The death of customer service: Eir is not alone in letting its customers down

When it comes to poor customer care, Eir is not alone in letting its customers down

the death of customer service...

The only people who seemed remotely surprised by the hard and mortifying rap across the knuckles Eir got in Dublin’s District Court last Monday morning were the executives at the telecommunications company, none of whom were visible in the courtroom when the verdict was handed down.

For pretty much everyone else, Eir’s fine for multiple breaches of the rules around customer care was no more shocking than the news that it rains in Galway or a pint of stout in Temple Bar is not always the best value for money.

In truth, the company is currently the poster child for awful customer service and routinely features at the bottom – or close to the bottom – of customer feedback charts. It is also the company mentioned most by consumers who call the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission’s (CCPC) information lines.

And while we can’t be certain as to the exact nature of all those CCPC calls, it might be reasonably assumed that people aren’t ringing the consumer watchdog to talk about how brilliant Eir is.


Some of its failings were laid bare in the court in a case taken by the communications regulator ComReg.

The court was told that updates to Eir’s code of practice for complaints handling in early 2021 made it harder for its customers to effectively complain to the company. Eir pleaded guilty to multiple breaches of the law over its failure to acknowledge those complaints and provide responses within 10 working days among other issues. It was fined €750 for each of 10 such breaches before the courts.

But those breaches and those fines weren’t the half of it.

As part of its investigation, ComReg sought Eir’s customer service training manual and it was duly produced in court, to the apparent surprise of Hugh McDowell, the barrister acting for Eir.

Judge Halpin branded the company a ‘disgrace’ and said Eir should apologise, not only to its customers and to ComReg but to staff it had threatened

When he told Judge Anthony Halpin he was unaware it would be forming part of the case, his protestations were cut short with the judge pointing out that it was his own client’s training manual and it couldn’t claim to be unaware of it. The barrister was furnished with a copy and the case continued.

Attention focused on one section boxed off in red and underlined in bold warning staff that “under no circumstances are the complaints number or complaints webpage address to be provided to any customer”. It added that “any agent found to be doing this will be subject to a disciplinary under call avoidance”.

After reading it more than once, Judge Halpin branded the company a “disgrace” and said Eir should apologise, not only to its customers and to ComReg but to staff it had threatened.

The case concluded and the ComReg team left the court and formed a huddle outside.

There is a phrase in French, “l’esprit de l’escalier”, which translates as the wit of the staircase. It describes the clever retort a person might come up with in response to someone else’s insult that occurs a little bit too late to actually say it.

There was more than a hint of l’esprit de l’escalier about what happened next.

Minutes after the story appeared on The Irish Times website, Eir was in touch with a statement insisting it fully complies with ComReg complaints procedures”. It did also acknowledge that “the language previously used in training material could have been clearer in this regard”.

Hours passed and a second statement arrived that was somewhat more robust. It accused ComReg of making “serious, unprecedented and incorrect allegations against Eir, accusing us of instructing our customer care team to not comply with regulatory obligations; we categorically reject these accusations”.

The statement suggested that the ComReg claims in court were “based on documents they interpreted incorrectly, could have been easily clarified had they engaged with us directly in advance of the court hearing. The slides in question were taken out of context.”

ComReg was having none of it. In response to queries from The Irish Times, it pointed out that Eir did not raise any objection to the facts underlying the cases before the court. It noted that the training manual had been provided by Eir in the course of a formal investigation.

Outside the court, ComReg’s retail and consumer director, Barbara Delany, pointed out that no one with a complaint likes to be ignored. But “when it appears in the background, that this is something that is purposely done and purposely achieved, and consumers are not allowed to make a complaint and the staff, as the judge says, are actually themselves stopped from helping consumers, which is presumably their job in the first place. That makes it even more serious.”

Delany stressed that “part of doing business is to ensure that you can address consumer complaints in a timely manner that has to be part of doing business. It isn’t a luxury or an add on or something that comes after.”

That is a message all companies operating in Ireland might do well to heed, as when it comes to poor customer care, Eir is not alone in letting its customers down.

Last month, the CCPC published a report titled Understanding Consumer Detriment in Ireland. As part of its research, it asked 4,500 consumers about the things that caused them stress, or cost them money or time, in 2023 and then totted up the cost.

The final bill came in at €968 million.

What the CCPC called home products and tools – fridges, toasters, hair straighteners and all the rest – were most likely to cause problems, with 13 per cent of people highlighting issues with household goods.

Telecoms was next, with about one in eight consumers identifying these services as problematic. Holiday and travel companies aggravated 11 per cent of respondents while vehicles caused one in 10 consumers’ grievances, after which came banks, medical services and digital subscriptions.

The commission put the average cost of the issues at €60 per consumer, which is how it arrived at its €968 million assessment. The expenses cover what people paid initially and what they spent on repairs and legal fees.

