TalkTalk, Three, and Virgin Media, come on down! You've all won a prize for... not being that great at something!

Brits speak their brains for comms regulator Ofcom's customer audit

What do TalkTalk, Three, and Virgin Media all have in common? They've each won a gong for sating the lowest proportion of customers in broadband, mobile, and landline services respectively.

So says UK comms regulator Ofcom in its fourth annual customer service report [PDF], which looked at how each of the major providers shaped up in the year to January 2020 before the COVID-19 crisis began.

In general, the total level of customer satisfaction with internet access, mobile, and fixed-line services was "in line" with the prior study: complaints against telcos continued to fall, as did the proportion of engineers that missed appointments, and new line installations were more rapid than in previous years.

"However, other aspects of customer service did not improve," said Ofcom, "and average call waiting times increased. This is important, as phone calls remain the most common method of contacting providers."

Some 87 per cent of new landline and broadband orders were delivered in the agreed time – it took 11 days on average for installations (four days fewer than in 2018) and most providers typically took 48 hours to resolve faults that caused a total loss of service.

The automatic compensation scheme Ofcom set up in April 2019 – signed by BT, Sky, Talk Talk, Virgin Media and Zen Internet – paid out a total of £20.7m over six months between July and December 2019. This included £9.7m for delayed repairs following loss of service; £1.6m for missing appointments; and £9.5m for the delayed provision of a new service.

Drilling down into each service, 93 per cent of mobile phone customers were "satisfied" with the overall service – with Tesco Mobile punters the most happy (97 per cent), and Three the least (89 per cent). In terms of reception or signal strength, just three-quarters of Three customers voiced satisfaction versus 84 per cent on average, though 87 per cent of Three customers were happy with the value for money they felt they got, which was on a par with the industry mean.

"Three customers were less likely than average to be satisfied overall and less likely than average to recommend their provider to a friend; they also had the longest average call waiting times and were less likely than average to be satisfied with their reception," said Ofcom.

Average call waiting times for mobile customers was 1 minute 18 seconds. Three customers had to wait 2 minutes 37 seconds, up almost 25 per cent on its 2018 figure. The best performer in call waiting times among the mobile operators was BT, closely followed by Tesco Mobile.

In terms of home broadband, Plusnet did indeed do some of its customers proud, bagging a 93 per cent customer service satisfaction rating compared to an industry average of 85 per cent. Plusnet fell down in some areas with average waiting times (3 minutes 48 seconds) for calls about complaints well above the mean (2 minutes 10 seconds), and it racked up close to the highest number of complaints, 100 per 100,000 subscribers.

TalkTalk netted an average customer satisfaction score of 78 per cent, and just 44 per cent of punters were satisfied with complaint-handling procedures against a rating of 53 per cent on average. Speed of service stats also came in lower for the telco than the market average –76 per cent versus 82 per cent.

Virgin kept customers hanging on the telephone for 4 minutes 26 seconds on average, compared to 2 minutes and 10 seconds calculated for all broadband providers.

In the landline stakes it was BT that came out on top with an overall service satisfaction rating of 90 per cent in a sector that scored 85 per cent on average. Virgin Media was well below this at 77 per cent. Virgin also did the worst in terms of complaint handling and was topped only by Plusnet when it came to complaints per subscribers at 69 per 100,000.

Satisfaction with the reliability of Virgin's landline service was also called out as being below the average at 85 per cent versus 89 per cent. And just 46 per cent of customers were happy with the way Virgin resolved complaints, worse than the 53 per cent average but better than the 44 per cent rating that TalkTalk received.

This report relates to the period before COVID-19 was felt in Britain. Ofcom warned: "The pandemic is likely to have affected the levels of service received by telecom customers and this impact will be covered in our next annual report, to be published in 2021."

TalkTalk told The Reg: "While some of the results in the quality of service report are disappointing, a significant period of time has passed since the data was collated. We have recently seen our lowest Ofcom complaints since 2016, and we expect this downward trend to continue."

Speaking of how its complaints had lowered, it also mentioned that it had recently introduced "new digital tools to help customers quickly identify and resolve issues without having to contact us".

A spokesperson at Virgin Media said the company is "always looking at how we can further improve our customer service.

“We are committed to providing first class customer service and have recruited more than 1,000 additional call centre agents this year to help our customers. In addition, we fix 99% of faults within seven days – with the majority of issues resolved within 24 hours."

The Register has asked Three for comment. ®

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