And the worst company in Ireland for customer experience in 2021 is . . .

It’s hard to know if the companies that sit on this page’s bold step each week aren’t listening to what people say about them or just don’t give a rashers but one depressing thing a recent customer service report card makes clear is: it is worse they are getting and not better.

The CXi Report has been released by the CX Company every autumn since 2015 and by its reckoning, the level of customer experience people get from the top 150 or so companies doing business in Ireland has declined by 10 per cent over the last six years.

While many companies’ customer experience (CX) scores benefitted from something of a Covid bounce last year, as they worked harder to make things better in terrible times, the pandemic has dragged on and this year it is more a case of a Covid hangover.

The overall CX score fell 4.4 per cent compared with the 2020 figure, making it the biggest year-on-year decline recorded since the survey began. It also means Ireland’s CX score is now at a seven-year low, having recorded a cumulative fall of 10.8 per cent since 2015. And it’s not like things were any good in 2015.

Pharmacies and coffee companies have had a strong performance through Covid and make up seven of the top 10 companies, while supermarkets have also done well.

However, the entertainment, delivery and telecoms sectors are among the worst performers in the survey, which was carried out by Amárach Research on behalf of the CX Company and based on a cross-section of Irish consumers who were asked for feedback on their experiences with 151 companies across 11 sectors.

The identity of the company that featured on the bottom of the pile this year will not come as a surprise to many readers of this page, and the firms who finished just ahead of them won’t exactly shock people out of their socks either.

Drum roll please. The worst company for customer experience in Ireland in 2021 was . . . Eir. It replaced Ryanair at the bottom of the heap, although there is no reason for Ryanair to get out the bunting, as it finished third-last just ahead of Facebook which was ranked as the second-worst company in Ireland.

All told, almost one in two – or 44 per cent – of Eir’s customers said the company had failed to meet their expectations over the last year, while 25 per cent said the same about Ryanair.

The Department of Social Protection and Irish Water were both on 24 per cent, while Sky also fared badly with 23 per cent of its customers saying it had failed to meet their expectations.

The Passport Service, the National Lottery, and Abrakebabra were among the other companies who did badly in their customers’ eyes, recording big falls in the annual chart.

At the other end of the table, the credit unions finished on top of the pile for the seventh year in a row, making it the only brand to have maintained a constant presence in the top 10 since the survey began.

Customer service proved to be no game for Smyths Toys which moved up 30 places to claim second, thanks – at least in part – to what CX Ireland describes as a “highly efficient pick, pack and ship operation which they created in record time”.

Hickeys, McCabes, Lloyds, McCauleys and Boots all made the top 10, proof of the important role pharmacies played in keeping customers well – especially vulnerable patients – and in helping to battle the virus through the vaccination programme.

Supermarkets continue to perform well – this year they are represented in the top 10 by Aldi, which replaced Lidl – indicating the important role they have played in the past year.

Some of the biggest jumpers in the 2021 league table included Energia, Lifestyle Sports, Free Now and An Post Money.

Two of the new entrants are coffee companies, Nespresso and Butlers Chocolates, who both devised novel ways of serving customers who still wanted to treat themselves.

The chairman of The CX Company, Michael Killeen, described Eir’s treatment of its customers as appalling. “The telecom sector has been one of the poorest performers in our survey over the last seven years,” he says. “While Eir is the standout offender and seems more focused on making money for its owners rather than doing what’s right for their customers, its competitors Sky and Virgin would also recognise more work needs to be done to deliver greater customer experiences.”

He noted that “entertainment and travel obviously faced huge challenges this year and this goes a long way to explaining their poor performance”.

He added: “Logistics and delivery is a new sector this year and one where companies are struggling to keep up with increased demand. The other key issue for companies such as Fastway, UPS, Parcel Motel, DHL and An Post is managing the resolution of issues when they arise.

“The financial sector hasn’t had a great Covid and its response to the current high levels of attempted fraud has been underwhelming to say the least. The public sector is another which could do better – the Department of Social Protection and even the HSE failing to meet customer expectations.”

Post-Covid: ‘Goodwill is fading fast and customers have a lot less tolerance’

Cathy Summers of CX Ireland is the author of the report and she described, with a degree of understatement, the low score as “a concern”.

She accepted that since early 2020 companies had been battling the effects of Covid, but said they now needed to “refocus their efforts on enhancing the customer journey and overall experience”.

