The Money Mail Wooden Spoon Awards 2021
Customer service has hit a new low, with most firms blaming Covid for appalling failings. Today, we invite you to name and shame the worst offenders in . . .
CUSTOMER service is in the gutter. Week after week, Money Mail is deluged with emails and letters from readers who have been pushed to breaking point by banks, energy firms, telecoms providers, retailers and government departments, to name but a few.
Call-waiting times have gone through the roof, with customers left exasperated by endless automated messages. Even if you do eventually get through to a real person, they are all too often unable — or unwilling — to help.
Some companies have gone a step further and abandoned their phone lines altogether, insisting that customers contact them online or via chatbots — which you say are a lousy substitute for a human.
At the start of the pandemic, we gave firms a pass as they worked out how to run their businesses with staff based at home. But enough is enough. We are now nearly two years on, and this virus blame game just cannot continue.
Restrictions ended months ago and firms have had more than enough time to get their houses in order.
Some companies have done just that, and go out of their way to ensure that they deal with complaints fairly in a timely fashion. But, as your letters show, many are continuing to use Covid as an excuse for letting down loyal customers and failing to provide even a basic level of care.
That’s why, after a three-year hiatus, we have made the decision to bring back our Wooden Spoon Awards for shoddy service. It is the trophy big bosses fear, and that’s because your opinion matters. As we have seen with previous winners, such as BT, scooping the dreaded prize can be the jolt firms need to turn things around — and we now receive far fewer complaints about the telecoms giant.
We have monitored complaints carefully throughout the year, both in terms of volume and severity. Today, we reveal the ten companies on our shortlist and ask you to vote for the one you think has performed worst. You can do this online at thisismoney.co.uk/ spoon, via the MailPlus app at mailplus.co.uk/woodenspoon or by filling in the form on the next page and posting it back.
We will pass on any ongoing complaints to the firm concerned for investigation if you send us a note giving the company permission to speak to us. The winner will be announced in the new year, when we will hand it over to the organisation’s chief executive.
But for now, in alphabetical order, here are the nominees . . .
BANKS have been overwhelmed by complaints about long call-waiting times and shorter branch opening hours during the pandemic, while desperate fraud victims say they are struggling to claim refunds. But, as our postbag reveals, customer service at Barclays appears to have gone particularly downhill.
Furious readers say militant branch staff are refusing to serve them at the counter and insisting they use self-service machines instead. The bank has even positioned large signs in doorways to inform customers that counter staff will no longer help with everyday banking transactions.
Vulnerable customers say they feel abandoned, and are fed up with being bullied into banking online. And the number of complaints our letters editor Tony Hazell has received from bereaved family members trying to wrap up loved ones’ estates is concerning.
Just last week we revealed how the bank had refused to release funds needed for funeral costs after one reader lost both parents in six weeks. Customers acting on behalf of sick or elderly relatives also report a worrying number of difficulties when trying to register power of attorney documents.
Susan Allen, head of customer transformation at Barclays UK, says: ‘The service we provided to some readers when they needed us most, for example after suffering a bereavement, simply wasn’t good enough. We apologise to any customer who did not receive the level of support that they should expect from us.’
BRITISH GAS HOMECARE DISMAY
MILLIONS of people pay for British Gas HomeCare insurance, which is supposed to cover the cost of boiler repairs and annual services. Yet, as we have revealed in a series of articles this year, customer service at the firm has hit an all-time low.
Readers say they are told they must wait weeks for an appointment, leaving families without heating or hot water — including some vulnerable customers in their 90s. Others cannot get through on the phone, and complain that staff are unhelpful or rude when they do.
Engineers regularly fail to turn up as promised and annual services are repeatedly cancelled.
Delays were made worse when workers went on strike earlier this year. And in April we sent a dossier of more than 100 of your letters and emails to the firm for investigation. Many people are also angry about expensive premiums, with loyal policyholders often charged hundreds of pounds more than new customers.
A British Gas spokesman says: ‘Whilst we are proud that 98.7pc of emergencies have been resolved within 24 hours, we are truly sorry for every individual customer that we haven’t been able to reach quickly enough.’
COMPLAINTS FOR CURRYS
EVERY month we are bombarded with emails and letters from Currys customers at their wits’ end with the store.
The most common complaint is that they can never seem to reach anyone who can help on the phone. They are pushed from pillar to post, with complaints not logged properly or not passed on to senior members of staff.
Many customers also report difficulties getting refunds for faulty items. They say it feels as though the store is hoping they will just give up chasing.
Others report lengthy waiting times for repairs to be carried out, which meant they were left without working washing machines and dishwashers for weeks. Some raised concerns about the store’s installation engineers, and say they have struggled to get compensation after workers caused damage to their homes.
A Currys spokesman says: ‘We are very disappointed to be included in the Wooden Spoon Awards, especially at a time when
all of our customer satisfaction scores are increasing year on year. During the height of the pandemic, some customers did struggle with getting quick resolutions.’
LONG DELAYS AT THE DWP
THE Department for Work and Pensions has had a shambolic year. Pensioners have faced unforgivable delays when trying to claim vital income, with thousands of retirees left waiting months for their state pension earlier this year.
one pensioner said she had to use a food bank after being made to wait three months for her first payment.
And the chaos is not limited to pension pay. Many have struggled to access other crucial benefits, such as Carer’s Allowance and Personal Independence Payments.
