Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

What can we do?

This is the last of 5 initial postings by the blog author to provide the background to the blog. Don't forget to scroll down to the bottom and work your way up to get the full picture.

We can all pass comments to the companies that we deal with who use 0845 numbers. I feel that these are more likely to be successful if made politely, with all of the issues clearly described.

However: I think it would be sensible to find out a few things first:

  1. Is any of what I am saying materially inaccurate?

  2. How many people agree with me?

  3. How many disagree?

  4. What other information or opinions are held by those reading this blog?

  5. How many people have read the blog?

  6. What is the strength of feeling?

  7. Are you prepared to take action?

  8. How can we spread the word?

  9. How many supporters are there?

  10. How many can we get?

  11. What are the views on what the issues are for the businesses?

  12. Should we prepare a register of offenders?

  13. How best can we orchestrate our actions?

  14. Is a petition best, or are individual customer complaints better?

I'm sure there's much more, but overall, it will need some time to ferment, if only to spread the word, gain support to a volume likely to have impact and ensure our facts are right.

So, it's over to all of you now to have your say.

All the best


What are the options for businesses?

Basically, there are four possible ways that businesses can offer telephone numbers to their customers:

Advertise their national STD number - As simple as that. Everybody calls that number, and if it's within your included calls period, then it's free. Everybody has the option to keep their call until that time. If this is seen to be a frequent problem, then everybody can opt for an anytime package. If this approach were adopted by all companies, then the anytime package would be a hell of a lot more attractive.

Freephone - e.g. 0800. They pay for this, and it's free to all BT customers. If you have a package from another provider but rent your line seperately from BT, then these would default to BT and so still be free. If you are with a provider that includes your line rental (or it may officially be that the line is free, you only pay for the call package - it amounts to the same thing), then you would need to check your calling plan for how they deal with 0800. I've not done that for anything other than my own plan, so this is an aspect that you may be able to offer more information on. A bit of an empty gesture for customers who could use their inclusive free calling.

Premium rate - in which part of the call charge goes to the business concerned as revenue to them - typically used as the means to pay for gambling, or other pay services when accessed by telephone - often seen on TV competition call lines, or voting lines for TV programmes.

0845 or similar - There are other numbers that work on a similar principle to 0845 - 0870, 0871, 0844, each having a different charge rate to the customer. I feel these are all as undesirable, but as they are not as common as 0845, I have not focussed on them.

There is the option, of course, for a business to offer both of the first two options, as alternatives, so that everybody comes out better off, but they would of course have to review the level of benefit of the freephone option to their customers against the cost to them of providing it, and also, it has significant potential to confuse their customers - without guidance many customers would not know which number to use for their best advantage.

For anybody who wants to look at these options in more detail, here is a link to the BT web page.

Why do businesses still use 0845?

So, as far as I can see,the only people who really benefit from these 0845 numbers are BT. Admittedly, for those customers who are still with BT on their unlimited weekends or unlimited evenings and weekends packages, if there is no option but to call during non-inclusive time (week-day/daytime) then there is a slight reduction in call charge - it really is quite a small reduction which is why BT uses its mealy-mouthed words in the marketing of the numbers to businesses. However, bearing in mind the high proportion of businesses employing 0845 that offer 7-day, 24 hour, or extended hours service, the alternative for those who are on these packages, if the businesses reverted to national STD numbers would be to make the calls during their inclusive period, and after all, when you make your buying decision as to which call package to choose, that surely is one of the main impacts of the decision that you take - that you will keep your calls until those periods. Whether or not that is true, it doesn't seem fair, to me, that customers who are on inclusive packages that would cover the cost of a call to a national std number shoul subsidise those who can make the small gain described by BT. The cynic in me says this is a red herring and that the main factor is BT's attempt to gain the extra revenue from what was originally meant to save costs to customers.

So why do businesses still use 0845 numbers?

