Money Mail readers, MPs and consumer champions have come forward in droves to back our campaign to force big businesses to pick up the phone.
Last week we called on the Government to introduce a new law that would mean firms are hit with hefty fines if they do not answer their customer service lines within ten minutes.
Since then, we have been inundated with emails and letters from readers expressing their frustration at being left on hold.
Off the hook: We have enjoyed a flood of support from readers, MPs and consumer champions for our campaign to fine firms if they don’t answer their helplines in 10 minutes
Many mobile phone users included screenshots of call times to show how long they had been left waiting to resolve basic complaints when phoning major banks, energy firms and telecoms providers.
One caller reported waiting more than five hours to get through to British Airways — and was disconnected twice. Another said over three days, he spent nearly seven hours trying to get through to Virgin Money.
Our own weekly audit once again revealed some firms were disconnecting calls after minutes, claiming the high volume of inquiries meant they could not pick up.
Readers also complained that even when they did get through, they were met with call-centre staff who were rude, distracted and very often working from home.
Some recently bereaved customers added that because of the issues, they had been left struggling to sort out their loved one’s affairs.
That’s why today we are urging our readers to sign our template letter calling for change.
Our demands are simple: we believe that firms should be fined if they leave customers on hold for longer than ten minutes.
Under our proposal, regulators would have the power to dish out fines and firms would be obliged to publish their average call waiting times daily on their websites.
On the right, we have laid out a template letter for you to sign. Please fill it out and then send it back to the Money Mail office.
This will form a core part of our dossier which we will hand to the Government as we call for change.
Cut-off: Our weekly audit once again revealed that some firms were disconnecting calls after a few minutes, claiming the high volume of enquiries meant they could not pick up
Already we have won the backing of politicians and influential campaigners. Jacob Young, the Conservative MP for Redcar, says: ‘I want to see more organisations offering people the chance for a call back instead of waiting for hours on end, unable to do anything in the meantime. Being left on hold harms productivity and can cost consumers at a time when finances are tight.’
Richmond Park MP Sarah Olney, and the Lib Dem spokesman for business, says: ‘During this cost-of-living crisis, countless people have had to phone their bank or ring their energy company for help with their bills. It’s not right that pensioners spend hours on hold before someone answers to help them.
‘Big businesses need to show they care about their customers and drastically cut their waiting times, so that people can actually get the help they deserve.’
Last week, Conservative MP Robert Halfon wrote for Money Mail, promising to raise the issue in Parliament.
He is also gathering support for a backbench debate on the issue. Customer service standards plummeted in the pandemic, as call-centre staff worked from home. But the problem has become all the more frustrating as struggling households face a cost-of-living crisis and rocketing energy bills.
Even worse, many firms are axing free helplines — meaning callers will have to pay to be left on hold.
An automated voice just says try again later?
Pensioners Neil and Julie Jesse have been trying to talk to a customer service agent at British Gas since January this year.
But after they’ve waited on hold, the supplier continues to keep hanging up on them as an automated voice says they are experiencing ‘technical difficulties’ and suggests callers try again later.
Pensioners Neil and Julie Jesse (pictured) have struggled to get anywhere calling British Gas this year
The couple are now at their wits’ end.
They were transferred to British Gas at the end of January after their previous energy supplier — Together Energy — went bust.
Neil, 76, from Braintree, Essex, says: ‘We are on a fixed income so we’re very worried about our energy bills going up.
‘But no one is offering us any support. There is no one to speak to. There are certainly no humans we can speak to.
‘Why are they always hiding behind robotic voices?’
Adam French, a consumer rights expert at Which?, says: ‘The Mail is absolutely right to highlight the unacceptable call waiting times to which consumers are routinely exposed.
‘This should send a clear message that it’s time for businesses to stop hiding behind automated messages and excuses about Covid.’
Dennis Reed, director of campaign group Silver Voices, which fights on behalf of the over-60s, says: ‘Being left on hold is a very common bugbear for our members.
‘Lots of businesses keep callers on hold while saying they can solve their query online. This is discriminatory, because lots of older people don’t have internet connection.
‘Ten minutes is a reasonable time to wait at busy times. But having to wait for one to two hours is just not acceptable, so we welcome the Mail’s campaign.’
The stories that have flooded our inbox have been distressingly similar. Readers have told us they just want to speak to a human being on the phone. One widow wrote movingly about the difficulties she had faced in trying to organise her late husband’s affairs after he died at the end of January.
‘No one answers the phone, and when they do there is such a lack of thought or care,’ she told us.
Waiting times: Service standards plummeted in the pandemic as call centre staff worked from home and staffing was hit by coronavirus and restrictions
Another reader said that it was impossible to get through to companies while working full-time.
She says: ‘It sends me into a panicked state just thinking about all the calls I need to make. It is virtually impossible these days to speak to any larger organisation.’
