Are the Customers Now The Workers?

WINTER 2021/22

Did you have a holiday abroad in 2021? If so how long did it take you to complete all the Government admin online before your departure, before your return to the UK and after your arrival home? A few hours in total I expect and, in my case, some language not to be used in front of children. Perhaps you also bank, buy train tickets, renew road tax and get insurance quotes online? And perhaps you use the hand-held scanner or take the self-serve check-out lane at the supermarket. And, as a 55-64 year old lady from Nottingham pointed out in our recent survey, you sometimes even have to pay to be a worker.

“I don’t understand why we have to pay an ‘admin’ charge when we literally do all the work ourselves online”.

The TLF Panel survey was conducted at the end of January 2022 with a representative sample of 2,298 UK adults. It transpires that just over half of us (54%) think that ‘life admin’ takes about the same amount of time as it did a few years ago, but of the remainder almost twice as many think it takes more time (30%) rather than less (16%). However, if we drill down into the detail we find some interesting variations.

We used 3 personal admin tasks as examples – obtaining a car insurance quote, carrying out banking activities and completing Government forms for foreign travel. Some were less simple and more time consuming than others. Online banking gets a big thumbs-up from most panellists with 59% finding it very quick and less than 10% finding it very time consuming. By contrast, of the people who have travelled abroad in the last year, only 16% found completing them quick but 84% thought them very or fairly time consuming. Getting an insurance quote was somewhere in between with one third finding it very quick but two thirds thinking it was very or fairly time consuming. 

From that, you might draw the conclusion that online banking is such a good thing that physical branches are no longer worth the cost, but that’s far from the case. The thing to remember about customers is that they like choices and hate it when choices are removed. Although self-serve online is the preferred method for doing personal admin for 62% of people, it leaves a lot for whom other methods such as telephone (11%), face-to-face (18%) or even post remain preferable. And even if self-serve online is the preferred method, people still don’t like being forced to do it and most customers feel that’s exactly what’s happening. In fact, customers who feel that companies are forcing them to go online by making it very difficult to transact in any other way out-number by 4 to 1 those people who disagree with the statement. As you can see in the comments below, some hold these views very strongly, and it can definitely result in lost customers, as this 65 year old lady from the North West explains:

“My elderly relative banked with HSBC and doesn't have online access. If I phone on her behalf they won't talk to me unless she passes the telephone security questions. She gets flustered as she can't understand the foreign accent of the person and she fails every time. They then tell her she is now locked out and must visit a branch or go online. The nearest branch nowadays is 12 miles away. I tell them this and that there is a pandemic on - it was more or less at the height then. They don't even sympathise, say they can't speak to me and just tell her over and over that she must visit her branch. Extremely unhelpful. As soon as we could we changed to a more understanding bank”.

This 35-44 year old lady from Cardiff voiced a common frustration of many -  robotic chat bots that send you round and round in circles and leave your problem still unresolved:

“Amazon are a prime example! You used to be able to contact a human via phone or live chat, now you have to jump through numerous hoops via self-serve or chatbots to even get close to getting your problem resolved. They make contacting a real person almost impossible which is a nightmare if your problem doesn't fit neatly into one of their robotic responses!!!! Following their website directions always takes you in a circle”. 

In extreme cases customers can end up feeling no better than hostages, as this pensioner from the South East discovered.

“I have been trying to claim Housing Benefit recently as I think I'm eligible for it. Horsham District Council only seem to accept claims online and all evidence has to be submitted online also (e.g. ID documents, confirmation of income etc). I tried to phone them yesterday to make sure they have all necessary information (it was all submitted before Christmas) but a recorded message said that their office was closed and phone calls are only answered before 2pm "because of Covid". Yesterday was the deadline they imposed for submission so I was anxious to sort it out rather than let it go past the deadline, as they might delete the claim completely according to their original instructions. I sent them an email instead and have still not heard from them about the claim since I originally submitted it on 12th December. Like many other organisations they don't want to make staff available on the telephone now - only by email or online”.

In today’s climate, organisations are very foolish if they want to risk being seen as completely uncaring about the needs of disadvantaged groups such as the elderly or disabled. And in this context, disadvantaged might simply mean that you can’t scan and upload documents at home or you don’t have a printer to print your own documents.

“HMRC make it hard to access paper forms without jumping through hoops and really making you explain why you don't have easy internet or printer access - as if it's a crime! Their staff are unequipped to deal with the possibility you can't complete tasks online”. (35-44 female, South East). 

There is a widespread assumption across many companies that to keep the customers of the future everything has to be online or preferably on an app. It simply isn’t true. This young under 25 year old lady from the East Midlands encapsulates the views of many young people:

“I asked my bank for an increase in my credit card limit. You are unable to do it online and I was told to call them but in the end had to download the bank’s app which I didn't want and ask for the increase that way. Good job I have a smart phone!”

In a finding that some may find surprising, our TLF Panel survey corroborates this view. Young people are less likely than older people to prefer transacting online. 

When asked: “if you always had the choice, how would you generally prefer to carry out admin tasks?” only 55% of 18-24 year olds opted for online compared to 74% of 35-64 year olds. 18-24s are twice as likely as over 35s to choose phone as their preferred method and 22% of them opted for face-to-face in person compared with 15% of 25-64s. Less surprisingly face-to-face was the preferred method of 30% of over 65s. This is reflected in how these age groups conduct admin tasks. For example, 16% of 18-24s conduct their banking mainly by phone compared with only 4% of 45-64s. Over 65s followed by 18-24s are the most likely to go to a branch. We can see the same pattern for getting an insurance quote with 46% of 18-24s obtaining one online compared with 73% of 45-64s.

In view of the strength of feeling amongst many customers who feel that they are being forced to transact online, companies would be well advised to think very carefully before using it as a way to cut costs. Banking was by far the most common industry that customers blamed for doing this, followed by utilities, Government agencies, GP surgeries and local authorities. The companies that were most frequently singled out for doing this were Virgin Media followed by Sky, HMRC and Amazon.

And finally, as this 35-44 year old lady from Manchester pointed out, some of it is so “daft” you couldn’t make it up!

“I went to Halifax bank to open an account for my child and the member of staff in the branch told me to do it online as it would be easier even though I was stood in the branch and had cash to deposit!! It just seemed daft”. 

Nigel Hill

TLF Research