Companies urged to scrap costly customer service lines

By Marianne Curphey

Calling customer service for any company is never fun, and costly charges make them even less so. But high street banks, credit card companies and insurers are being urged to scrap premium rate inquiry and complaint lines after a study by Which? magazine found that almost three quarters of companies surveyed offer costly 084 or 087 inquiry and complaint numbers. phone-charges

The study found that 73% of customer or complaint lines for financial services -- such as current accounts, loans and credit cards -- were premium-rate numbers. It also found that the companies often offered new customers freephone numbers while existing customers had to pay to call.

Barclays and Barclaycard now offer a freephone or basic rate number for all customer help lines, and NatWest and RBS now offer basic rate 0345 numbers for general enquiries and a freephone number for complaints.

NatWest and RBS say this move could save you around £2 for every call you make to the bank from a mobile, based on average call length. You can use 0345 numbers as part of your mobile package minutes, meaning your calls are more likely to be free; complaint calls are always free. 

An RBS representative says RBS has been working on this for over a year, with the intention of making it cheaper for customers.

"Customers do get in touch with us to give feedback on a wide range of issues and it was the right thing to make that easier for them to do."

The British Bankers' Association (BBA) says all banks are actively looking at how they can reduce costs for customers.

"We expect to see many banks changing to use local numbers for complaints in the near future, and it is good to see that some banks have already committed to doing so," says a BBA representative.

The EU Consumer Rights Directive ban on the use of expensive numbers for customer help lines comes into force next year, excluding financial firms.

Tony Weiss, managing director of Talk4Less, says there are a number of ways that customers could avoid paying premium rates to call their banks or credit card providers:

  • Look for an alternative normal landline number beginning 01, 02 or 03 by going to www.saynoto0870.com, entering the premium rate number and requesting an alternative number.
  • Look on company websites, as they often give an alternative contact number.
  • Ask the company to call you back on your mobile so its landline number may show up on your caller ID.
  • Try using the number given out to customers calling from abroad -- it is often a landline number.
  • Avoid automated menus, which can take several minutes to navigate. Go to www.pleasepress1.com, which will save you time and money by showing you the sequence of buttons to press in advance without having to wait for each automated message.

"It is possible for people to save money on expensive calls and premium rate numbers," says Weiss. "It's common for banks, insurance companies, credit card companies, airlines and large organisations to have an expensive 0844 number which they publicise and on which they get a rebate on every single call."

He said that even if the company received 0.5p for every call made on a premium number, it adds up to a substantial sum if the firm is receiving hundreds of thousands of calls.

"Try calling the sales line, which often starts with 0800 and is free when you call from a landline," he says.  "It does seem rather unfair that these companies are making extra money out of people ringing up with enquiries or complaints."

Which? says that some numbers -- such as 0844 or 0871 -- are typically expensive to call, regardless of your phone operator, and they are never covered by any "inclusive" calls or minutes you have as part of your mobile or landline deal. The magazine says if the company has a geographic number for its head office, try ringing that and ask to be put through to customer services. You can also try dialling the sales number and ask to be put through to the relevant department.

See related: Could a card fee cap mean the end of free banking?, Does the surcharge ban go far enough?

Published: 3 December 2013