And the award for the most terrible customer service goes to …

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It was a different world when the year began. Readers were losing holidays because of delayed fit-to-fly Covid tests and out-of-date vaccine passes. Customer service departments blamed the virus for their inability to serve customers. As the mist of Covid lifted, life returned to normal. Holidays were lost for reassuringly familiar reasons, such as hotels that didn’t exist and flights that never flew, and customer service departments blamed customer demand for their inability to serve customers.

Companies eviscerated by lockdowns have had to adapt to survive in a leaner, meaner climate, and the inventiveness with which some have bolstered their finances is what keeps me in a job. From a suite of faulty suitcases to a street of faulty houses, readers’ ordeals have highlighted the common business strategy of corporate Britain – produce as much as possible, for as little as possible, pocket the cash and go to ground. Works every time – until newspapers get involved.

Most lucrative business model

This category is filled with contenders who have surpassed themselves with money-making wheezes. Plaudits must go to parking management firms whose nose for a quick buck could recalibrate a national economy.

Parkingeye’s unnecessarily wide-angled ANPR cameras at an Aldi store caught (and charged) NHS staff parking at the surgery next door, while Smart Parking doled out £100 bills to food bank customers and volunteers using a free community centre car park. In the face of local opposition, these doughty warriors stood firm (for five months in the case of Parkingeye) and raked it in until an Observer headline disrupted their cashflow.

The trouble with that business model is it only works if you haven’t bought a ticket. Flowbird, which manages car parks on behalf of Worcester city council, hit upon a more reliable income stream. Motorists who paid by card had their accounts repeatedly debited. One man was billed for £610 after his card was charged 122 times.

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If it’s sheer numbers we’re rewarding, the prize must go to energy supplier Ovo, which has been billing customers for almost £50,000 a quarter. It blamed data errors.

Golden vulture award

In the midst of a cost of living crisis, a firm can’t let inconveniences stand in their way. Like death, for instance. There’s still money to be made from a customer after they’ve passed over. All you need is a desensitised workforce and an iron will.

Telecoms firm Three was quids in when JC’s mother died of cancer. Covid restrictions limited ward visits, so friends and family loaded money on to a pay-as-you-go (PAYG) phone in order to keep in touch.

She died before she could use it. The family asked for the £93 credit to be paid to the hospice that had looked after her, but was told the money was forfeit. Three eventually stumped up in the glare of the media spotlight, and pledged to reconsider its credit policy.

Equally deserving is Virgin Money. After RD informed it his wife had died suddenly of a heart attack, it sent her a letter advising her credit card account was in arrears, and that interest and a default charge had been applied. It blamed an administrative error.

But the winner has to be BT. It was understandably upset when SR’s father died and no longer needed his phone plan. So it charged him £763 for terminating his contract early and, when he didn’t pay up, threatened to unleash debt collectors. In vain, over five months, did SR point out his father was dead. Only when I stepped in did it decide that someone had pressed the wrong button.

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The peace prize

“Get peace of mind for less” is the RAC slogan. “Less” being the crucial word. Harriet O’Brien had to seek peace on a stranger’s sofabed after the RAC left her stranded in a country lane far from home for 20 hours. As night wore on she thought of getting a taxi, but was told she would be charged if the patrol arrived in her absence. It was 1am when the company finally decided it wasn’t coming and she was forced to spend the rest of the night in a nearby cottage.

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The biggest heist

The winners of this award are too shy to come forward. Their business plan is simple and effective. They harvest the details of unsuspecting customers by sending fake texts about missed deliveries, or by cloning the websites of well-known investment companies.

They buy software that allows their caller ID to match the contact number of the customer’s bank, they work their targets into a state of terror by pretending to be bank officials investigating fraud, or a state of excitement by promising reassuring investment returns. Then they make off with all of their savings.

That’s how a Ukrainian man lost the money he had entrusted to his sister’s UK bank for safekeeping, how a bride lost the £20,000 she’d saved for her wedding, and how a novice investor paid £150,000 to fraudsters posing as Prudential.

The banks that allowed suspicious transactions will have to collect the award on behalf of the scammers. They fought a doughty battle to avoid reimbursement, despite a voluntary pledge to protect victims. The Ukrainian and the investor were repaid when the media spotlight swung their way, and the Financial Ombudsman Service eventually ruled in favour of the bride.

The literary prize for creativity

The most obvious way to win custom is with alluring promises. The challenge for the hard-pressed trader is that some customers take them literally. When that happens, it pays to rip up the contractual small print and compose a fiction. All you need is tenacity.

Skoda is an inspiration here. FK took his faulty Skoda to two dealers, neither of whom could book it in, or log the issue, until after his warranty had expired. Both dealers, and Skoda UK, insisted he would therefore have to pay for the repair and cited company policy, despite the fact that such a policy would be illegal, and was nowhere mentioned in the terms and conditions.

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It also used a clause absent from the customer’s Ts&Cs to avoid paying GV’s repair bill under warranty. It would have got away with it if both had not complained to the Observer.

But the award goes to National Express’s lucrative lexicography. It persuaded customers to pay extra for “fully flexible” tickets which promised a full refund if they cancelled. The terms and conditions omitted to mention that the full refund excluded seat reservations and luggage fees which, in ATD’s case, amounted to £144.

Its Change & Go ticket allows passengers to rebook for free if they miss their departure. When MR tried to do this, he was told he should have provided 24 hours’ notice that he would arrive too late, and was charged the full fare for the next service. Both customers were refunded when I took up the battle and National Express promised to change its unwritten policy.

Not that that stopped it refusing to refund luggage fees to another flexible ticket holder KF the following month.

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