top of page

COVID19 - a shabby excuse for shabby service

Updated: May 1, 2021

Coronavirus, the new go-to excuse for why businesses can't possibly provide customers with basic customer service

Because of the current pandemic affecting the World, it will take more time to answer your call.

I mean please get stuffed - I didn't fall out of a taxi pissed on to the pavement before picking up the phone to you. Why are you instantly dismissing my concerns, effectively treating me with the type of contempt that you shouldn't offer anybody, not even a clueless drunkard.

A year into the Coronavirus pandemic, and the major players in our retail and service delivery World are still blaming it for their colossal inadequacy and aloofness when it comes to dealing with their customers first hand. Thousands of hours saved as employees work from home - for our retailers, banks, Media services like Sky and Virgin, our energy suppliers - the list is endless. Yet all those businesses seem to think that their accountability for consumer satisfaction starts and ends with a chatbot. I mean really - when did our CEO population become so arrogant or out of touch. To think that customers wouldn't notice that they weren't in fact talking to Bob in account management, but a digitised version of Bob... I asked my 'Bob' at the DIY store if he was getting wasted now the pubs were open - he advised me to look at some garden waste bin bags.... thanks digital Bob, you are a right bundle of laughs aren't you.

As a public, we are well accustomed to waiting for the switchboard fascist doctor's receptionist to curtly answer the phone and we are used to public sector services being intransigent and abrupt. Yet, massive elements of the private sector are becoming exactly the same. Before COVID19, you might at least get an apology for failure, but not now a year on. No - nowadays everything is the responsibility of Coronavirus, not of weak leadership. In most cases they assure no apology necessary - regardless of how you feel.

There is no doubt that COVID-19 upended the familiar, and with that hospitality and retail have been the industries hardest hit. However, we cannot ignore the fact that responsibility for much of the severity lies with operators themselves. COVID-19 has revealed weaknesses that retailers have papered over, obscuring the erosion in personal and meaningful service, decades in the making. Over a prolonged period of time, retailers have been content making do with the most minimal staffing and stock levels. They have been content to put in jeopardy their capability to provide even basic service to the customer. Over that time, these businesses - with a single focussed eye on cost reduction — have relied on staff that do not consider retailing as a career, but simply as a stop gap until something else comes along, and stores compensated for that accordingly. The net result is that maintaining a stupidly modest level of staffing that only just covers basic fundamental service, is a process that has become operationally accepted. Striving for excellence has become hamstrung, and replaced by wishful thinking, rather than planning and execution.

As a result, the chronic decline of service and inventory levels has been matched with an equally precipitous decline in customer satisfaction and loyalty. While COVID-19 has accelerated the move to more convenient shopping channels, the fact remains that if the pandemic and all its impacts were to magically disappear tomorrow, dissatisfaction with stores, retailers of all commodoties and their limited offerings would most certainly remain. It shouldn't be that way.

Case Studies

A week ago my other half was in a 'live chat' queue of hell with a large building supplies merchant. This hell, was the culmination of a 6 week delay in receiving an order. An order by the way, that they had processed full payment for and at no point advised of availability issues. Were Dante alive today, he would without doubt have to amend his fifth circle of hell (Wrath / Anger), to include their customers. Having said this - at the same time I was trying to get hold of the UK's largest DIY stores - an endless circle of button choices and COVID19 messages, while being advised how important your call is - culminating in getting cut off, whichever route you take. I think this company take the actual biscuit for not wanting to converse with customers at all. So lets add their customer to the 5th circle too.

the wrathful and angry souls of this Fifth Circle spend eternity waging battle on the River of Styx : Dante

Back to the chatbot, and Elaine was feeling hopeful, having reached number 3 in the queue from number 28... but her hour long crawl to victory was cut short, as the Wickes chatbot must have gone on a toilet break. Upon rejoining, Elaine was back to number 24. We got in the car and drove to our local store 8 miles across town, arriving there before the chatbot had answered the call. Embarrassing. For them. I was entering the door with flames shooting from my mouth and steam from my ears... Elaine reminded me that it was probably best to let her do the talking.

