Monday, 28 April 2008

My BT Consultancy

The story so far: This month BT increased its evening call costs by 2000%. It kept the hefty price hike pretty secret (tucked away in the small print) while shouting about its new free weekend calls offer. As a shareholder I emailed Chief Executive Ben Verwaayen to point out that, when they discovered the truth, this sneaky change would cost millions of customers. He emailed straight back, not once, but twice.

BT customers can avoid the worst of the new charges by signing up for a 12 month contract and paper-free billing. But BT has botched it - not many customers know about the deal and BT's own staff can't explain how it works. No wonder customers are leaving in their droves.

Emailing the company chief executive isn't just target practice. A whack on the bulls eye and you pack up and move on. My mission isn't to waste the valuable time of the people who can actually do something. You can write and phone customer service as much as you like - you may get some personal joy - but you are very unlikely to change the way the company behaves in future.

BT's Chief Executive; Mr Verwaayen, or Ben as he signs himself, promised me:

"we will learn from your email, believe me"

It's a BIG promise, but it seems he really did mean it. Since Ben's reply I have been swapping emails with Anthony Vollmer, General Manager Voice Propositions. He describes himself as the manager in charge of the recent price changes. In his first email he agreed that BT needs to be clearer about price changes in future, he also agrees that when customers sign new contracts they must be told when they take effect - and that customer services should be able to give clear answers when asked direct questions.

I emailed him back to congratulate him on his clear, straight-forward answers to my criticism and suggest that his own example be applied to all communication with customers. I wrote:

"If you had come clean and revealed (in your letter to customers) that evening call costs were increasing dramatically - but customers could now make evening calls for free (instead of 5p) in exchange for a 12 month contract - I think many customers would have accepted that. Your letter already goes to some trouble to explain how customers can avoid the rental increase by opting for paper-free billing"

I also sent him a copy of my blog entry about Scottish and Southern Energy's attempt to poach BT customers confused by the new prices. Naturally he was alarmed. But he also assured me;

"the level of sign-ups among BT customers to the free weekend and evening deal is very encouraging"

I replied with a report from the Independent - according to BT 640,000 customers had signed up. This is less than 6% of the 10 million customers affected by the price increase. I noted that judging from online comments made about the article many BT customers were now looking for a new phone provider. I suggested that BT should launch a TV and press advertising campaign to tell BT customers that they could benefit from free evening calls too - simply by signing up for 12 months.

Today Mr Vollmer has emailed again. Apparently BT will now be writing to some customers, and advertising the deal throughout the summer.

"As you say its clearly in our interest that customers know about the deal"

BT would also like me to give their fair trading department a witness statement about the sales call I received from Scottish and Southern:

"There is of course there is no obligation whatsoever for you to do this"

BT's marketing mistake will probably cost it dearly. When the bills go out next quarter and customers realise they've been charged a small fortune for calls they thought cost 5p they won't be happy and they'll be open to rival offers. The Independent report quotes £30m as the likely amount of extra evening call revenue. I wonder how many of BT's 10 million former Option 1 subscribers you have to lose before that extra revenue becomes a net loss?

I have to admit I'm surprised BT took my complaint so seriously and at such a high level. They've emailed me not once, but half a dozen times in an on-going dialogue. I hope my unpaid consultancy has been valuable.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Shopping the Slowdown

A lot of stuff is being written about how to be thrifty now the economy is going tits up.

This week the Office of Fair Trading has raided leading supermarkets to seize evidence of price fixing. Some cynics say this is a government organised smokescreen to cover up the real problem - not price fixing - but runaway inflation. Some estimates put food inflation at 15%.

Buying everything in one large store makes us fair game. Convenience has a cost, but sometimes you'll pay 200% or even 400% more.

This morning I went shopping. I went to Homebase, Wickes and Poundland. Poundland has a new poster in the window. 'Beat Inflation - we've charged the same price since 1990'. Yes, everything in store is still a pound. Among the end of lines and own branded everyday items (tools, stationery, cleaning, electrical accessories) are real savings. You can buy a pack of 2x mains voltage halogen light bulbs for £1.

A pack of 6x mains voltage Halogen bulbs in Homebase Essentials range costs £11.99 (same price at Wickes). Don't be fooled by the Homebase 'budget' style packaging. That's a staggering 4x the Poundland price.

I also wanted some garden compost. At Homebase 2 x 100L bags are on offer for £10. Or 4 x 50L bags are £12. Yes same product, same amount, higher price. OK so the 50L bags are easier to carry and require more packaging. But you could also argue that Homebase also hopes customers can't do their maths and that 4 bags look like a better deal than 2. That's £2 or 20% extra profit thanks.

At Wickes 75L of compost is £3.98 or 4 sacks for £10. That's 300L for the same price as 200L in Homebase - or if you prefer the language used by shops '50% extra free!' But I didn't want 4 sacks, just 2. I hoped I might find another similarly savvy shopper to spilt the special buy 4 offer with. But I didn't have to. A couple of sacks were slightly split. The manager told me he was marking them down to £2.50. 'That's the same equivalent price as buying 4' I pointed out. 'You're right' he said, 'you can have them for £2
each. Now I have 150L of compost (give a tiny bit which is still on the store floor) for £4 - equivalent to an extra 25% discount from the manager.

The real truth is most shoppers can't remember, or be bothered to work out the price of things they buy.

Which is the better deal '3 for 2' or '50% extra free?' **

The supermarkets made sure we couldn't remember the prices years ago - when they introduced barcode scanning. In the 1970's every item on the shelf had a price sticker. I had a Supermarket Saturday job. When prices increased all the tins were taken out the back and we had to peel the stickers off. Today the supermarkets just change the label on the shelf front and update the computerised tills. There was another effect of removing the price labels too - when we used products at home the price was stuck to the packaging. The cost became faniliar, ingrained. When we went shopping again we noticed if the price had increased.

