A major Which? undercover investigation has revealed that customer service operatives from Whirlpool and retailers AO.com, Argos, Co-op Electricals, Currys PC World, John Lewis and Very/Littlewoods are failing to give the full and appropriate safety advice when contacted about fire-risk tumble dryer models.
Which? made a total of 12 calls to each of the customer service departments of six leading UK stockists of Whirlpool-owned brands of tumble dryer (72 calls in total), asking for advice about burning smells coming from either a Hotpoint or Indesit model which is subject to a safety notice.
Despite there being a known fire risk attached to these models of tumble dryer, the customer service representatives gave inadequate, inconsistent and potentially dangerous advice, and not one call resulted in what Which? would consider to be an acceptable response to a serious safety issue.
In nine out of ten cases the caller was not asked for a model code, despite there being high-profile safety alerts about the fire-risk potential of these models
In nine out of ten (89%) of the calls, the customer service operative failed to give the correct safety instruction, which is to unplug the device.
In six out of ten (60%) calls, the operative also failed to advise the caller not to use the dryer until it had been repaired or replaced, which could potentially expose a customer to the risk of fire.
Although in six out of ten calls the customer service operator correctly advised the mystery shopper to contact the manufacturer directly, our investigation also raises urgent questions about how Whirlpool-owned brand customer services is handling this safety issue.
In three out of the five calls transferred directly to Whirlpool, the customer service operative incorrectly implied or explicitly stated that there would a charge for repairing the machine
In only one of the five calls calls to Whirlpool did the operator give the caller the correct safety advice, which is to unplug and not use the tumble dryer until it has been modified
The response from Whirlpool to customers is alarming: these are clear breaches of their legal obligations under the safety notice and Whirlpool is breaking product safety law.
Which? is calling on the Office for Product Safety and Standards to take immediate action against Whirlpool and is demanding a full product recall of the affected tumble dryers, both modified and unmodified.
Which? is also calling on retailers to urgently review their procedures for handling unsafe or recalled products, and to ensure customer service representatives are appropriately trained and informed on safety issues and product recalls relating to products they sell.
Alex Neill, Managing Director of Home Products and Services at Which?, said:
“Whirlpool has admitted that there could be at least a million fire-risk tumble-dryers in homes across the UK. To discover that both retailers and Whirlpool are failing to give correct safety information to affected customers is shocking.
“We’ve been asking for these machines to be recalled for two years now and our investigation is yet more evidence that Whirlpool and the Government are not taking people’s safety seriously.”
Notes to Editors
Rights of reply:
A spokesperson for AO.com stated: “At AO, our customers’ safety is of paramount importance. We are surprised by the results of this research. We have contacted Which? for further details of these calls to help us better understand the context of each, so that we can investigate fully.”
A spokesperson for Argos said: “We have processes in place to support customers who call about product safety issues. We have asked Which? to provide the transcripts for the calls so we can understand if process was followed in this case.”
A spokesperson for Co-op Electrical said: “Thank you for bringing this to our attention. We have reminded all colleagues that should they receive any calls of this nature that they are to advise the caller to unplug the appliance. As calls of this kind are extremely rare, we have also advised colleagues to bring them to the immediate attention of senior management.”
Currys PC World
A spokesperson for Currys PC World said: “We are disappointed to hear that Which? found our responses fell short of their benchmarks and have launched an urgent investigation, including asking for more detail from Which? to find out whether we didn’t meet our own high standards. The safety of our customers is our top priority and our support teams have successfully helped thousands of affected Whirlpool customers since this issue first came to light.”
A spokesperson for John Lewis said: “At John Lewis we take product safety and advice very seriously. When official advice was changed about these products at the start of 2017, we issued detailed guidance to all affected customers and also to our contact centres and shop Partners. However we are disappointed that, in this instance, the recent advice given fell short of the high standards we set ourselves. As such, we are ensuring our contact centre Partners are reminded of the process around handling calls relating to this issue.”
Declined to comment
A spokesperson for Whirlpool said: “Whirlpool has no evidence of any such calls and is therefore unable to verify them.
“The instructions Which? claims were provided in these calls bears no resemblance to our advice on this product safety campaign, or the high standards we expect of our call centre staff.
“We take our responsibilities on product safety matters extremely seriously and all members of our customer care team are thoroughly trained to ensure they provide consumers with the correct advice. We have a team of more than 300 professionals dedicated to taking over 3 million calls annually – all of whom take great pride and care in providing advice and assistance to our valued customers.
“Our advice in all our communications is very clear: anyone still in possession of an unmodified dryer affected by this product safety campaign should unplug it and not use it until one of our engineers has carried out the modification.
