TalkTalk has been rated the worst major broadband provider in Which?’s annual satisfaction survey, which saw the ‘Big Four’ losing out to smaller firms such as Zen which hasn’t hiked customer bills midway through contracts.
The consumer champion’s annual survey of almost 4,000 broadband customers found that despite the biggest firms being on the verge of forcing through huge mid-contract price increases despite the cost of living crisis, most offer little more than unreliable connections, appalling customer service and barely-there technical support in return.
TalkTalk received a paltry customer score of 51 per cent. Customers gave the firm the lowest possible ratings for technical support, customer service and speed. One in five (19%) of those who switched away from TalkTalk put this down to their connection being too slow while one in five (20%) current customers told Which? they would not recommend TalkTalk to others. The firm is set to hike its broadband prices by 14.2 per cent for millions of customers from 1 April.
Virgin Media also received lacklustre ratings from customers, coming tenth with an overall customer score of 54 per cent. Virgin scored poorly for customer service and substandard technical support. Alongside that, two in five customers told Which? they pay more than £40 per month for their connection, explaining why this provider had some of the lowest ratings when it came to value for money.
Virgin’s monthly costs will go up by an average of 13.8 per cent in April but it will introduce RPI inflation-based mid-contract price rises next year. This move will trap customers into their contracts when prices rise next time around.
Sky did little better, coming eighth with a customer score of 56 per cent. Sky customers were the most likely to have experienced an issue with their connection in the past year according to Which?’s survey. Sky was considered easier to contact than both TalkTalk and Virgin Media, however, earning more points in this category.
Sky’s price increase of 8.1 per cent also comes into force this Saturday. However, unlike many other providers, Sky has opted not to trap customers into contracts. Customers are free to switch penalty-free if prices are hiked.
BT came fifth out of the 12 providers in Which?’s survey, with a customer score of 59 per cent making it the best of the ‘Big Four’ providers. It was also held back by inadequate customer service and poor value for money.
Nearly four in ten (39%) customers who left BT told Which? it was due to a price rise. However this isn’t stopping BT from hitting customers with an 14.4 per cent mid-contract price hike, which comes into effect on 31 March.
Zen achieved the highest customer score in Which?’s satisfaction survey for the eighth year in a row, with an impressive 81 per cent customer score. The firm achieved high scores across the board including table-topping results for customer service and technical support. Despite not offering tariffs as cheap as some of the other firms, Zen does not bake price rises into its contracts and has once again been named a Which? Recommended Provider.
Hyperoptic (65% customer score) and Utility Warehouse (63%) – second and third in Which?’s survey respectively – also do not hike their prices mid-contract.
Soaring inflation means millions of broadband customers are facing CPI or RPI-linked increases of more than 14 per cent – an amount which would have been unforeseeable for customers signing up to their contract 18 or 24 months ago.
The current system forces millions of customers to choose between paying more each month or exorbitant exit fees, which can exceed £200.
Ofcom is currently investigating whether inflation-linked, mid-contract price rises give customers sufficient certainty and clarity when signing up to new contracts. The outcome will be published later this year. However this will not come soon enough to impact the scheduled price hikes.
It is estimated that millions of customers are outside of the minimum term of their contracts. This means that they are free to leave their provider at any time and should do this or haggle before the end-of-the-month deadline if they want to avoid upcoming price increases. Which? research has shown that switching providers can also save the average broadband customer up to £127 per year, while haggling saves up to £77 annually.
For those looking to switch providers, Which? recommends looking at companies that do not have price increases baked into contracts and will provide adequate support and decent customer service for the duration of the agreement.
Says Rocio Concha, Which? Director of Policy and Advocacy, said:
“It’s unacceptable that the major broadband firms are hiking prices for their mediocre services by such huge sums during this unrelenting cost of living crisis.
“Which? is calling for all providers to allow customers to exit their contracts penalty-free if the price goes up and to cancel 2023 hikes outright for financially vulnerable consumers.
“With just days to go until inflation-busting price hikes take effect, customers who are out of contract should take action now to switch away, cut costs and avoid paying a lot more for their current service.”
The consumer champion recently launched a campaign calling on businesses in essential sectors – supermarkets, telecoms and energy – to do more to help their customers through the cost of living crisis.
Mid-contract price hikes
BT and its subsidiaries (EE and Plusnet), Shell Energy Broadband, TalkTalk and Vodafone increase prices for sitting customers every year. They use the Consumer Price Index (CPI) as a basis but add an extra 3% to 3.9%. The providers that use these price rises say they are necessary for investment in infrastructure and that they make price rises more transparent.
The telecoms regulator, Ofcom, announced an investigation last December into whether these price rises have been made adequately clear to customers who took out broadband contracts between March 2021 and 16 June 2022. After this point, Ofcom introduced a rule that requires providers to give customers a written summary that includes clear information on pricing (including any annual price rise). But Ofcom has always required contractual price rises to be made clear at the point of sale. In February, it announced an additional review of inflation-based mid-contract price rises more generally, expressing concerns that they do not provide certainty or clarity. The results of both investigations are due later in the year, so they won’t prevent price rises this spring.
Which? analysis shows that this year’s price rises could add between £50 and £67 to the average customer’s annual bill.
Having previously refrained from employing inflation-based mid-contract price rises, Virgin Media is upping prices by an average of 13.8 per cent this year and will also introduce inflation-based price rises from next year.