Of all the subjects I write about, customer service – or lack of it – is the one that people feel most passionately about.

Just ask any friend, colleague or family member about the trials of calling a customer service helpline, or even finding a telephone number, and they’ll tell you a horror story. In fact, calling a helpline has got so bad that many people simply don’t bother and just put up with poor service.

But the tide is turning. Energy companies have found themselves increasingly under scrutiny for keeping their customers hanging on the telephone. With some degree of irony, the telecommunications industry is one of the worst sectors for contactability – and for hiding helpline numbers on websites. They too are being investigated. And HMRC, the most notorious and dreaded of the telephone helplines, has repeatedly been warned about its poor service, after drawing attention to itself with an exceptionally ill-advised attempt to shut its helpline for half of the year.

There are lots of reasons why businesses are making it difficult to get in touch with them which I’ll cover in this article. But if we all fight back when we encounter bad service, we can make a difference. Complaints cost businesses money to sort out – and many regulated industries have to report their complaint volumes. So channel that anger in to a short email or letter – and demand a response.

People want automation

For years now, excitable executives have been telling me about how the chatbot is the future of customer service. I think we all know how that’s worked out. Clunky, largely useless and frustrating to use, the chatbot is reviled by people everywhere. Yet I’m constantly told by CEOs that ‘people want automation’. I’ve yet to see any evidence of this, but do correct me if I’m wrong.

Of course, we now have a new threat: AI. Just when businesses were accepting they needed to bring back the human, many have relapsed and focused their energies on AI complaint responses. It’s still early days, but expect to see more AI complaint handling emerging over time.

Playing devil’s advocate for a moment, automation is not a bad thing in theory – in moderation. In very general terms, around a third of all occasions when customers contact businesses are basic enquiries. Things like balance enquiries or updates on orders. These simple enquiries can be dealt with by automation, freeing up helplines for those who really need it.

But the other two-thirds of calls will be about problems and complaints. Half of those should be easy to sort out on the phone, but a tricky third will require investigation – and a formal complaint response.

Every complaint turns on individual and unique circumstances. It will be a long time before robots can replace specialist customer service individuals.

Registering complaints

Regulated business sectors – finance, energy, telecommunications and more – all have to report their complaint figures on a regular basis.

This is a good thing – but it’s resulted in some sneaky behaviour. After all, if you can’t report a complaint, the business doesn’t have to report it either. I suspect that this is the reason why some businesses are so reluctant to register complaints.

With some degree of irony, higher complaint numbers can mean a business is actually listening to its customers and treating them properly. Whereas some of the worst offenders manage to get relatively mild marks for customer service and complaints through their reported figures by making it difficult to log problems.

There’s an easy way to sort this problem out. We need to make businesses publish statistics that cover how long it takes to answer the phone, how long it takes to resolve complaints and how happy people are with the resolution. Then we’ll know for which businesses care the most about their customers.

Don’t forget that if you make a complaint to a regulated business, they are obliged to address the matter in a written response if you request it. Many businesses go out of their way to avoid doing this, so don’t be afraid to push back and demand a letter.

Blocking consumer rights

The most complained about sector in the UK is also one of the ones with the worst reputation for customer service. Retail.

Astoundingly, retailers don’t have a regulator or a free Ombudsman service. So if something goes wrong and you make a complaint, the only way to take things further is to threaten to take the shop to the small claims court. Even more outrageously, some of the biggest online retailers in the UK do not have telephone helplines. You’re stuck with chatbots or ‘live’ chat at best.

Recently, I’ve noticed that some businesses are making it hard to invoke your legal right to cancel goods or return wonky items. The Consumer Contract Regulations allow us to change our minds about (most) goods or services that we pay for online. We can cancel the order within 14 days of ordering, though if the item has been dispatched and there’s nothing wrong with it, you’ll need to refuse to accept the parcel or pay to return it.

The Consumer Rights Act allows you to get a full refund if the goods or services are damaged, misrepresented or don’t turn up at all. But how do you invoke your rights if you can’t contact a business?

There’s no excuse for these massively successful businesses that refuse to talk to you. But the only way to fight back is to deny them your business. Before you order anything, look at the ‘contact us’ page of a website to see if there’s any way to speak to an actual human being if something goes wrong. Check out the ‘returns’ page too, just in case the company is pretending to be in the UK but is actually abroad.

How do I get a business to listen to me?

The most common question I get asked is ‘how do I get a business to listen to me?’ Sadly, it’s often a challenge – especially in certain sectors like travel or retail. But there are a few tactics you can try.

  1. Think strategically. If there’s a phone number, aim for off-peak hours. Mid-afternoon is one of the better times to call, along with the late morning.
  2. Confuse a chatbot. For all the industry excitement surrounding chatbots, they’re pretty low tech. Most are programmed to follow certain questions and patterns – and that isn’t going to change too much with AI. So keep questioning the bot. Some automated customer service options default to actual humans if you persist or respond randomly. Type in ‘blancmange’ if you’re feeling random till the computer gives up.
  3. Social media. We really shouldn’t be forced to use social media, but in worst case scenario it is a good way to get a business to listen to you, as the teams monitoring the tweets and posts are usually actual people. If you sign up to Twitter, it’s the most effective way to get attention (but don’t engage with the angry, shouty people online).
  4. Find a forum to find a phone number. Remember them? Back in the early days of the internet, forums were the places to be for getting information on businesses that were reluctant to communicate. There are loads still out there. Type a question in to a search drive if you’re struggling to contact a firm and see if any pop up. The MoneySavingExpert forum has hundreds of thousands of users, for one.
  5. Make like you’re cancelling. If you have any kind of agreement with a business and they aren’t responding, why not start the process of cancelling the service. That often prompts a person from a different team to contact you to talk you out of it.
  6. Complain about customer service. All businesses should respond to written complaints, so make them and take the matter further. You can notify regulators if a business makes it hard to contact them or won’t give you a human response.

Featured in Mirror – Martyn James

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