Which ISP has the best customer service?
When we decide to look for a new broadband provider, it's likely we've experienced less than stellar customer service from the old one.
But how can we ensure that we're not about to jump from the frying pan into the fire?
We've looked at survey results from Ofcom and Which? on customer satisfaction, and the results of PC Pro's Excellence Awards 2016, to work out which providers will go the extra mile to fix that broken broadband - and which will struggle to put one foot in front of the other.
The best customer service...
Ofcom release various sets of data throughout the year looking at the numbers of complaints for broadband providers serving more than a particular proportion of the UK market.
In previous years they've also released an annual study looking more closely at customer satisfaction levels.
Virgin Media and Sky are in a constant competition to get the fewest complaints and the highest customer satisfaction scores, and both have kept up their good reputation from the past few years.
Both, however, have seen an uptick in complaints since the end of 2015: Ofcom received 11 complaints per 100,000 customers about Virgin, and about seven per 100,000 of Sky's customers.
We've included the graphic to the right to put those figures into context compared with the other big providers; there's more on complaints below.
Furthermore, they should be balanced against Ofcom's surveys on customer satisfaction, in which both rate much more highly than their main rivals.
Satisfaction with customer service from provider:
SOURCE: Ofcom, January 2016.
Notice, however, how much higher Sky have ranked in this set of figures - with Ofcom recording a customer satisfaction score of 80% for them compared to Virgin's 70%.
Both Sky and Virgin also score highly in terms of "adviser ability to understand the issue and identify the problem" - but Sky are far more willing to offer some kind of compensation or goodwill gesture when there is an issue.
Which? take a more comprehensive view of providers.
In their July 2016 assessment of the broadband market, one ISP came out smelling of roses with 5/5 scores for reliability, customer service, technical support, and being easy to contact:
- Zen Internet
From second to fourth, Which's results look like this:
- Utility Warehouse
- John Lewsi Broadband
With a total score of 85%, Zen are once again one of Which?'s recommended providers, after a short period in which they lost out because of their higher prices.
But their loyal - and seemingly very happy - customers have made it clear that the customer service is worth every penny, as they scored 4/5 for value.
There's quite a gap between Utility Warehouse and John Lewis Broadband in terms of overall customer score - Utility Warehouse get 80% while John Lewis get 69%.
Utility Warehouse get 5/5 for customer service, technical support, and ease of contact, and not one individual score below 4/5; John Lewis only manage 5/5 for ease of contact, and 4/5 in most other areas.
Given that John Lewis Broadband is basically Plusnet with a different label - only the branding and prices are different - it seems odd that Plusnet's customers only give them 4/5 for ease of contact; otherwise their individual scores for service and support are identical, giving Plusnet an overall score was 68%.
That's an improvement on their performance in 2015, following a spate of issues for the ISP.
In 2016, PC Pro's Excellence Awards collated the ratings and opinions of more than 5,000 readers. They were asked for their opinions on customer support rather than service, which covers the issue of technical support as well.
Their top three have been unchanged since 2014:
- Zen Internet
- Virgin Media
Zen Internet scooped Best ISP for the 13th year in a row, scoring 98% for both customer support and reliability. In fact, as far as PC Pro readers are concerned, the ISP can do no wrong - they also scored 93% for speed of connection and 87% in terms of being value for money.
Plusnet again fare well, with 77% of people rating them best for customer support, 81% for reliability, and 78% for value for money.
There's a bit of a dip in the amount of love for the providers after that, with third place Virgin Media scoring 68% in terms of customer support - but they did score 76% for reliability.
Sneaking in close behind them with a customer service rating of 62% were their old rivals Sky.
...and the worst
The Choose bottom three
For a couple of years BT could bask in the glow of no longer being the provider provoking the most complaints to Ofcom, thanks to EE. But while EE have made serious efforts to improve their customer service, BT have found themselves garnering more and more complaints in the past few quarters:
Broadband complaints per 100,000 customers/connections, monthly:
SOURCE: Ofcom Telecoms and Pay TV Complaints, December 2016. Available here [pdf].
Echoing BT's figures in every quarter since at least the end of 2014 is Plusnet. Because they still rate well for customer satisfaction, they avoid being in our bottom three - but it seems that when they get things wrong, they're not such superheroes.
One surprise in Ofcom's figures is how well TalkTalk fare. They take the wooden spoon from both Which? and PC Pro, but focusing on getting their house in order following 2015's big data breach seems to have headed off the worst of the complaints.
But that doesn't mean they've become customer service stars. They've never fared particularly well when it comes to customer service, and now as after their problems integrating Tiscali customers it seems to be a case of "not as bad as before", but not "good".
Their overall score from Which? was just 37%, with customer service and technical support rating 1/5, and the ease of contacting them only 2/5.
BT have disappointed here too, with their rating dropping from 47% to 41%; EE managed to get 3/5 in each category they were judged on, with an overall rating of 47%.
But while EE are no longer bottom of the heap over at PC Pro, it seems to be more the case that the magazine's readers have less patience than those at Which? - as their customer service rating has dropped from 55% to 52%, and it's only the fact that TalkTalk got just 47% that saved them.
Taking the plunge
While the surveys above and broadband provider reputations can provide a good general guide to customer service, there are some other points to consider before taking the plunge.
The top and bottom four above are based on the independent data that's available to us.
However, over the years we've noted some key indicators, aside from reputation, which usually suggest that customer service will be good or exceptional.
- Small ISPs over large brands: there are exceptions either way but this is a good rule of thumb
- Free support numbers are a good sign: see below for more on this
- Service starts at sales: broadband mis-selling is still all too common and leads to larger complaints, if sales are suspicious the chance of poor service increases
Note too that taking an unsuitable broadband contract - for example, one that's restrictive on home moves when we know we'll have to move house - is one of the major causes of broadband customer service woe.
Make sure to clue up before signing up with our guide to broadband contracts.
Finally, a small minority of people may need to think about which ISPs actively support those who may be at risk of online harassment: find out what they can do here.
Technical support numbers and forums
Another way to tell which broadband providers take customer service and technical support seriously is to have a look at the methods they use to communicate with their customers.
While it's now illegal for businesses to use revenue-generating numbers (like 0845 and 0870) for dedicated complaints lines, they can still use them for technical services.
Look for 0800 and 0300 numbers, which will count as free or inclusive under most call plans - and our guide to free broadband technical support has more information on the support different ISPs offer.
At Choose, we use all of the sources listed above, as well as the feedback we receive from site users, when we evaluate broadband provider performance.
However, just like everyone else looking for a new ISP we are, to some extent, shooting in the dark.
There are still happy TalkTalk customers to be found and we're sure, with a bit of digging (maybe a lot of digging), there's someone out there with some unkind things to say about customer service kings Zen.
Moreover, generally well regarded ISPs like AAISP don't even get counted.
There are no guarantees and, what's more, provider reputations often become self-fulfilling prophecies. Calling with the expectation of poor service can lead people to subsequently view their encounter more negatively than they would have otherwise done.
In other words, past performance is a guide only.