UK Calling: How should brands respond to avoid costly customer service?

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This week heralded the launch of the UK Calling initiative, something that the UK telecoms regulator has referred to as “the biggest change to telephone calls in over a decade”. Sure enough, the implications of the programme will have huge implications for both customers and companies.

While a previous initiative – last year’s Directive on Consumer Rights - effectively brought an end to the use of premium rate telephone numbers, it didn’t address the actual cost of these calls for other uses.

Callers to 084, 087, 09 and 118 numbers have not generally been told by the service provider how much they will be charged, and many did not realise that some of these numbers were premium rate lines, resulting in unexpected charges.

Ofcom research has indicated that every year, callers in the UK spend a total of 250m hours calling these service numbers, spending around £900m between them.

However, as of 1st July, these issues have been addressed, making landline and mobile charges clearer for calls to service numbers starting 084, 087, 09 and 118, utilising marketing materials and in advertising.

In addition, all Freephone numbers which begin 0800 or 0808 became free for consumers to call from all phones, whether mobile or landline, as part of the UK Calling initiative.

Dave Millett, an independent telecoms adviser, explains: “From 1 July 2015, the cost of calling these types of numbers (known as service numbers), from residential lines and consumer mobiles, will be made up of two parts:

  • An access charge: This goes to your phone company. It will be made clear on bills and when you take out a contract.
  • A service charge: This is the rest of the call charge. The organisation you are calling decides this, and will tell you how much it is.

“It will now be clear how much profit the organisation you are calling is making on your call.  So you can decide: is this the type of organisation I want to do business with?”

Costly for companies?

This move from Ofcom is great news for consumers, but could have a financial and practical impact on any UK business that uses Freephone numbers for inbound calls.

Justin Hamilton-Martin, CEO of Ultracomms, notes: “Businesses will almost certainly see the number of Freephone calls (for which they pay, not the consumer) increase; after all, most of us are using our mobiles more frequently. There is an upside to this of course – such as consumers reacting more spontaneously to promotions that they see while out and about – but apart from additional costs, businesses could also see the overall number of calls increase, thus placing more pressure on customer-facing staff.”

So how can businesses respond to mitigate the impact?

“Speak to the supplier of your 08 or 09 telephone number and ask them to confirm the service charges.  You could be left with a higher bill than you currently incur particularly if you use a 0800 number,” recommends Millett. “It is a good opportunity to decide if you want to keep using these numbers or switch to using Geographic 01/02/03 numbers.

“It is also important to review all marketing literature including websites, TV/radio adverts, point of sale and packaging.  If any of it includes a number beginning 084, 087, 09 or 118, you must ensure that your service charge is clearly displayed wherever you advertise or promote that number. Consumers who paid extra for 0800 calls on their mobile package should ensure that charge is removed from July 1st as they will be free anyway.”

Hamilton-Martin also adds three steps that companies can take to lessen the damage:

  • Migrate to ‘03’ numbers (which cost no more than a national call rate to an 01 or 02 number).
  • Offer customers the option to request a call-back to avoid lengthy hold times).
  • Plus promote other ways to contact a company (live chat for instance).

An opportunity not a burden

However, despite fears about increases in call volumes and potential revenue decreases, there are those that believe UK Calling shouldn’t be viewed as a business threat, but as an opportunity to offer a more positive experience for customers.

“We shouldn’t deny that it is highly possible customers will make more contact with your business to ‘check on things’ as the call is now free. However, technologies have also made it possible so that customers do not need to call the contact centre. Even over the short space of a year, we have seen a significant shift towards self-service – which is empowering customers to help themselves,” notes Dave Ogden, Account Executive at Aspect Software.

“We have seen examples of the success of self-service in sectors such as retail, with the checkout experience becoming well established. Despite studies showing that the process actually takes longer, the experience scores show that it’s preferred, rather than having someone do it for you. This sort of self-service is easily translated into the contact centre industry by offering interactive voice recognition applications that can read back account details, a customer’s latest purchase, an item’s expected delivery date, even offer appointment booking and so on. More calls do not necessarily mean more advisor interactions, if you have the technology and processes to support a customer focused self-service application.

“The number and choice of channels that customers can interact through also means that pressure on the contact centre doesn’t have to increase. In a multichannel contact centre environment, agents have the ability to access customer data and previous interactions, no matter which contact channel is used. This enhances the customer experience as it means customers can be dealt with quickly and through the channel of their choice, improving levels of satisfaction, and decreasing churn as the agent has all the information right in front of them. By offering numerous ways to contact a company, customer service teams will not need to worry about a backlog of calls and can contact their customers in the way that is most convenient for them.”

With similar concerns having arisen in the build-up to the 2014 Directive on Consumer Rights, Ogden believes that the business mentality relating to customer service needs to change.

He concludes: “The idea that interacting with your customers is a chore is the wrong way to look at it, rather than seeing it as a burden, it should be seen as an opportunity. Increased interaction provides your company with a chance to build on your relationships with them, all while gaining and developing more information and solutions about what issues your customers face.”

“Change always provides challenges, however this is not the first time we have seen these type of changes in the industry before and businesses should be more capable than ever before to deal with them. A lot of the issues will arise with businesses who do not adapt and take advantage of the technology they have in front of them; doing this will alleviate a lot of the hassle and improve the whole customer journey, meaning there will be no need to worry about the changes.” 

About Neil Davey

ND

Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 15 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined Sift Media in 2007.

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