“Consumers who own Indesit, Hotpoint, Creda, Swan or Proline dryers manufactured between April 2004 and September 2015 should visit https://safety.indesit.eu/, https://safety.hotpoint.eu/ or https://safety-swan.eu and use the interactive model checker to find out if theirs is affected. Alternatively, UK consumers can call our dedicated freephone helpline on 0800 1510905. The booking process is instant and they can select a convenient time for one of our engineers to visit their home free-of-charge to carry out the modification. Consumers contacting us now can receive a resolution within one week.”
Which? has committed to sharing relevant details from the calls with the retailers and with Whirlpool to help them to improve the safety advice they are providing to Whirlpool customers.
Fieldworkers made 12 calls to the customer service line of each of six retailers (AO.com, Argos, Co-op Electricals, Currys PC World, John Lewis, Very/Littlewoods), making 72 calls in total.
Fieldworker says a relative has a Hotpoint or Indesit tumble (both Whirlpool-owned brands with live product safety notices) with the dryer bought from the retailer between two and a half years ago and five years ago. The fieldworker explains that the tumble dryer smells of burning when being used and will ask what their elderly relative should do.
Before the fieldwork began we agreed the preferred process would be for the retailer to ascertain the model number, whereupon the correct answer is:
1) Unplug it immediately and do not use it
Plus at least one of the following key pieces of information:
a) The retailer or manufacturer will arrange a repair
b) The retailer or manufacturer will arrange a replacement (this is unlikely as Whirlpool’s replacement scheme has now officially ended)
c) Retailer offers a full or partial refund
d) The customer should call manufacturer for further advice
Any other response is incorrect and most likely dangerous: none of the 72 calls met these criteria.
Were you told your relative should unplug the tumble dryer immediately?
Yes 11% (8 out of 72 calls)
No 89% (64 out of 72 calls)
Were you told your relative should not use the dryer until it had been repaired or replaced?
Yes 40% (29 out of 72 calls)
No 60% (43 out of 72 calls)
58% were neither told to unplug or not to use (42 out of 72 calls)
Were you told the retailer or manufacturer would arrange a repair?
Yes 39% (28 out of 72 calls)
No 61% (44 out of 72 calls)
Were you told the retailer or manufacturer would arrange a replacement?
Yes 4% (3 out of 72 calls)
No 96% (69 out of 72 calls)
Were you told your relative would be entitled to a refund?
Yes 1% (1 out of 72 calls)
No 99% (71 out of 72 calls)
Were you told to contact the manufacturer for further advice?
Yes 61% (44 out of 72 calls)
No 39% (28 out of 72 calls) – included one told to look at manufacturer’s website
Were you asked for the model number of the tumble dryer?
Yes 10% (7 out of 72 calls)
No 90% (65 out of 72 calls)
17% of calls got the answer “no” to all the questions above (12 out of 72 calls, included all six retailers)
What’s the cost of a repair? (correct answer: free)
16% (6 out of 37 calls where this was asked) said there would not be a charge if it was a manufacturing fault
Can we claim launderette expenses?
45% (9 out of 20 calls) said “no”
50% (10 out of 20 calls) said or indicated “don’t know”
5% (1 out of 20 calls) said “yes”
In addition to the failure to offer the correct safety advice, the investigation also revealed that affected customers are likely to be receiving incorrect or incomplete advice about their consumer rights.
Retailer customer service operatives failed to tell the caller that they were entitled to a repair in six out of ten (61%) cases, and when asked whether there would be a cost for the repair, in only six out of the 37 times this question was asked was the caller given the correct answer, namely that the repair would be free. Furthermore, only in one instance out of 72 calls did the customer service operative tell a caller that the customer would be entitled to a refund, and only 3 were offered a replacement appliance.
Calls put through to manufacturer:
In five cases, the retailer customer services operative transferred our mystery shoppers to the Whirlpool-owned brand (Hotpoint and Indesit) and they continued the call. Below is a summary of these calls:
In three of the five calls the customer service advisor said or implied there would be a charge for the repair.
In only one of the five calls was the mystery shopper told the tumble dryer should be unplugged and not used.
In one of the calls the mystery shopper was told the “belt had probably snapped”
In one of the calls the mystery shopper was told the dryer was safe to use as long as it was not left unattended and the filter was cleaned out
In two of the five calls our mystery shoppers were not asked for a model number.
Product safety law breaches:
Whirlpool is giving advice to consumers which contradicts the terms of the enforcement notice served by Peterborough Trading Standards in February 2017. That warning notice was made in accordance with the General Product Safety Regulations.
Which? Product Safety Campaign:
Which? has launched a campaign to ‘End Dangerous Products’ calling for fundamental reform of the UK’s antiquated product safety regime to keep unsafe products out of our homes. More than 90,000 people have so far signed our petition to take a stand against dangerous products