Left hanging on phone-co calls

By Susan Edmunds

Ironically, some telcos have terrible answering services.

Vodafone had a wait time of 27 minutes. Photo / Thinkstock
Vodafone had a wait time of 27 minutes. Photo / Thinkstock

They make their money helping Kiwis communicate but the biggest telcos in the country aren't quick to pick up the phone when customers call.

The Herald on Sunday called all the telcos to see how quickly they responded to customer queries.

Although Slingshot and 2Degrees answered a call to their customer service numbers within a minute-and-a-half, Vodafone and Telecom kept us waiting much longer.

We rang the big players on a Saturday afternoon. It took four minutes to get through Telecom's automated service to request a call back. We left a message just after 4.30pm and were called just before 5pm.

Vodafone left us on hold just under 20 minutes. 2Degrees took one minute and Slingshot a minute and 30 seconds.

Chris O'Connell, the Telecommunication Users Association chief executive, said waiting on hold was a major frustration for consumers. The companies were not using their own technology well, he said. There was no option to text to request a call, for example.

"They could use their own technology a bit smarter."

But he said it was not something that was likely to get much better any time soon. "Most companies try to get by with the smallest possible call centre they can have. The smaller companies try a bit harder but still, we're with Snap and a few times I've needed to talk to someone and have had to wait a fair amount of time."

A call to Snap on Monday night took 23 minutes to be answered. Orcon took six minutes.

O'Connell said the companies tried to get the right number of staff for their call volumes but it was hard to predict the length of calls, or when there might be an influx.

"The problem is that when there's a big outage it's hard to scale up and that's usually when everyone wants to find out what's wrong.

"It's a bit of a dark art."

Vodafone's head of digital, Geri Ellis, said the company employed up to 1200 "customer-care specialists" and handled between 500,000 and 600,000 calls a month.

"Our objective in the next few years is to reduce this number by up to 20 per cent," Ellis said.

"We are doing this by investing heavily in initiatives that reduce call volumes: driving self-service, continually improving systems and processes and empowering our care staff to 'get it right first time'."

She said 250,000 customers had used the "call me back" service, in which customers who are waiting in the queue are given the option to remain on hold or request that a Vodafone representative call them back.

"This has been incredibly well received."

Telecom's head of sales and service centres, Debbie Herlihy, said its wait times had dropped over recent months.

"The wait times experienced by our customers vary a lot depending on a number of factors - such as what queue they call into, the time of day they call and what is happening in the network at the time."

She said if there was a network or known product issue, an automatic message would tell customers.

"We have also recently developed the technology to text customers who are already in the hold queue, to advise them of known issues with the network.

"This means if they are calling about the issue concerned, they can choose to hang up rather than wait to be told the same information by one of our team."

She said customer service staff worked from home, which helped with recruitment and meant Telecom could handle peaks in call volumes by having staff work split shifts.

The 600,000 calls Telecom received a month were just a small proportion of total customer interactions, she said. Most people used online or self-service channels.

Social media was a growing channel, she said. Telecom had a team dedicated to dealing with social-media inquiries.

Slingshot general manager Taryn Hamilton said telcos in this country had a bad name because of a history of poor service.

"There's a lot of ill-sentiment towards the big guys and the category suffers as a result. We have to work that much harder."

He said Slingshot's wait times averaged less than a minute. "We've invested buckets of cash to make sure that happened.

"Slingshot used to be known as a price fighter but we've been able to make savings and invest in services."

If Slingshot had a particularly busy period, customer service representatives would send those who had waited the longest a movie ticket.

Hamilton said telcos could not afford to get complacent about the service they offered. "It's all about customer retention. Telco churn is really high because it's easy to switch broadband provider."

- Herald on Sunday

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