And one man wrote in to say that when he eventually got through to a call-centre staff member at BT, she informed him that she was at home and making her dinner — so she didn’t have time for his call.
While your stories involved a whole range of businesses, the same names came up again and again.
The worst offenders included energy giants British Gas, EDF, E.ON Next and ScottishPower.
Both Santander and Barclays were named and shamed by our readers, while telecoms giants BT and Virgin Media also fared badly.
We will be monitoring our postbag carefully and intend to publish a full list of the most guilty firms in the coming weeks.
We heard over 250,000 furious complaints last year alone
By MARTYN JAMES
Helping households: Martyn James works for the complaints service Resolver
I work for the complaints service Resolver and have been a consumer rights champion for two decades.
In that time, I’ve watched PPI become the biggest mis-selling scandal of all time and witnessed the impact of the meltdown of financial services during the credit crunch. Now I am helping households face down the horrific impact of the cost-of-living crisis.
But never have I seen a more fundamental challenge to consumer rights than the remorseless erosion of customer service.
Resolver helped to sort out more than 550,000 complaints last year — and astoundingly, more than half of those cases mention an inability to contact a business as a fundamental problem.
It may not be the reason for the complaint, but it is certainly the main driver for the frustration that millions of people experience every day.
There is a misconception that people in Britain are incorrigible complainers. That is simply not true. Most of us don’t like to make a fuss, we just want our voices heard.
Yet when we try to contact businesses in almost every sector, we struggle to speak to a human being.
If you don’t believe me (you must be in a very small minority), ask any friend or family member about their experiences.
It is becoming increasingly hard to contact a business for help or support — and it’s clear to me that some companies are actively making it difficult even to register a complaint.
The people I speak to say they can’t get through to businesses on the phone. When they try to put their complaint in writing, they have to navigate online forms with limited character counts that seem to vanish into the ether.
And if they resort to writing a physical letter, they rarely receive a response.
Making it difficult for your customers to get help doesn’t make their complaints go away. It just makes people angry and resentful.
Have no doubt about it, not only will those people vote with their feet, they will tell those they care about not to bother either.
So investing in customer service isn’t just the right thing to do. It is sound business sense, too.
Letters Special – our campaign
I‘m 84 and am full of admiration for this new campaign. I am normally a reasonably respectable old lady until I have to make contact with organisations and am kept waiting and waiting.
During that time I take on a different personality for whom unladylike language is the only release for my indignation. Friends would not recognise me in this mode and mercifully they have no way of knowing.
Try calling Virgin Money. You stand more chance of speaking to the Pope. I have totalled six hours, 48 minutes and 22 seconds in the past three days and still not got through.
I was nearly in tears trying to get through to ScottishPower recently. I held on for approximately 30 minutes twice and gave up.
The next day it took 44 minutes to get through. Notably when I tried the ‘new customers’ telephone number with ScottishPower they picked up within minutes but put me back on hold when they found out I was an existing customer!
M.F., via email.
My Post Office telephone and broadband was taken over by Shell. I tried to call regarding the date my contract was due to end. I was on hold for 42 minutes then the line went dead. Not good service from a telephone provider!
S.B., via email.
I find that all companies are still using the Covid excuse. I’ve held on the phone to my supplier for more than an hour without even an apology. I am so pleased the Mail has taken up this issue.
M.G., via email.
I had to hold on so long on Santander’s 0800 number to make an important transfer that I was timed out of the online banking system several times, so all the details had to be keyed in again each time.
Gave up! I tried again the following morning with the same result. I eventually managed to make the transfer by visiting our local branch (thank goodness we still have one).
M.C., via email.
On November 1, 2021, I spent a total of five hours attempting to get through on the phone to British Airways — during which time I was cut off twice — and was charged £87.80 for the privilege, which they refused to refund.
I wrote to the chairman, who got one of the customer service advisers to respond, but they really did nothing other than offer a half-hearted apology.
P.N., via email.
Thank you for your campaign. I am in my 70s and don’t buy anything online. I thought it was just me and my fault for ringing at busy times.
If I hear I am ‘very important to them, they are experiencing a high level of calls so go online’ again, I’ll scream. If everyone is online, why are their phones so busy? Might I suggest they employ more people.
P.S., via email.
Just spent 50 minutes waiting to speak to someone at Barclays Bank, then seven minutes while they tried to sort my query.
It then took them five more minutes to transfer me to a third person! They should all be back in the office!
L.P., via email.
I have been a customer of the Cooperative Bank for decades. Since the pandemic, the service provided has been diabolical. On average, there is approximately a 30-40 minute wait but lately I have waited for an hour or more.
If you happen to ring after 5pm (the lines close at 6pm) and it is busy, they give a message that says ‘you might not get to the front of the queue by closing time’.
On two occasions at 6pm on the dot, after waiting for an hour, I got a message that says ‘our lines are now closed’ and was cut off.
C.M., via email.