Which? uncovers dialling code costs and confusionCostly call centre helplines frustrate callers

21 December 2010

Costly call centre helplines are frustrating and confusing

Costly call centre helplines can be frustrating and confusing

Which? has found that the cost of a call to big banking, broadband and utility providers can exceed the £2 mark before you even get to speak to a real person. 

It's no secret that lengthy call waiting times to company helplines can leave callers frustrated and out of pocket, so in October and November Which? made 500 calls to leading broadband, utility and banking providers to investigate the extent of the problem.

While the overall average call waiting time to speak to an advisor was less than two minutes, even this length of call can cost more than 50p from a mobile phone. And Which? also found there was a big difference between the best and worst companies. 

Longest and shortest calls

One call to BT's helpline clocked up more than 13 minutes in waiting time, and Scottish and Southern Energy and Lloyds bank both kept Which? researchers waiting longer than 10 minutes on at least one call. 

In contrast, both Natwest and Npower answered in a snappy 16 seconds on one of their calls. 

Overall, broadband providers kept Which? researchers waiting the longest on average, while utilities companies had the shortest average waiting time. 

The high cost of calling

Which? also found that call costs are confusing, so knowing how much you'll be charged for your call isn't easy. Companies use a range of different dialling codes, and even for the same dialling code, call charge rates vary greatly depending on your phone operator and whether you're calling from a landline or a mobile. 

Sky, for example, had the longest average wait of all broadband providers at over five minutes and uses an expensive 0844 number. This would set you back 41p from a BT landline, but charges by other providers - such as Virgin Media - may be higher. The same call wait would cost £1.35 from an O2 pay-as-you-go mobile. 

One call made to Lloyds Bank would have cost Which? researchers more than £2.50 from an O2 pay-as-you-go mobile before even speaking to a real person, thanks to an 0845 dialling code and a wait time of more than ten minutes. 

You can find out more about the likely cost of calling different dialling codes in the free Which? guide to cheap alternatives to 0870 and 0845 calls.

Chaotic call costs

Mobile charges are almost always higher than from landlines, so if you end up having to make a call when you're out and about, it could quickly add up. Although 0800 numbers are free from landlines, you'll typically pay 25p a minute to call them from mobiles. 

And you might automatically assume that 0845, 0870 and 0844 numbers will be more costly than standard calls, and as a general rule you'd be right. But confusingly, Which? found there are exceptions. If your provider is BT, outside of a call plan it's actually cheaper to call an 0845 number at peak times than it is to call a standard UK landline number starting 01, 02 or 03.

Phone numbering system needs overhaul

Which? phone expert Ceri Stanaway says: 'We believe that, where possible, providers should use low-cost phone numbers for their helplines - after all, you often have to call them because of a problem with the service so it seems unfair that you should have to pay through the nose for the privilege. 

'We commend companies that have opted for the lower-cost 0800 or 01 numbers for their general customer service helplines - in our research, these included British Gas, BT, EDF, Natwest and Scottish and Southern - but given the increasing number of mobile-only homes in the UK we want to see 0800 numbers being free from mobiles too. We were pleased to see that this was part of a recently announced consultation by phone regulator Ofcom.

'We'd also like to see Ofcom push forward its proposals to simplify the UK phone numbering system, as the current chaotic and inconsistent pricing of numbers is unnecessary and unhelpful, making it impossible for callers to predict the cost of calls.'

Top tips to beat the call centre

Which? has the following advice to minimise call centre frustration:

  • Check online - most companies have good websites and many have live chat or email support. If you have no choice but to call, for example if the reason you're calling is to report that your broadband service is down, make sure you have any reference numbers or details to hand to keep call lengths to a minimum.
  • Check call costs - make sure you know how much your phone provider charges to call non-standard numbers. Avoid calling them from mobiles if possible.
  • Call centre cheats - try calling a company's sales line rather than the customer service line - this may get you through quicker and on a cheaper number.
  • Use an alternative number - www.saynoto0870.com gives cheaper alternatives to expensive phone numbers. 

If you've got your own tips for tricks to beat the call centre, or simply want to vent your frustration at an unnecessarily lengthy call, join the call centre debate on Which? Conversation.  

How to follow the latest Which? Tech news

Are you a Twitter user? Follow WhichTech on Twitter for regular tech tweets.

Prefer RSS? Don't miss a thing with the Which? tech RSS feed

For just the main headlines in newsletter form, sign-up to our weekly Which? tech email.

Apple iPad 2 3G data plans compared - find the best 3G plan for your iPad
Best Android tablets round-up - we look at the best iPad alternatives around
Best cheap laptops for under £500 - find the best laptop deals