We hear countless tales of vulnerable people left on hold for hours, only for the line to cut out.
on top of this, the department is still reeling from a devastating pension underpayment scandal. Around 134,000 pensioners have missed out on more than £1billion, or an average of £8,900 each, owing to persistent administration blunders in the department.
Yet readers worried that they were affected say they are still fobbed off when they call.
A DWP spokesman says: ‘We understand how critical our services are, and have taken decisive action to make improvements to our services and processes. We have issued all outstanding state pension payments where we have all the information we need and are correcting all historical state pension underpayments.’
POOR EFFORT BY E.ON
THE energy sector is facing major difficulties, with soaring gas prices causing dozens of firms to collapse. But your complaints about E.on pre-date all this, leading us to run the headline in April: What on earth is going on at E.on?
Scores of worried readers say they have been hit with shock bills for thousands of pounds, despite making their monthly payments on time. Some demands date back years and, after we intervened, turned out to be nonsense. Yet in the meantime customers have been chased by debt collectors, causing anxiety and stress.
In one case, a 93-year-old widow was doorstepped by the firm at 8.30am on a Friday morning over a £1,000 debt she didn’t owe.
other readers say they struggle to get through on the telephone, and have been forced to chase for months for credit refunds.
An E.on spokesman says: ‘Any complaint is one too many and we always say sorry to any customer when we get things wrong or if we fall below the standards we would expect and our customers deserve.’
LESS THAN HELPFUL HMRC
BRITAIn’S taxman is certainly no stranger to Money Mail’s Wooden Spoon Awards, having been nominated almost every year we have run them. But readers say its customer service has been particularly woeful this year.
Painfully long phone wait times are a common complaint. Just two weeks ago, our deputy editor Ben Wilkinson told how he had spent nearly two hours on the phone trying to speak to someone who could help him with an unexplained tax bill — to no avail.
Poorly trained staff seem unable to help with even basic questions, letters go unanswered, promised call-backs never materialise and complaints are routinely ignored.
Angela MacDonald, deputy chief executive of HMRC, says: ‘I am sorry that we can’t get to everyone more quickly. We have improved our customer service over the past six months, are answering calls quicker and have increased satisfaction with our digital services. I appeal for your patience and thank you for bearing with us as we get back on track.’
HEARTACHE AT HSBC
IT WAS one of the last banks to bring back normal branch opening hours during the pandemic.
And just like with Barclays, customers tell us time and again the bank seems more intent on pushing them online than offering the face-to-face service they want.
Under its new plans, just one in five of its branches will offer a full service. Readers also say that callwaiting times continue to be a problem. Earlier this year fraud victims complained of being unable to get through to its dedicated helpline, with one customer claiming to have been left on hold for 20 hours. The bank has also come under fire over its treatment of small local clubs after closing accounts and hiking fees.
An HSBC UK spokesman says: ‘our customers are important to us and we are proud of the work our keyworkers and front-line colleagues have done to support them through Covid-19. Throughout the pandemic we kept 98 pc of our branches open on average and reached out to more than 640,000 potentially vulnerable customers to offer help.’
IT’S NOT GOOD ENOUGH AT NS&I
nATIonAL Savings & Investments’ incessant push to force savers online is driving readers round the bend. In June, the Treasury-backed bank was forced to U-turn on plans to scrap Premium Bond cheques following a major backlash.
nS&I is also still recovering from a customer service meltdown, which saw call-waiting times go through the roof and left many savers unable to access to their money.
In March, chief executive Ian Ackerley was hauled in front of the Treasury Select Committee where he admitted it would take until the summer to clear a backlog of complaints. But even now, we still hear regularly from readers who are unable to get help with basic account issues and struggling to track down lost money.
Ian Ackerley says: ‘I deeply regret the impact of operational issues that our customers experienced, and apologise that they did not receive the levels of service that they have come to expect. We are in a much better position now; the average speed to answer the phone currently stands at just ten seconds, and we have cleared our complaints backlog.’
FRUSTRATION AT SCOTTISH POWER
IT IS difficult to remember a Wooden Spoon Awards where Scottish Power has not appeared on the shortlist. Yet complaints continue to pour in.
Shock bills dating back years are a stand-out concern. The energy giant is quick to send in the debt collectors. Yet when customers try to contact the firm for help, they are routinely ignored.
In one case we reported this year, a series of shocking meter blunders over five years left a customer £7,000 out of pocket. And in another the firm helped itself to money from a reader’s account for 20 months after a fire at the property had forced him to move out.
A Scottish Power spokesman says: ‘We’re very disappointed to be included in this list. It follows a difficult period where we have been taking on customers from failed energy suppliers. But we are continuing to work very hard to ensure our customers have the best possible experience.’
LEFT IN THE DARK BY VIRGIN MEDIA
oF ALL the major telecoms firms, it is Virgin Media you complain about most often.
Incorrect bills, appalling customer service, switching debacles, technical glitches, internet outages — you name it, we’ve heard it. And, given the nature of its business, it is astonishing how often readers report difficulties communicating with the firm.
official figures by watchdog ofcom support your claims, with the firm responsible for more complaints than any other provider — by some distance — in the first three months of the year.
Then there is the issue of unfair exit penalties. The telecoms giant continues to charge customers as much as £240 if they are forced to cancel their contract when moving house because it cannot supply their new home.
And no matter how many times we raise concerns, the firm refuses to budge.
A Virgin Media spokesman says: ‘Whilst we’ve made great strides to significantly improve our customer experience this year, we acknowledge that we still have further to go and are disappointed to have fallen short in providing all customers with the high standard of care they deserve.’