Lodging complaints

Telephone call centre empty of agents
A typical set-up for a telephone call centre. Image: Abmpublicidad. Licence: Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

Just recently I have been appalled at the dreadful service that is given by wholly owned government agencies.* I am thinking here of the Passport Office, DVLA and TV Licensing. Whether or not their service is worse than that given by bureaucrats in the actual Civil Service, or by large commercial companies such as BT and BA, I cannot judge. But lodging your complaints is far from straightforward.

Who do I complain to?

The British invented the Civil Service and exported its bureaucracy to India. How come that we are now so bad at it? I give below a couple of incidents to illustrate this.

I was sent a renewal notice for my TV licence, but they had changed the renewal date by a month in their favour. Naturally I sent them a message about this. So they sent me another notice giving exactly the same date again. So I phoned them. This is not a happy process since, like so many organisations, they ask you for a whole lot of details on their automatic system before allowing you to speak to someone. The person you speak to then asks for exactly the same information that you have just given.

After establishing that I was correct, the customer service agent said that they were not allowed to change any information on my record. I therefore asked to speak to a supervisor. I was cut off twice. Next I got another customer service agent who seemed more confident about putting me through to a supervisor, but again I was cut off.

Do it online

I then explored their online system – which does admit that customers might want to make a complaint, but makes it totally impossible to do so. You go through the usual contact form which allows you to ask questions which are only answered on their ready-made answer system – which of course doesn’t answer your problem

Having carefully typed in my problem, it then will not send it. The alternative is to post an old-fashioned letter to them – but who has time to do that? The moral of that tale is do not ever pay a government owned organisation early.

Lost passports

My next incident relates to the Passport Office. Someone else in my family sent in their passport for renewal last February. In April, the Passport Office admitted that they had lost it and asked her to send in her Australian passport – which they later said they had also lost.

It has been reported that more than half a million Britons have been waiting for their passports for more than ten weeks. On a Home office blog it says that more than 5 million people delayed their passport renewal because of COVID and so 9.5 million British passport applications will be made in 2022, which has overwhelmed the systems.

The power of publicity

But on with the saga… By the end of May, she was getting desperate because she needed to travel in early July – so she contacted her MP – who was dealing with many other similar problems. On 14 June, MPs debated delays in the processing of new passports and Parliament received a petition on this matter. In June she was phoning the Passport Office every day and each day they disconnected the call. This problem received coverage on the Martin Lewis Money show on ITV on 18 May.

Finally, an article was written in the Sun newspaper explaining that she needed to travel with her son to Sweden where he had been chosen to represent the UK in a schools football tournament. This must have been picked up by ITV news and they came to her house and made a film with her and her son. They also filmed and witnessed her call being cut off. Although it was supposed to be shown on Southern ITV news, it never appeared but, surprise, surprise, her new passport appeared that week!

By ’phone or online?

Reflecting on these issues, it seems that part of the problem is that there is a general shortage of staff in the UK** – possibly the result of Brexit and COVID deaths. The Home Office blog says that they increased their staff by 850 and were trying to recruit another 350. As of 1 June, they had 4,500 on the job of issuing passports. I suspect that their staff training may not be up to standard; certainly that was illustrated by my experience of TV Licensing.

One major problem that no-one seems to have thought through is that many more staff are required if the main means of contacting the organisation is through the phone lines. If there is a proper and efficient contact form*** on the website, then staff will be able to find out what customers are bothered about and deal with it in a calmer and timely manner. If things go wrong, then customers are more likely to keep phoning which simply escalates the problem. Most organisations do not allow emails, but they would be better than phone calls from a time spent viewpoint.

The boss of an inefficient organisation hardly ever gets the sack. Is that because they won’t be able to recruit a replacement?

Editor’s notes

*These government departments contract out most of their service work:
The Passport Office subcontracts to SOPRA STERIA, a French company.
“Sopra Steria provides frontline and support services across all seven passport locations. The team is responsible for receiving and processing applications from the public, involving digital scanning, verification and accuracy checks. Once successfully completed, applications are then passed to HMPO to complete the examination process”
TV licensing is handled by CAPITA
DVLA, now centralised in Swansea, states on its website that their IT work is wholly contracted out, but does not state to which company. Their helpline is run by Connect You ltd which is a company that appears to be over 75% owned and controlled by a non-resident Australian.

**Another explanation might be that these private firms caught their public service contracts by quoting a low sum to do the job. When the staff costs suddenly swell, they do not invest in more or better service. Inflation will make this worse, as it will cost them more to recruit suitable staff and pay them in line with rising costs.

***From my own experience with contact forms, for instance to BA, and Virgin Media, the response is also unsatisfactory. You get a standard letter in reply, oozing with words to placate the customer, but not actually applicable to the problem you raised in the contact form. Is this an automated answer generated by robots? Do human analysts actually work on categorizing complaints as Juliet suggests?

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