Summers suggested: “Post-Covid indecision and fatigue appear to be taking a toll on companies and their approach to CX. As a result, customers are losing out. Whereas these very customers were quite forgiving during Covid as organisations struggled to adapt to new processes and procedures, that goodwill is fading fast and customers have a lot less tolerance now. Especially if there are long delays answering or communicating with the organisation.”

She added: “During Covid many companies invested in digital solutions to interact with customers as a necessity due to lockdowns. While these can work well and yield savings, sometimes, they can be more focused on the short-term needs of the company rather than the needs of the customer. In our report, we are seeing a real hunger from customers to get back to personal one-on-one interactions. They want empathy and reassurance; sometimes they just want to talk to a fellow human being.”

How the rankings work

Summers also explained how the rankings work. People who take part are asked to rank the companies they have had dealings with out of 10, with any score over eight deemed to be an excellent customer service experience.

In 2015 the average across all the companies assessed was 7.06, while this year it stands at 6.32. There are very few brands who got more than eight.

She said the top ranking of the credit unions was a “phenomenal achievement”, even though their score did fall slightly this year when compared with 2020. They were still significantly ahead of the chasing pack and pointed to “a gap of 75 per cent between their score and the bottom brand score”.

She said Smyths employees “went out of their way to help customers”, and suggested that often it was the little things staff did that made all the difference. “It might be a small thing but it made a big difference, and those experiences are driven by people, humans. I think one of the overall themes of this year’s report was that digital is important and customers want to do things digitally but, you know, they’re very much a transaction. There’s no emotional connection there – and that’s what you need to create that experience.”

Summers said: “Doing the right thing is what customer experience is all about. It is about being able to empower employees to make those decisions to pick up the phone and ask somebody if they’re actually having problems, to take that common sense approach, you know, like imagining if it was your brother, mother, granny or whoever, what would you do to help them out?”

She said too many companies trained their frontline employees “on processes and systems, and they don’t actually remember that their employees are people as well and there’s a really strong link between employee experience and customer experience – because if your employees aren’t having a good experience, you can’t expect them to give one to customers. A lot of it for me comes down to how much the employers trust the employees to actually, you know, do the right thing, use their common sense. And obviously, yes, they need support in terms of education, training, but being able to be empowered to do the right thing. And also know that if they do make a mistake, you know, it’s not the end of the world.”

She pointed out that last year was a bad year for the Passport Service and the National Lottery. “It’s an interesting one,” she said, “because we also measure where companies have exceeded or failed to meet customer expectations, and the passport service actually score really highly on both counts. And I think, you know, they do a fantastic job but I think they struggled because of not being able to have the office open to provide that backup for people, particularly where they had emergencies.”

And were people disappointed by the National Lottery because they didn’t win the Lotto? Or was that just Pricewatch? “Maybe it was because a lot of people couldn’t get in to actually play it in physical stores so they had to go online and that caused a challenge for them. I think that probably had quite a lot to do with it.”

It should be noted that the Lotto app is very easy to use once you are set up and get the hang of it, so were people getting frustrated because they were struggling with the unfamiliar and then blaming the company? “Yes, absolutely,” she said. “Having to do things online if you’re not used to it or you’ve got a certain way that you like to do things and you have to change your behaviours and your habits and you feel like you’re being forced to do that, you know, can have a negative impact on how people view their experience – because customers do want to do certain things in certain ways with certain companies.”

She said Ryanair improved its scores in 2021 compared with a terrible 2020 when it clocked up the lowest score in the history of the survey last year.

“I think for some industries, particularly like travel, also the telecom sector, they had real struggles. It’s about equating the importance that some of these companies play in our lives. So, being able to travel obviously was a key one. We were restricted. But how that was handled, when it was opened up, was key.”

When it comes to the telecoms companies, Summers said: “We are so dependent on being connected. And if we aren’t connected or there’s a problem, it’s a major, major issue. You go to the supermarket and you can’t get any milk – it’s not a big deal. You can just go somewhere else.”

And how does a company address bad ratings? “It’s really being able to understand where the pain points are for customers. So what are the things that are causing the most frustrations, the most issues? So looking at each transaction or interaction that a customer has and where are the pain points for them?

“I think a lot of companies have gone down the digital route and sometimes the technology isn’t fit for purpose. And they’ve done it to save money – so they’ve done it for their own needs, rather than the customer needs. And then what can happen is that the customers can’t use the technology or have queries and that generates more calls into the company as well.

“And it’s really about being able to understand their customers. Think about them as human beings, understand what they need and be able to invest in improving the customer experience rather than just trying to save money.”