The research also found that just over 10 per cent of people had issues resolved within a day while a third reported getting satisfaction within a week, leaving two-thirds – or more than a million people – waiting longer than a week to have problems. One in 10 people said they were still dealing with serious issues more than six months after they first contacted the seller.

The report echoes the experience of The Irish Times’s Pricewatch section. There is a weary rhythm to the complaints we receive – and that rhythm has barely missed a beat for 20 years.

Someone signs up or pays for a service or product. But then the service or the product lets them down so they contact the provider, confident that the issue will be resolved.

Businesses ‘that deliver excellence are genuinely focused on customers whereas if you look at the telco industry in Ireland, the utility industry, some of the airlines, they’re all fixated on shareholders’

—  Michael Killeen

But it isn’t. So they contact the company again. And again. And again. And they keep doing so until, eventually they give up. They then make contact with this newspaper and if we contact the companies on their behalf 99 times out of 100 the problem is quickly resolved – sometimes it only takes minutes for issues that have left people stressed out for months to be sorted out.

It’s incredibly frustrating that companies seem willing – hard-wired even – to drive their customers to distraction and to the point that they will contact a national news outlet rather than fix issues that – as we have shown repeatedly – can be easily resolved as long as the will is there.

So, what is going on?

Michael Killeen is the chairman of the CX Company, which assesses the level of customer experience on offer from companies all over the country and publishes annual rankings across multiple sectors.

He says businesses “that deliver excellence are genuinely focused on customers whereas if you look at the telco industry in Ireland, the utility industry, some of the airlines, they’re all fixated on shareholders”.

He notes that ever since the research started being published a decade ago, the credit union movement has finished top of the heap. “They’re a not-for-profit organisation,” he says. “Then you’ve got five pharmacies and they really care about their customers.

“When you look at the bottom [from 2023] you’ve got three telcos and an airline ... They can talk all they want about becoming customer-centric but they will always be focused on shareholders. As you go up the league table you’ll find that it’s the reverse.”

He points out that the companies routinely letting people down “put all of their focus on getting new customers and forget about loyal customers who’ve been with them for years. They just take them for granted and that has to change.”

He notes that stock markets value customer acquisition over loyalty. “If that changed it would have a huge impact on improving customer service.”

Then there are those on the front lines of customer care who, he says, tend to be the lowest paid, with those that show promise quickly promoted away from the front lines.

Killeen believes if companies focused less on winning new customers and more on giving “existing customers an amazing experience [those customers] become the salespeople and they become advocates of the brand. Stop focusing on acquisition and spend more time delighting customers the whole way along the journey.”

As Killeen says, Ireland’s undisputed customer care champion is the credit union movement. According to spokesman David Malone, credit unions have a “unique DNA where the customer is at the centre of everything we do. That might sound very simplistic but actually that is really what we’re about.”

Malone says credit unions are “the only financial institutions owned and operated by the members”, with staff from the top down embedded in local communities.

He also highlights their accessibility. “We have 500 physical locations and 3,500 staff who really genuinely care about the members. Other financial institutions are closing branches and moving towards automation. Go into a bank branch now and it’s like the Mary Celeste and you’re directed to a computer.”

He points to the credit union supports and says they offer branches, online options and phone support. “And that’s not phone support that goes to a shared service centre where you are waiting half an hour to get through. Ring us and you speak to someone in the branch.”

Will big businesses follow the credit union’s lead? It seems unlikely.

An article written for the Harvard Business Review in 2019 ran under a headline that asked and answered a key question: “Why Is Customer Service So Bad? Because It’s Profitable”.

As part of their research, academics Anthony Dukes and Yi Zhu interviewed call-centre managers and found many deployed a strict hierarchical system: staff who are the first point of contact for consumers are the least empowered to offer redress.

By placing simple obstacles in the way of consumers early on, they said companies hope a significant number will just go away and leave them “off the hook for the additional payout”.

In the piece, Dukes and Zhu also wondered if “frustrating customers has consequences on customer retention and long-term reputation”.

You might imagine it would. But you would be quite wrong.

The authors noted that “some companies have little regard for their reputation, especially those who control a large market share”. They highlighted how consumers are “most frustrated with airlines, internet, cable and telephone service providers”.

They pointed to companies being publicly shamed for mistreating customers but remaining “highly profitable with no noticeable loss in market share”.

The piece concludes by saying that “unfortunately, this means companies with few competitors may find worthwhile to alienate angry customers in order to save on redress costs”. They suggest that this is “why some of the most hated companies in America are so profitable and why customer service, unfortunately, remains so frustrating”.

Ultimately then, it falls to consumers. If companies see no value in doing the right thing, their customers must make them pay a price for their failings. And until we all become more vocal and proactive in spending our money with companies that actually care for us, things will never change.