My other case study centres on ****** Media - the most British of British businesses. A business celebrated as an icon of British industry, headed up by a Sir - knighted by our Queen for his services to Britain. That very business that cannot seem to find anybody on the shores of Britain to man its phones.... I have been trying since our media services were installed in December 2020, to get an engineer to visit, and finish the installation to a good standard. After what seems like a thousand menus and button presses, I am eventually put into a queueing system somewhere off the shore of a far flung Asian island I think. This particular company are quite clever though, they don't tell you your position, just play some Brit Pop over and over again in the hope you forget why you're calling and hang up. I started ringing as I left work - surely by the time I reached home in 45 minutes time, I would be talking with somebody... No such luck. An hour ticked by. Now, it seems that phone systems don't like to keep you on hold for more than an hour, it must seriously damage the KPI of the business or something... they would rather hide behind a lie, than improve on the truth I guess. So after 60 minutes holding, I got cut off.

Can you imagine how incandescent I was when I reached the head of the queue another 45 minutes later, only to be answered by Lucifer's best friend, firstly patronising me; "I am sorry for your wait", but then accepting zero responsibility for my problem, refusing to escalate my issue, and in the end berating me for using the word "Fuck" in a sentence. I think the thing that really got me though was "owing to COVID19 we are on a skeleton staff"... correct me if I am wrong, but we have all been locked in our houses for a year - with very little to do but watch TV - why exactly would you be on a skeleton staff ? I'm generally a patient person and am usually willing to put up with an awful lot before I lash out in frustration. But this is just inexcusable. I might expect such bad service from a small start-up that doesn't have a lot of people or resources. But this is one of the largest phone/Internet/TV companies in the world. You mean to tell me a company like this couldn't set up agents to work at home and take calls ? Why should someone answering a phone at home, in front of a screen, be any different from someone doing that exact same thing in a call centre?

This may be the case study of my experience, but this is common place amongst most sectors in 2021. In my opinion, there is absolutely no defence for this shabby service now. If your opinion varies, I would love to hear why.

This isn't a test by the way, but if you recognise any of the businesses mentioned, feel free to name and shame your story in the comments.


How do you prefer to be ignored ?


I have given up wondering what kind of training courses some businesses sign up to, that teach staff to perfect such apathy. Then again, any organisation that won’t let its staff connect the customer to it's leaders, that makes customers irate by keeping them on hold for hours and then gives them incorrect information, probably isn’t much fun to work for I wouldn't think.

On the Hop

Now, it’s absolutely true that Covid-19 caught the UK on the hop, and I don’t just mean the Government. All sorts of industries and employers were, virtually overnight, forced to change their way of operating. And understandably there were some teething issues there.

But let’s be clear, lockdown formally started back in March 2020 - That’s over a year ago. Having a few issues with customer service and communicating with your customers was somewhat excusable, and perhaps inevitable, when we were in the eye of the COVID storm.

And while the storm has certainly not passed fully, in the wake of a massively successful vaccine program, and the roadmap to freedom - it’s really not good enough to continue to blame the pandemic for customer service failings. It’s also far too convenient an excuse, to point to a global pandemic as a catch-all explainer for incompetence.

My Take is - We have long memories

This has been a learning curve, for shoppers as much as businesses. We have seen first hand the businesses that were nimble enough to react to the Coronavirus challenges, and who have treated their customers properly and with respect. We’ve also seen the businesses that have panicked, that have seen the pandemic as the perfect cover for anything that goes wrong and who are attempting to bluff their way through.

Amazon has been one of the biggest winners of the pandemic: 175,000 new staff recruited, a 40% revenue jump from the previous year. I'm certainly no Amazon super fan - I'm one of the many during this lockdown who are trying to support independents and smaller high street chains where they deserve it. The fact however, remains. Amazon focuses on keeping customers happy, whether that's making it easy to reorder previous purchases, get a refund or chase lost goods.

It’s up to us as customers to remember those who have excelled, and then continue to back them when things return to something approaching normal. As for the others, they need to understand that we won’t stand for it if they try to con us with excuses and fail to deliver adequate levels of customer service. If short-term thinking and mediocre service persist, the companies that accept this will not survive.

So, the question now becomes this: when COVID subsides, what will the next excuse for poor service be?

What do you think? Are companies hiding behind the pandemic or is the drop in customer service understandable given the realities they face? Share your thoughts with me...

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page