Could better customer service have prevented Debenhams decline?

Could better customer service have prevented Debenhams decline?

One upon a time at Christmas

It’s time for another good customer service story and this time it again involves my mum.

She was going to a Christmas party at an organisation where she does voluntary work and needed a Christmas jumper. She looked online and found a jumper in Dorothy Perkins but their online system wouldn’t accept her payment card.

So she went into town and visited Debenhams and spoke to somebody in the Dorothy Perkins outlet in there who was very polite, very helpful but wasn’t able to do anything as they didn’t have the jumper in stock. Karen, an assistant said that she was going to another store and she would get my mum the jumper. My mum must have an honest face as she took her details and a few days later contacted my mum. She said that she had bought the jumper and that it would be delivered so that my mum then went in and paid for it.

That would have been all well and good but actually the jumper never arrived, so my mum had to ‘phone up again and let Karen know. Karen was very apologetic. She said that they had had lots of problems with the couriers. She ‘phoned up and eventually the jumper did arrive in time for the party!

So, short and sweet but actually an example of very good service. The staff member did not need to get the jumper from another store that really is over and above the call of duty. She spent her money on a gift card which could be used at another store.

Going the extra mile

When staff go the extra mile in doing more than what is expected of them, I always think it is worth sharing. I feel that staff should do the job that they are paid for but when they go over and above, that’s when praise is due and praise is due here. Businesses should take note that the good interpersonal skills shown by this member of staff, and her going the extra mile, (literally in this case) actually meant that next time my mum went  shopping she was very likely to go into the store again. This is the kind of service that will keep our high streets going because it doesn’t happen like that online.

What went wrong for Debenhams?

Sadly, it looks like customer service in one Debenhams wasn’t enough! The Debenhams in the shopping centre I use does not have such good customer service. For example, I have experienced staff being rude when I pointed out my consumer rights. Just a small contributing factor regarding the quality of customer experience.

Natalie Berg, Retail Analyst and Founder of NBK Retail, agrees. She says

“There’s no room for mediocre experiences in retail today. You need to be on top of your game. You need to save customers’ time or enhance it. But enhancing time goes beyond a few instore gyms or beauty bars, retailers need to give shoppers a very compelling reason to ditch their screens and come into the store.”

Emphasising the priorities, she continues:

“This means first and foremost fixing the basics around price and range, then ensuring your proposition is consistent, experiential and service-led. (In a world where you can access billions of products at your fingertips, high street retailers simply can’t compete on product alone.) But this requires a huge cultural shift – staff must be both knowledgeable and empowered to offer a superior customer experience.”

Many a retail analyst says that Debenhams was simply not selling enough to match its huge overheads. Why wasn’t it selling enough? Was it not keeping up with trends? Did it not have its own USP?

Andrew Busby, retail analyst founder & CEO of Retail Reflections Ltd, says that Debenhams had been in decline for many years:

“It’s important to remember that their fate was not sealed in the last 12 months but over a period of time stretching back as far as 2003. That was the time when the new leadership team sold and leased back 26 stores.

And over the years, more and more juice has been squeezed out of Debenhams in the form of cash, loading it with debt whilst investing very little. In the end all they had left to squabble over was the pith.”

But more than that, during that same period, Debenhams, in the face of competition from the likes of Primark, Asos and latterly such as Boohoo, Missguided etc. it has simply lost its relevance.

A department store with no compelling reason to visit; and only then by their largely ageing customer base. BHS revisited.”

What is the future for Debenhams?

I am a fan of Debenhams. I’ve shopped there. I liked the fact that there was variety and one could have choice when shopping in store and online. They were good for sales (really good for sales actually) especially in their stocking fillers at Christmas and wide range of clothes available. But I agree that they may not have kept up to date for younger shoppers. Natalie Berg describes Debenhams as having a relevance problem. “They completely underestimated e-commerce, assuming their core categories were immune to the digital shift. Instead, they prioritised store expansion at exactly the time online and mobile shopping began to take off.”

When I compared prices, particularly for a range of different items, it frequently worked out cheaper to buy from Debenhams. Last year and the year before I bought items in the Black Friday week. I monitored their Black Friday weeks and those bargains were genuine.

So what does the future hold for Debenhams? Andrew Busby thinks it looks pretty bleak. After all, it seems unlikely that anyone would wish to take on the debt pile and as the first batch of 22 store closures is announced the question is just how many will they close in total? His feeling is that for the business to have any chance of survival they need to be radical and achieve a store estate of around 50 in key locations, compared with the current 165. “But when have we ever witnessed a retail business cut itself to success?”, he asks.

There may be hope though. When Dave Lewis started at Tesco he cut the expansion programme, sold off parts of the business and cut management positions and more recently jobs on the shop floor. Tesco’s fortunes have seemingly been turned around.

Can the High Street survive?

Yes the High Street can survive and even thrive. The commonly talked about proposed reductions in rents, rates and parking would obviously help. But the community groups, the small businesses, are all reinventing the High Street, providing something different whilst the huge chains are still struggling.

What do these small businesses offer that is different? Some offer innovation and creativity, some offer something specific to their locality. But there is one thing that they all have in common, the personal touch and good old customer service. When it comes to selling they know their products and the locality and their customers. They care and when something goes wrong they deal with complaints personally and appropriately.

So perhaps, just perhaps, the long established chains could learn something from those newer to the High Street. It boils down to what I always say “Listen to your customers”. Listen and deliver.

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Ofcom says firms need to “up their games” in complaints handling

Communications regulator reveals latest figures on customer satisfaction

Ofcom has just released its latest figures on broadband customer satisfaction in the UK.

