makes it ten times worse. We also have to remember that the main reason why the majority of private sector companies invest in CX is, whilst it is the ‘right thing to do’, it also has huge financial benefits in terms of customers staying longer, buying more and recommending you to others when you deliver excellent experiences. Public sector organisations don’t have this same carrot in front of them – rather, it is rooted in the ‘right thing to do’, which often gets lost when the focus comes on making cost savings.”

When it comes to a failure to deliver on promises, Summers said that as customers, “we compare our experiences across all of the organisations we interact with, which drives up our expectations. So, the harsh reality is that we expect public sector organisations to provide similar experiences to those we have with our banks, mobile phone provider, hotels or restaurants we have recently visited.”

As to what could be done better, she suggested that the public sector needs to “focus on really understanding customer needs and making it as easy as possible for customers to interact. They can do this by actively listening to customer feedback and using that to drive actions. As these are all large organisations that are very siloed, it’s very important to try and break down interdepartmental barriers so that everyone is working towards the same goal. Many private organisations put taskforces in place to focus on customer experience and setting up cross-functional teams to address issues. On a somewhat radical note – looking at how employee performance is measured would also help to drive improvements. For example, are the right behaviours encouraged, recognised and rewarded?”

People react to customer service failures in three ways, impacting on whether they share their experience online, according to research published by the Nottingham Business School last week.

Researchers questioned almost 1,000 people in the UK, New Zealand and Italy about their experiences of service failures within the tourism and hospitality industry and highlighted different coping styles and how it might impact on their experience and whether they share their complaints online.

The findings revealed three main coping strategies. There are customers who respond “actively” and put the blame on the provider. Then, there are “expressive” complainers who wish to demonstrate their anger. And, then, we have those who have a “denial-based” reaction and “completely disengage with the organisation”.

The respondents were also sorted into four overlapping clusters, depending on how they adopted or avoided each of these strategies, how they experienced anger, such as frustration, irritation, annoyance and distress, and how this impacted on whether they dwelled on the experience.

When looking at how these coping mechanisms effect whether customers shared their experiences online, it was found that better-educated consumers were less likely to talk about their experiences publicly.

Customers who used expressive coping, were irritated and lingered on an incident, replaying it over and over again in their minds, were more likely to use online channels to warn others, however.

“Service failure can negatively affect the wellbeing and resilience of consumers,” said Babak Taheri, Professor of Marketing and part of the Marketing and Consumer Studies Research Centre at NBS.

“People inevitably react emotionally to poor customer service and, when they dwell on this, they often cope by sharing their complaints online, damaging the reputation of the provider. However, this is not the default reaction of all customers and our research suggests that responding in a one-size-fits-all manner is not effective.”

He suggested that organisations need a better understanding of how coping strategies interact and shape consumer reactions “so they can speak to specific segments and solve problems in a way that suits the individual customer”.

The study outlines examples of service recovery strategies, such as free-phone numbers and online complaint portals available for “expressive” customers to vent their frustrations, proactive customer engagement action to identify problems among “denial” consumers to prevent them moving to another provider and timely, effective remedial action, such as taking responsibility, quick response times and financial compensation, to appease “active” customers.

It also highlights the use of social media as an opportunity for service providers to rebuild customer trust post-failure. These online platforms can be managed strategically to address service failures quickly, personalise service recovery and respond to different forms of service failure in a more bespoke, effective manner.

“Customer service teams should be trained and supported to act quickly and empathetically,” said Prof Taheri. “They need to be able to employ bespoke solutions to stop consumers’ initial complaints from developing into more damaging action, such as negative online reviews.”