BT's customer complaints record is actually down to customer loyalty...apparently

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan October 31, 2016
BT might be the most complained about broadband provider in the UK, but that's all just reflective of its customers loyalty and lack of churn, says management. Yup, they're really going there!


Last week the UK telecoms regulator Ofcom finally discovered its spine and landed Vodafone with a massive £4.6 million fine for its long-running billing fiasco and resulting poor customer services.

At the time, I observed that it would be good if the regulator now showed similar spunk when it came to tackling the vexed question of BT and the damage it inflicts on the UK digital economy through its toxic symbiotic links with Openreach.

Regular readers will know that diginomica is firmly behind the idea that Openreach should be forcibly spun-off from BT, a prospect that terrifies the latter, but which would finally free up the UK broadband market from the clutches of a self-interested privatised  monopoly.

Earlier this year, Ofcom talked tough, but ultimately fell at the last fence, falling in line with a BT proposal that supposedly weakens the links between it and Openreach, but which in reality does little to change the status quo.

This capitulation was followed almost immediately by boastful ‘come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’ rhetoric from BT CEO Gavin Patterson, who told the regulator that it couldn’t break up the Openreach relationship even if it wanted to:

The last time I looked, we’re still part of the long as we’re part of the EU, we need to respect EU regulations and indeed, depending on the type of relationship we want with EU going forward, if it is a Norway-style relationship, we will continue to need to respect European regulations. That is significant because it certainly our understanding, having… taken a lot of legal advice on this, is that there is nothing within European framework mechanism [that] would allow a full separation of any company in telecom.

Patterson was at it again last week, when BT announced its quarterly numbers, once again threatening to turn to Brussels and the European Commission if the UK regulator dares to take BT on:

There is a hard line that we can’t go beyond and if necessary, we’ll have to take this to Europe.

He repeated his claim that BT has been co-operative with Ofcom:

We’re moving ahead and creating an independent board for Openreach with an independent chair and three other independent non-executives. We’re changing the governance around Openreach to give it more autonomy within the Group, around how it spends its budgets.

At the same time, we must ensure that as the owner of Openreach, that we’re able to meet our responsibilities as directors and ensure that we ultimately have sufficient control over it to consolidate it within the business.

A battle that could be won

That’s clearly going to be an ongoing war. But from the perspective of someone whose BT broadband speed hit a new low of 1.6 mbps last weekend, I wonder why Ofcom isn’t picking on some battles closer to home, specifically around BT’s atrocious customer service.

According to Ofcom’s own research, BT is the most-complained about broadband firm, the most complained about Pay TV provider and in the top five most complained about landline suppliers.

Any chance of any embarrassment about this from BT? Not a bit of it. Patterson says it’s a case of customers expecting more and more and that it’s not just BT that needs to tackle this:

What is clear to us is as the products, be them fixed or mobile or a combination of the two, as they become more and more integrated into people’s lives, their expectations around standards and the overall experience just goes up. And it’s not just BT, but everybody in the industry is having to step up in order to meet that.

We’ve got a lot to do in this area, and we’re not in denial of that, but we’re beginning to see some green shoots come through. You can see it as delivering higher and higher standards in Openreach through the minimum service levels. You can see us bringing call [centers] back to the UK, as we said.

This party line about bringing customer care back to the UK is a complete reversal of policy that saw BT become one of the most enthusiastic Indian outsourcing clients. Leaving aside the incipient racism of assuming that bringing call back to UK call centers will somehow improve BT’s levels of customer service, I’ve yet to get a non-Indian accent on any of my recent support calls to BT - and I end up making a lot!

Marc Allera, Commercial Chief of the EE division, says the repatriation is a work in progress:

We brought all of our service back to the UK and Ireland for our pay-monthly customers in the summer. Since then, I’ve been seeing, every single month, the satisfaction with the call centers increasing…we’re now ranked second in terms of customer satisfaction for call center experience.

For our pay-as-you-go and home-broadband customers, when all of our service comes back to the UK and Ireland by Christmas, I’m expecting a similar improvement in customer satisfaction. On home broadband, we’ve only very recently brought our teams back to the UK and Ireland to deliver service and we’re not yet in a place where I can say we’re the best in the market. But complaints data suggests we’re 50% down year-on-year on home-broadband complaints, but I’m not yet happy where we are.

Maybe so, but BT remains Ofcom’s most complained about broadband provider. John Petter, CEO of BT Consumer comes up with a different spin - the reason customers complain more about BT is because they stick with the company! So, that’s customer loyalty = more complaints? He says:

The Ofcom complaints data, I would say that’s a measure of activity as much as anything else. If you’re a company that’s losing customers and has a high churn, then people are not going to complain about you. They’re going to vote with their feet. Therefore, the fact that BT is the fastest-growing fixed player in the marketplace and is choosing to migrate its customers from copper to fiber, that’s generating a huge amount of activity and then more complaints.

My take

Poor BT - a victim of its own success with customers complaining as a result. Petter’s ‘lack of churn’ thesis totally fails to take into account those of us who are unable to ‘vote with their feet’ as BT has a complete grip on the network infrastructure needed to service us.

If I could vote with my feet, we’d be talking Mo Farah levels of speed as far away from this disgrace of a company. But short of selling my home in the center of a major city on the South Coast of the UK - and that does seem a tad extreme in pursuit of a reasonable broadband speed - I and my neighbours are prisoners of BT. And as such, BT doesn’t give two hoots.

Sadly, neither does Ofcom it seems. Nor I begin to fear do many of the political powers at play here. I was appalled to see the following tweet from Matt Hancock, UK Minister of State for Digital and Culture, with responsibility for broadband and digital infrastructure and spectrum:


So that’s the Minister with responsibility for broadband, linking directly to, and promoting, a BT press office press release?

This from the man who only days later was claiming:

In all things I will be on the side of the challenger.

Fair enough Minister, here’s my challenge - fewer fine words at industry keynotes and more direct action to encourage Ofcom to meet Patterson’s threat to turn to Brussels for protection. And no more spamming Twitter with BT press releases!!!