Level of satisfaction with broadband services

The survey found that:

“Overall, 83% of broadband customers are satisfied with their service (similar to last year: 80%), while 13% had reason to complain in 2018 (down from 15% in 2017).

TalkTalk scores below the industry average on several measures, with its broadband customers less likely to be satisfied with their overall service and less likely to recommend their provider to a friend.

TalkTalk customers are also more likely to have a reason to complain, less likely to have their complaint resolved on first contact, and less likely be satisfied with how their complaint is handled.”

Last year TalkTalk was found to be joint worst with Virgin Media. Followers of me on Twitter will know that I was not shocked to see VM at the bottom.

The BBC reported that “A spokeswoman for TalkTalk said the data showed an “improving trend” on the number of complaints.” But on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Ofcom’s director of market intelligence, Ian Macrae, pointed out the obvious saying “It’s hard for TalkTalk to hide from the fact that their customer service isn’t up to scratch”. He also added “”We absolutely think that the firms need to up their games in the way they handle complaints.”

chart showing Talk Talk above average for complaints

Plusnet (owned by BT) complaints more than doubled in the last quarter of 2018 when it experienced problems with the launch of a new billing system.

The report describes how only HALF of those who make a complaint are happy with the result. This is no surprise to me given the large number of times I still get asked to help with telecom complaints. The total number of complaints to Ofcom about broadband actually fell by 23% in the survey.

Level of satisfaction with mobile services

The Ofcom survey on mobile services showed little change from the previous year.

93% of mobile customers are satisfied with their overall service (last year this was 91% so a small increase) and 3% said they were unhappy.

This is probably due to it being easier to change contracts (no email addresses to worry about unlike your broadband provider!) and yearly contracts. The 3% are probably those who are in a contract that they can’t yet leave. The survey reported that:

“Giffgaff and Tesco Mobile customers are more likely to recommend their provider to a friend. Their customers also have above-average satisfaction with value for money (97% for giffgaff and 92% for Tesco Mobile, compared to an 87% average).

Most likely to recommend chart

Vodafone customers, on the other hand, are less likely to be satisfied with value for money (82%), while Virgin Mobile customers have below-average satisfaction with how their complaint is handled. Both companies are also less likely to resolve complaints on first contact.”

Sky Mobile, a newcomer to the market, entered the league table for the first time and did so with the fewest complaints.

I am surprised to see EE where it is. It is the only company that I have left and never returned to in any sector wholly due to its poor customer service. That was a couple of years ago, perhaps they have since improved.

Complaints to Ofcom overall

Complaints to Ofcom about broadband firms actually fell by 23% last year from the previous year. Complaints about mobile companies fell by 15%.

However, satisfaction with mobile reception is increasing across the board (87%, up from 84% last year).

Sky is the least-complained about provider across all four services – broadband, landline, mobile and pay TV. I have to say it is also the company about which I hear fewest complaints.

Graph of providers with satisfaction levels over quarters





Lindsey Fussell, Ofcom’s Consumer Group Director, said:

“Shabby service can be more than just frustrating; it can have a big impact on people and small businesses who rely on being connected.

When you’re shopping around for a phone or broadband service, quality can be just as important as price. This information can help buyers make the right decision.”

Table of providers and satisfaction levels

Ombudsman Services

Matthew Vickers, chief executive of Ombudsman Services, which is approved by Ofcom to resolve broadband and phone complaints, said:

“For many people, broadband and phone access is an essential utility like energy, so it’s vital that providers offer good customer service and fix problems quickly when they do happen.

“Consumers can escalate unresolved broadband and phone complaints to us after eight weeks and, if their provider is signed up to our scheme, we will investigate. If we uphold the complaint, we will require the company to take action to put things right.

We are keen to work with communications providers to help them improve their complaint handling and customer service more generally, in order to raise standards across the industry.”

The future for telecoms complaint handling

The Ofcom report notes that the handling of customer complaints could be improved “across the industry”, with only half of those who make a complaint to any provider ending up happy with the result.

I’ve said for many years that the communications sector is the worst for communication! Companies make it difficult for people to contact them. For example, a few months ago I was trying to deal with something on Twitter with Virgin Media and was actually told to contact them during certain times of the day. The person responding couldn’t actually answer the simple question! Ridiculous!

And how about Vodafone, a huge multinational communications provider, which does not even have an email address available to reach its customer service department? It isn’t alone.

I regularly hear about the whole complaints process with any telecom provider being tedious. I’m yet to see or hear of anyone who has said that customer service from their provider has improved at all. Ever!

Further help

If you are experiencing a problem with your telecom provider or think you are likely to in future, then bookmark this page!

lap top on woman's knees phone in one handAll you need to know about complaining to telecom providers is full of links to different posts with lots of information and advice about various situations and what to do to get solutions.





The best-selling  bookbook Logo cartoon cow at a laptop of book cover. How to Complain: The Essential Consumer Guide to Getting Refunds, Redress and Results!

How to Complain: The Essential Consumer Guide to Getting Refunds, Redress and Results!  gives more information, advice, tips, consumer laws, rights, regulations, stories and template letters for complaining about the telecom and numerous other sectors.

Help for business

The Complaining Cow logo, complaints, consultancy, speaker, workshops and moreHelen Dewdney is The Complaining Cow and has the ear of many customers. She helps businesses improve customer complaint handling and customer service to improve complaint handling through customer perspectives and challenge to gain and retain customers. If you are interested in working with Helen see Services for a variety of innovative solutions to your business needs. You can contact her with your own ideas too of course!