In the year of Covid, the awards for worst customer service go to…

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There’s a whiff of nostalgia for my awards from previous years. Back in those days, we got exercised over airlines failing to pay compensation for delayed flights, obscure restrictions on train tickets and recalcitrant retailers. Then came Covid. Never mind compensation – the battle of 2020 has been to get hold of refunds for flights that never left the ground. Retailers have spent much of the year shut by government decree, and who rides trains any more?

I’m ambivalent about naming and shaming companies that face ruin. Some of the horrors that have filled my inbox arose because of decimated workforces and unprecedented demand. Some of the firms that have refused a refund were one payroll day away from oblivion.

However, failings that would in ordinary times be an inconvenience can be a life-changing matter during a pandemic. A pensioner left for weeks without a phone line was unable to say goodbye to her partner before he died. Jobs were put at risk when workers, captive at home, found their broadband cut off. Locked-down visa services have left families with no right to work, rent or welfare. And key workers face penury when banks won’t refund savings stolen by scammers while they were distracted on Covid wards.

And it’s those scammers who have been the biggest winners. When the nation locked down they moved online, impersonating banks or government agencies to trick customers into transferring their money. One vulnerable reader lost his savings and his house to criminals masquerading as detectives; an NHS nurse and his partner lost the deposit for their first flat after fraudsters targeted him during a hospital shift.

A pledge by banks to refund blameless victims made promising headlines; in reality, many have stumped up only after pressure by way of their press offices.

Travel firms have been among the biggest losers. Only a few have realised that their reputation remains their best asset. In the scramble to patch up shredded balance sheets, others have flailed to snatch every last coin, shedding outraged customers as they do so. Insurers who could have – should have – picked up the tab have fled the scene.

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Covid, as well as exposing failing customer relations, has also been exploited to justify them. Before March, “computer glitch” was the catch-all culprit relied on by incompetent corporations. Now, when a utilities firm hounds you for a stranger’s bill, or your pizza delivery goes AWOL, the excuse is coronavirus. Few companies have emerged from the ashes of 2020 with their reputations unscathed, but here are the ones which have made customer service a fading memory.

The Most Artful Dodgers

Once upon a time, fare dodging was a pastime for unscrupulous customers. In the world of 2020 it’s the travel providers that are trying it on. Airlines dodged obligatory fare refunds by encouraging passengers to cancel bookings on flights which they planned to withdraw from the schedule, or by making the refund process so misleading that all claims led to a voucher.

Canny travel agents charged customers three-figure sums for passing on refunds received from airlines. The prize for the most creative dodge goes to the travel agent TourRadar, which told one reader that she would have to accept a credit note for her cancelled holiday. When she claimed the refund through her credit card issuer, TourRadar threatened to hold her responsible for cancelling the holiday it had already cancelled, and warned that she would forfeit the credit note unless she withdrew her claim. The company told me that the bombardment of messages were simply “recommendations” that she apply for the (already refused) refund through the tour operator.

That bastion of decency, John Lewis, sent an 80-year-old customer a £24,000 credit card bill

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The White Feather Award for Desertion

Congratulations to the insurance industry. Most of the offending companies didn’t even go to the trouble of subterfuge. They simply declared that their policies weren’t designed to cover an event on the scale of Covid and ripped up customer contracts.

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There are so many worthy contenders for this one. NFU Mutual refused to pay a holiday cottage owner for loss of earnings, despite cover that specified infectious diseases. It suddenly discovered a “discrepancy” in its policy wording the day I queried its stance.

“Cancel for any reason, no questions asked” was the slogan that prompted thousands of travellers to buy RoomerFlex’s cover when they reserved accommodation on booking platforms. Indeed, it did not ask any questions – it simply announced that it was voiding all claims due to “unprecedented circumstances”.

My favourite, however, is QIC Europe, which turned down a business interruption claim from hotelier CD of Powys. He pointed out that his policy included “notifiable human disease within a 25-mile radius” and was told, in a letter which detoured via murder, suicide and blocked drains, that since no one had succumbed to Covid on the premises, he was stuffed.

The Most Audacious Money-Spinner

While Covid has decimated sales, it’s overloaded customer service lines as companies deal with the fallout. What to do? Online travel agents Kiwi and Opodo have had the same brainwave: to charge extra for after-sales support. Opodo customers are invited to pay £16.49 for benefits such as confirmation emails, “speedy” refunds and “preferential, free customer service”. Kiwi charges £15.74 for “standard” customer service. Customers who balk at that get “low call priority”, “no email support” and “limited support availability”.

View image in fullscreenOpodo: a £16.49 charge for confirmation emails and ‘speedy’ refunds. Photograph: M4OS Photos/Alamy Stock Photo

The Costliest Human Right

With travel banned and offices closed, the internet has been the only legal escape route. So all hail the Universal Service Obligation, fast-tracked by the government in March, to allow households to demand functioning broadband as a human right! Some took it literally. They thought it meant that BT was obliged to provide the service they already pay for, no matter where they live. However, as any fool knows, “universal” means areas where BT has got round to unrolling the fibre network and the “obligation” is to those with a five-figure sum to spare. Several readers were told they would have to pay up to £100,000 to upgrade infrastructure if they expected reliable wifi.

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The Most Brazen Blunder

Who’d have thought it? That bastion of decency, John Lewis, sent an 80-year-old customer a £24,000 credit card bill. It turned out it had been taking money from a stranger’s account for her direct debit, and, on realising its error, refunded the stranger and dumped two years of debt on to her without warning.

The Most Relentless Pursuer

Step forward Scottish Power, runaway winner for its singular pursuit of revenue. You don’t have to be a customer. In fact, it helps if you’re not. First the bills will arrive for years of energy that you never used. Then the phone calls, the debt collectors’ letters and the threat of bailiffs. There’s no point complaining as you face a wrecked credit score. Scottish Power won’t deal with you because you’re not on its customer database and the ombudsman can’t help if you’ve not been through Scottish Power’s complaints process.

The Best Stress-Stirrer

Champneys, purveyor of luxury and relaxation, knew just what to do when Covid struck and bookings had to be cancelled. It told customers they would not be getting their money back, although they had a contractual clause promising refunds for any cancellations due to exceptional circumstances. Instead, they could rebook and, as a goodwill gesture, it would waive its usual admin fee. It then closed its phone lines and chatbot and ignored them.