A new YouGov survey of 4,344 UK adults, which was commissioned by consumer magazine Which? and conducted during late April 2020, has found that 53% of people had difficulty contacting their broadband ISP in the last month due to the impact of COVID-19, which left some exposed to avoidable price hikes and other problems.
Unfortunately the Coronavirus crisis has had a huge impact on staffing in some call centres, particularly among those ISPs that rely on outsourcing via other countries. In response many providers have since adapted and moved a lot of their support agents into remote working (Work From Home) mode, while others have ramped-up their online support channels to compensate.
Sadly long call waiting times have become a common problem for many people, which in fairness is just as true across other sectors (financial, utilities etc.) as it is for home broadband providers. Nevertheless the situation has created a complex set of problems and some ISPs have been better at tackling those than others.
For example, customers who reached the end of their contract will have found it harder to haggle for a lower price or to switch ISP, which could leave them exposed to higher post-contract prices. Ofcom’s decision to soften their enforcement (here) of the new end-of-contract notifications system, among other areas, won’t have helped (some providers, like TalkTalk, have thankfully continued to send these).
Which? says they heard from a nurse on a COVID-19 ward who was on a broadband contract paying £18 a month, but when the cost went up to £50 after her minimum term ended in March, she started shopping around. However, the lockdown restrictions meant she was unable to switch as she was told an engineer would need to visit but that wouldn’t be possible until restrictions were lifted. The ISP eventually agreed to reduce her bill to £31.
In fairness most ISPs have been prioritising connections for Key Workers, particularly NHS staff where exceptions are made to the restrictions. Likewise only certain connection types (e.g. FTTP and G.fast on Openreach) have been affected by suspended installations and those too could be solved once somebody is verified as working for the NHS.
Separately the magazine conducted an analysis of broadband deals from bigger ISPs, which found that customers who are coming to the end of their minimum term during the lockdown could still face price hikes of “up to” 80% cent (most increases are much smaller than that) and as large as £246 a year. Meanwhile 14% of broadband customers told Which? that they were unable to switch ISP during lockdown when their contract ended.
Richard Tang, Founder and Chair of ISP Zen Internet, said:
“Whilst broadband providers have managed to maintain a high level of service – enabling the country to connect with loved ones, work, learn and entertain – it is disappointing to see that weak customer service continues to tarnish the industry as key players are left flat footed in response to the Covid-19 crisis.
Now more than ever households are dependent on broadband to connect them with the outside world, and customers are entitled to speak to their providers to negotiate better deals and access support. With the connectivity of the nation resting on our shoulders, the industry has a duty to communicate with its customers.
At Zen, our foundations are rooted in strong customer service – and our UK-based call centre was ready to adapt from the very start of lockdown. We continue to reach 90% of calls within 45 seconds, ensuring that we put our customers first. In addition, our Lifetime Price Guarantee ensures Zen customers are never hit with price hikes at the end of their contracts while they remain on the same service, unlike the customers of most other broadband providers.”
The good news is that all those lockdown restrictions are starting to soften and Openreach is beginning a phased return to work, including conducting new service provisions again. At the same time it’s worth saying that during this period a lot of ISPs have suspended annual price hikes and have also given customers lots of bonus features too (e.g. unlimited calling, free TV channels, unlimited data), albeit often only temporarily.