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Provide people with a RIGHT to a minimum level of service from pseudo-public organisations

Comment 1st July 2010

I believe that there is a strong case for legislation to enshrine a right for consumers to be guaranteed a 'minimum level of service' when dealing with private sector organisations that fulfil a pseudo-public function, like banks, utility companies and over residential services.

At present, consumers are protected by a range of legal instruments including the Consumer Protection Act (for retailers), Banking Code (for finances) etc, but these only provide a remedy for when things go wrong. I think this is wrong – and that more should be done to force major public-facing businesses to improve the minimum standards of service even if things aren't yet 'poor'.

To illustrate what I mean, I would suggest such a law would provide the following:

Force banks to uphold a 'minimum call waiting time' for customers phoning them up

Force utilities to resolve complaints within a fixed time-scale

There are many organisations and bodies out there which are 'private' in nature. But some of these offer services which are pretty much 'essential' in today's society. Like banking, for example. Everyone needs a bank/building society account and it's almost impossible to be an active citizen without one. But banks/building societies are private businesses.

A law should be introduced which is aimed at private bodies who provide a 'essential life service' (like the above) to compel them to uphold certain minimum standards of customer service. Things like guaranteeing minimum durations for call times, timescales for responding etc.

At present, the law regulates when things go wrong. It regulates what banks can/can't do. But it doesn't touch on the 'softer customer service' processes which irritates consumers so much. Poor customer service:

Wastes consumers' time

Wastes consumers' money

Obviously I don't think this law should apply to all private bodies, but a sensible starting position would be to apply it to all public-facing businesses offering a service to the public where that service is enjoyed by more than X number of people (thus addressing the law towards big organisations where customer service is poor).

The government (not necessarily this one, but general) traditionally prefers to leave customer service to the markets, but sometimes customers can't just 'switch banks' if they are unhappy with customer service. They may be tied into a particular product and can't switch at all. In the meantime, they have to suffer poor service.

Why does this matter?

Standards of customer service appear to be slipping within certain sectors and there has never been a greater degree of dissatisfaction towards retail banks. As organisation get bigger and bigger the end consumer becomes every more helpless and when customer service is poor, it can be an incredibly frustrating experience to try and put something right.

If big businesses had an obligation to treat customers fairly and handle their enquiries within a timely manner, it would act as a 'stick' to improve customer service across the board and lead to a race-to-the-top rather than the current attitude of 'how bad can we make customer services and still get away with it?'

Anyone who's had to wait on hold for 40 minutes to pay a bill, only to be redirected to six different people, just to answer one simple question, will know why this change is required.


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