Ofcom says UK CSPs need to do more to tackle customer service problems

In 2019, the UK’s biggest broadband, phone and pay-TV providers committed to putting fairness at the heart of their businesses and going beyond their legal obligations in terms of how they treat their customers.

Ofcom has now released details on how well they’re doing against these commitments. It found that many UK telecoms firms are providing fairer deals, clearer information and better support for their customers. It noted that further action is required in all areas, but particularly in terms of customer service. It recommends that service providers improve complaints handling as a matter of priority, as well as ensuring customers do not find it harder to leave than to sign up.


The UK regulator found that since 2019:

  • most major mobile operators have reduced their prices for out-of-contract customers on bundled airtime and handset deals
  • all major broadband providers have introduced price reviews for vulnerable customers
  • most major broadband providers have made wider changes for out-of-contract customers
  • service providers are doing more to identify vulnerable customers – including making it easier to report their circumstances or needs through webchats, apps or phone
  • service providers have made an effort to keep people connected during the Covid-19 pandemic – including extra help for people in debt, removing broadband data caps and providing free additional mobile data for schoolchildren.

Further action required

However, phone and broadband companies need to do more to offer social tariffs for people on low incomes, according to Ofcom, and more action is needed to identify those who need help.

Ofcom also highlighted failings in customer service that need to be addressed. While acknowledging that call centres were overwhelmed at the start of the pandemic, it nevertheless highlighted that call wait times were double those of 2019:

  • call wait times for fixed line and broadband customers were 4 minutes and 9 seconds in 2020
  • call wait times for mobile customers were 2 minutes 7 seconds (up from 1 minute 18 seconds in 2019). 

Broadband customers

This is reflected in the fact that while 8 in 10 broadband customers are satisfied with their service, only around half (52%) were satisfied with how their complaints were handled. More than a quarter (26%) of broadband customers had a reason to complain about their service or provider – with Vodafone and Virgin customer the most likely to complain and BT customers the least likely to complain. To make matters worse, Virgin customers were some of the most likely to complain and had to wait the longest to have their calls answered (7 minutes and 40 seconds).

Source: Ofcom 2021

Mobile customers

Mobile customers continue to have higher satisfaction rates than fixed and broadband customers. Nine in 10 customers reported to being satisfied with their service. With Three customers being the least satisfied and GiffGaff and Tesco Mobile customers the most satisfied. However, only 57% of mobile customers are satisfied with how their complaints were handled and unlucky Virgin Mobile customers had to wait six minutes and 44 seconds to even speak to an advisor.

Source: Ofcom 2021

Omnisperience’s view

While we recognise that 2020 was an unusual year and is not directly comparable with 2019, Ofcom’s findings were nevertheless noteworthy. In the mobile market, MVNOs continue to provide higher service levels and achieve higher satisfaction ratings than their network operator rivals. When we consider the rate of customers complaining, there is a significant 11 percentage point difference between the least complained about service providers (GiffGaff and Sky) versus the most complained about (Vodafone). Quite apart from the sheer volume difference in calls, even as a percentage of their customer base this makes a massive difference to the bottom line. More calls means higher costs even if the complaint is handled well and efficiently.

Most worrying are the results for Three, which reveal a combination of low satisfaction ratings, high level of complaints, long wait times and a huge increase in complaints to Ofcom. Although customers are generally happy with their competitive pricing, both GiffGaff and Tesco Mobile score higher in this respect. Which begs the question: how long will customers value cheap data over customer experience?

In the broadband market BT put in a much better showing. A few years ago its customer experience was poor compared to rivals, but the UK giant has reversed this to deliver higher satisfaction ratings and lower levels of complaints relative to its peers. The only negative spot to point out is that it still has relatively long wait times. We look forward to see whether these will be addressed post-COVID.

It’s notable that complaints about broadband providers are still significantly higher than those about mobile providers. Partly this underlines people’s increasing dependence on their broadband connection while working from home, as well as the pressure put on the network from mass homeworking. However, the challenge is for broadband providers to reduce the number of complaints they’re fielding through better network and fault management. This is an issue that lies at the very heart of the new CCAPS they are rolling out.