High Street Phone Shops Are Utterly Useless

By Chris Mills on at

The mobile phone industry in the UK is massive -- a couple of percentage points of GDP last year. Most people's interaction with this massive sector is through a high-street phone shop. There's just one problem -- they totally, absolutely suck.

I don't know if any of you have been into a high-street phone shop lately, but across the board, they're terrible. The customer 'service' is nothing short of dire, in pretty much every single outlet. The physical shops themselves aren't great; tacky posters advertising rip-off "deals", combined with outdated displays, and wall-fulls of dummy phones. (Why, oh why, can't they just make all the dummy phones real phones? Most people are well past the age when they played make-believe with toys.)

The customer service is the by far and away the greatest problem, however. Whilst it would be unreasonable to expect every shop assistant to know the absolute ins and outs of each phone -- though it'd be pretty nice if they did -- you do expect sound advice. Most of the time, though, sales assistants don't offer anything close to advice. They generally try and ram certain products down your throat, constantly trying to up-sell, and when they get out of their depth, bullshit for all they're worth.

Example: last year, I tried to go into my carrier's own phone shop to upgrade to a HTC One S. Despite the fact that I walked in certain which phone was right for me, the woman behind the till wasted a good few minutes trying me to change my mind. Reasons that I might want to upgrade included the "better internetting" (I kid you not) on the One X, the "waaaay better email" on a Blackberry Bold, or the apparently superior Facebook integration of some crappy no-brand phone with a Facebook key gaffer-taped onto it.

Aside from the terrible advice, there's also a lot of outright lying that goes on. In one Carphone Warehouse store, I was told, in no uncertain terms, that Three didn't have a proper infrastructure, and that it just leased spectrum from O2, and therefore would have crap service. (Three have a fully-functioning 3G and HSPA network, running off its own cell network.)

I also got told by a friendly O2 rep that I should go with O2 over GiffGaff because "GiffGaff's network has got terrible service. You get what you pay for, mate." All well and good, but GiffGaff runs on O2's network, and has exactly the same coverage. Awkward.

But, even if the advice is crap, you might still think that it's worth going to the phone shops because there are real people there. Real, touchable people, not on the end of a phone, who can talk to you in an intelligible accent about your contract. Shame, then, that the networks have taken all their power. Across the board, customer services reps in call centres are more flexible about what they can offer you than the in-the-flesh sales assistants are. Every time I've been into a phone store, renewing a contract or trying to switch contracts mid-term, it's been the same line: "Sorry mate, can't help you, but try ringing customer services, they're more flexible".

Depressingly, it's true; I've extracted better deals and more flexible contracts out of some dude on the end of a phone line, than I ever have from the assistants in phone shops, who are capable of nothing more than reading contract prices off the network's website.

This is insane. One of the few edges the networks have over operators like GiffGaff is their physical presence. A high-street shop should make everything easier for the customer -- rather than ringing up to talk to someone in a call centre, you can deal with a physical person. Only in the case of these shops, you often end up doing both.

Sometimes, things just get farcical. Even our Kat, recently tried to get a new SIM from Three; her experience sums up everything that's wrong with phone shops.

"I try and avoid entering high-street phone shops as much as possible, but recently I'd misplaced the SIM for my 3G dongle and was forced to enter a Three store to pick up a new one. After being advised over the phone that all branches stock blank SIMs, it took me traipsing between three Three stores (oh, the irony) in central London to find one that actually had them in stock. Not a single store (and don't get me wrong -- I'm sure most networks have the same problem, along with assistants in all manner of stores) gave me what I felt to be even adequate customer service, with one store keeping me waiting a good few minutes while the lone "available" assistant gossiped with one of their friends about pretty unprofessional going-ons of the previous weekend. Is there no greater feeling of idiocy than shuffling from foot to foot, waiting for them to finish their conversation, before tentatively asking "excuse me... could I please have some help?"

My message, then, is this: physical phone shops are expensive. They need staff and premises, not to mention all manner of tacky posters and a huge amount of expensive smartphones (and BlackBerrys to push on the unwary). At the moment, they serve no real purpose apart from to annoy people foolish enough to cross the threshold. Networks should either ditch a physical presence altogether, and cut our bills (oh, if only); or, improve the shops massively.

It doesn't have to be this way though -- anyone who's ever visited an Apple retail store probably knows that you can get sound advice without being belittled and patronised, and you get a real service at the end of it, rather than being fobbed off to some distant rep at the end of a phone line. At the moment, though, that's all the physical phone shops are good for, jack shit. The networks need to watch their backs, or soon they're gonna see a mass exodus to the likes of GiffGaff, Tesco Mobile and even Virgin. Vive la revolution!

Image credit: No signal from Shutterstock