Press release:

Brits suffer bad customer service yet almost three quarters of consumers let companies get away with it

Research shows that when it comes to customer service British consumers are getting a raw deal. 83% regularly waste time queuing or being kept on hold, while 65% regularly experience poor customer service[1]. Shockingly, almost six in ten consumers (59%) say that they often encounter poor staff attitude[1]. But despite this, almost three quarters of us are prepared to let companies get away with it[2]:

  • Just a third of consumers say that Brits get good customer service[3], yet only a quarter will complain without fail when they have a problem (27%)[2]
  • 58% are put off complaining because of the hassle, but a quarter are held back by fear factors such as feeling intimidated[4]
  • Six in ten consumers (60%) describe the act of complaining as important[5], but 44% have found companies to be obstructive when they have complained – over three in ten (32%) have encountered rudeness[6]
  • While many consumers give up, over one in ten (11%) have taken their issue to an Ombudsman or arbitrator while 1% have been forced to take legal action[7].

Shoddy treatment and lacklustre care are so rife that just a third of consumers (34%) think that Brits get good customer service[3], according to research by uSwitch.com, the independent price comparison and switching service. But despite this, almost three quarters of consumers are prepared to let companies get away with it – only a quarter (27%) will complain without fail when they have a problem[2].

The findings suggest that official complaints statistics could be the tip of an iceberg with many consumers simply choosing to walk away. One in ten (10%) rarely or never complain, while three in ten (30%) will only occasionally complain even though they have a legitimate concern[2].  Most say there’s no point complaining as it won’t make any difference (60%), but 58% are put off because of the hassle[4]. Worryingly, a quarter (25%) admit that fear factors such as lack of confidence, feeling intimidated or a previous bad experience have stopped them from complaining[4].

And even though critics accuse Britain of having a ‘compensation culture’, consumers are very particular about making a complaint – the majority, 89%, will only do so if they believe they have been wrongly or unfairly treated – just 13% would do so because they think there’s a good chance of getting compensation[8].

Six in ten consumers (60%) describe the act of complaining as important[5], while half (50%) will raise a complaint if they think it will help other customers to get a better deal in the future[8]. However, while consumers may have good intentions, not all companies or organisations want to hear what customers have to say. 44% of consumers have found them to be obstructive when they have complained. Over three in ten (32%) have encountered rudeness, while almost a quarter (24%) have even had a member of staff refuse to give them their name[6].

Consumers can also feel more confident about their rights when dealing with one company compared to another. Overall, 16% of consumers say they know exactly when they can or can’t complain, while 56% claim to have a good idea[9]. But, while 67% feel confident about complaining to a retailer, such as a high street shop, online shop or a supermarket, this falls to 55% when it comes to utility companies[10]. Shockingly, just 37% of consumers feel confident about complaining to a Government department[10].

As a result, consumers experience a range of outcomes when they complain. While half (50%) have at times been able to get their concern resolved straight away[7], at other times they have not fared so well. 36% have had to persevere with a complaint despite initially being fobbed off, while two in ten (22%) have ended up taking a complaint to the highest level to get it resolved[7]. Over one in ten (11%) have even had to take an issue to an Ombudsman or arbitrator, while 1% have been forced to take legal action[7].

The findings also suggest that consumers may not be as ‘clued up’ about complaining as they think, with many failing to get the basics right. Six in ten (60%) have forgotten to take the name of the person they were dealing with, 55% have neglected to ask for a direct dial number to avoid lengthy delays on the phone while 45% have forgotten to make notes of dates, times and who they had spoken to[11].

Ann Robinson, Director of Consumer Policy at uSwitch.com, says: “What this tells us is that the number of complaints received by companies is actually just the tip of an iceberg. Consumers regularly receive shoddy service, but often feel unable or unwilling to complain. This is bad for consumers and bad for the companies too as, without this vital feedback, they lose the chance to listen and improve and could easily end up seeing their customers disappearing out of their door and into the arms of a rival.

“While consumers feel confident about complaining to some companies, such as retailers, their confidence falters in many other sectors. I would urge all organisations to sit up and take note – make it easy for your customers to talk to you, be receptive to what they have to say and make sure that both customers and staff are empowered to tackle issues in a constructive, honest and open way.

“Consumers can also help themselves by following some basic rules when making a complaint – ask for names, ask for contact numbers, ask about the complaints procedure and get a leaflet or information about how to take your complaint further. Thankfully, on many occasions a company will be able to sort things out for you on the spot. But if they can’t, then it doesn’t hurt to politely let them know that you mean business.”

— ends —

Notes to editors

All research referred below was conducted with the uSwitch.com Consumer Opinion Panel amongst 1,411 respondents in March 2013.

  1. In response to: ‘As a consumer, which of the following do you regularly encounter?’ Respondents were allowed to choose all from a range of options.
  2. In response to: ‘Thinking about all your dealings with companies and organisations in the last year – these could be shops, banks, household utility providers, your local council or any other entity that you have a business relationship with. If you think you have a concern, would you complain?’ 26.8% said ‘always’.
  3. In response to: ‘Generally, do British consumers get good customer service?’ 34.1% chose ‘yes’.
  4. Following a question about how many times in the previous year they could have complained but didn’t, respondents were asked: ‘Why didn’t you complain?’ The fear factors identified by 25% are: ‘I didn’t feel confident enough’ 9.6%, ‘I felt too intimidated to do so’ 4.4%, ‘I was frightened’ 1.4%, ‘I’d had a previous bad experience of complaining’ 6.1% and ‘too embarrassed’ 3%. These total 24.5%.
  5. In response to: ‘How would you describe the act of complaining?’
  6. In response to: ‘When you have complained, has a company/organisation ever done any of the following?’
  7. In response to: ‘Thinking about previous times when you have complained, what were the outcomes?’
  8. In response to: ‘When would you complain to a business?’
  9. In response to: ‘Thinking of yourself as a consumer, which of the following do you agree with?’ Choose one only.
  10. Respondents were asked to rate: banks/building societies, credit/store card providers, telecoms companies, utility companies, their council, Government departments, the NHS and retailers on different aspects of complaints handling.

In response to: ‘Have you ever forgotten to do any of the following when making a complaint? Choose all that apply’.

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