Well, I don't know the true answer for certain but I can put forward a number of possibilities. I'd be interested to know whether anybody can either suggest other reasons, dismiss some of these possibilities, or even has some knowledge that would indicate which of these possibilities is likely to be correct. I feel it is important to understand the reasons so that we can develop action plans that are likely to succeed. Some of these ideas may well operate in combination - e.g. it could well be a combination of 1, 2 & 3. Equally, some of them are just slightly different ways of saying the same thing, but better to document them all, even if they can be grouped together:

  1. It's the way they've always done it.

  2. Ignorance of the issues

  3. Ignorance of the alternatives

  4. Too lazy to do anything about it

  5. Unaware of how customers are affected (lack of empathy)

  6. It's not important enough for them

  7. Have never received any complaints from customers

  8. (because) Customers are unware or have not recognised the issues

  9. The company does not want their location identified by publishing their std code. *

  10. They still think that it comes cheaper for customers

  11. They think that an 0845 number will be easier to remember

  12. They are deliberately trying to create the impression that they are being customer friendly, hoping that folk will believe that is still the function of 0845

*with regard to number 9, I know of at least one instance, namely Lloyds TSB, where they list, on their documents the customer service number as an 0845 number, but then list their national number in international (0044) format for callers calling form overseas. If you have knowledge of international numbering protocol this tells you the correct national code.

Defining the Problem

Most people in the UK are now signed up to some form of telephone service that has an inclusive calls package, even if it is just evenings and weekends. These packages usually include free calls at the specified times to all landline numbers. They may include other types of call, but rarely if ever include the cost of calls to 0845 numbers.

However, numerous companies, especially national ones, only provide 0845 numbers as their contact telephone numbers, especially for their "customer service" contact. This means that all calls to those companies incur a charge over and above the charge for your call package.

The effect of this is worsened still further when that number takes you to a call routing/queuing system, where charges are incurred during the (not insignificant) time during which you are taken through numerous option selection menus, and can become huge if that is followed by music on hold waiting periods.

The irony of this whole state of affairs is that 0845 was originally introduced by BT in roughly 1988 (give or take a couple of years) as a means of allowing companies to offer local rate calls to their customers rather than requiring them to call the (then) more expensive "trunk" rate number of a national STD number. The use of the number incurred (and still does) a charge to the business using it, which was, at that time, intended as a way of the business picking up the cost that would otherwise have been picked up by the customer. This was introduced for those companies that wanted to make a customer-friendly gesture to their customers, particularly suited to companies offering centralised call centres.

Now, as we all know, call centres have since proliferated since that time, and along with them, the use of 0845 has also done so. However, during the last few years, with the increased liberalisation of retail telecoms, and the increased competition that has come with it, there are now very few, if any, packages that do not have inclusive call costs to any national telephone number (i.e. the very numbers that they were trying to avoid when 0845 was introduced) for at least some of the time, and if you have opted for a anytime package, then dialing the straight national STD number will always be free.

Consequently, this means that those companies that continue to offer 0845, rather than publish their national STD number are causing their customers to incur call charges, above and beyond their call package, that they would otherwise not have to incur.

The additional irony of this is that the companies are also having to pay for this privilege, one that actually increases their customer's costs rather than decreasing them. BT tries to sell this option to businesses with the statement that "Callers now always pay lower than the cost of a standard call on BT's most popular residential package, Unlimited Weekend Plan." The point that is missed by that statement is that, even on that package, this standard call rate is only chargeable in the week, and for BT customers who select the unlimited anytime package, they would not have to pay for standard calls, so they will always pay more. It also misses the point that more and more people are taking their call packages from other companies than BT.

So if both business and customer are paying more, then why are companies still using these numbers? Good question - read the next post.

Starting a campaign

New to blogging and driven to start this one in protest against the use of 0845 numbers by numerous businesses for their customer service or other general communication. Bear with me if my novice status shows.

I'm hoping that by this small beginning a movement will develop to use protest, customer pressure, etc. to cause companies to cut out their use of 0845 numbers.

It is my intention to introduce my reasons for starting the campaign, background etc., in other postings, and to develop the subject step by step, interactively when appropriate.

Once the basic situation hsa been outlined, I hope we will move on to identifying possible ways to orchestrate action, monitor progress, etc. - possibly including a "register" of offenders and results.

Please read on.