I think one reason I remember prices is not because I am mathematically blessed (I'm not) but because back in 1978 when I operated the checkout at now defunct Key Markets we had to enter every individual price on every sticky label. It became a point of pride among us bored students to try and memorise every price in the store. Somehow it made the dullest of jobs more interesting; it's a game which has saved me thousands and thousands of pounds since the seventies. Its a trick we can all profit from.

** '3 for 2' '50% extra free' - they're the same saving.

Friday, 25 April 2008

The Financial Ombudsman - once bitten

It's not often your phone call starts at the top - but if you phone the Financial Ombudsman that's exactly what happens!

A few years ago I made a complaint to the Insurance Ombudsman. He found in my favour and awarded an extra £500 to my claim against a car insurance company. At the end of the process The Ombudsman himself phoned me to ask about my experience of complaining. The Ombudsman was Walter Merricks.

Today Walter Merricks' professional diligence has landed him the high office of Financial Ombudsman. If you phone the Financial Ombudsman service it is Mr Merricks' own voice which greets you; explaining how he and his colleagues can help. It's a simple but effective method of proving to callers that his is not a faceless bureaucracy.

The Financial Ombudsman considers complaints from consumers about financial products from pensions to investments; bank charges to endowments. He has the power to make companies which sell these products stick to the rules and put things right if they break them.

I've won one, lost one with the Ombudsman. Both my complaints were about endowment selling. The first complaint took over a year because Abbey - the bank who sold the endowment (to this then financially naive 24 year old) - refused 90% of all complaints. Then the regulator, the Financial Services Authority, hit them with a record £800m fine and the bank reviewed its previous decisions in a new, more favourable light.

My second complaint took two years. I made it on behalf of a friend. After reading the file from the company who sold this endowment it seemed clear they advised buying it mainly for the almost £2000 commission they would be paid by the provider - not because it was the cheapest way to repay the mortgage. The Ombudsman didn't agree. Last month I discovered some new evidence and asked the Ombudsman to re-open the case. This time I wrote to Mr. Merricks personally.

Today a case worker telephoned on Mr Merricks behalf. After reviewing the case 'we're sorry' but The Ombudsman is still unable to uphold the complaint. Even though some of the 'facts' in the Financial Adviser's Advice Letter are wrong - it doesn't follow that his entire advice to buy an endowment becomes 'mis-selling'.

Naturally I am disappointed, getting hold of all the paperwork and writing the complaint took ages. But I'm a bit cross too. The Financial Adviser tells some lies (a repayment mortgage would have been cheaper than an endowment) but because he does correctly spell out the terms of the product he is selling correctly, that lets him off the hook. He's £2000 richer, his financially inexperienced client is much poorer, although now a little wiser.

Recently the financial services industry has come in for a huge, and largely justified slagging off. Complaints about endowments. Complaints about the high level of charges made by banks when customers go overdrawn. Complaints about payment protection insurance premiums added to loans which borrowers could never claim on (the self-employed for instance).

As customers we get the financial system we deserve. We owe it to ourselves to read the small print and ask all the questions - no matter how dumb they might seem. Why do we ask more questions about purchases which cost a few pounds than decisions which cost thousands? Our naivety is making unscrupulous salesmen rich. Walter Merricks can't protect us from ourselves.

When I was 24 the Abbey salesman told me that my endowment policy would produce a huge cash surplus and pay off my mortgage. Great! He gave me charts showing huge bonus payouts for every single one of the 20 previous years. The evidence was compelling and I believed him. Did I understand it? No. It was lunchtime, I had made an offer on a flat and I needed a mortgage. A big cash bonus in 25 years time as well? Fantastic, where do I sign?

Today the endowment I brought won't even repay the original loan.
Today I ask a lot more questions - about everything.

BMI - Not so very rewarding

BMI advertises itself as the more rewarding airline. But is the claim true?

Regular readers will know I often fly London to Glasgow. Recently BMI wrote to offer me a reward for my loyalty. Simply complete 6 flights in the qualifying period and BMI would give me £50 off a flight taken before 6 July.

Yesterday BMI emailed me the voucher. Some new conditions had appeared in the lengthy Terms and Cond
itions. Now the flight must be taken before 22 June. Also I must book via the call centre (not online) and ominously the new wording 'surcharges may apply when booking through the call-centre' have appeared too. This is annoying, because all the qualifying flights were booked electronically. British Airways has also recently sent me a reward voucher - it can be used online with no additional fees. Finally BMI's shortening of the redemption period (from 6 July to 22 June) is pure dishonesty.

Anyway I pick out the return flights I want online - they are £77. Then I dial BMI reservations. That's when it all starts to go wrong. There is no record of my qualifying for the £50 discount. I must email customer services. I refuse, I'd like to speak to a supervisor. Eventually after 30 minutes on hold my claim is found an
d I can book - BUT the same flights now cost £116.40 a whopping £39.40 more expensive than I could have booked for cash online before I picked up the phone. So my £50 saving is reduced to just £10.60. This is partly because the outbound flight has gone up by 30 quid and because BMI have added another £10 for insisting I book via the reservations centre (so actually BMI's reward of £50 is only worth £40 - if its compulsory to pay an additional £10 administration fee). The 30 minutes call to an 0870 number also cost £2.40. So now the voucher saving is a paltry £8.20.

Persevering, but referring to the online booking pages on my screen at home,I pick out flights which now cost £86.40 online and which BMI will sell me for £96.40 on the phone. So the trip I was expecting to pay £27 for costs me £46.40 and 45 minutes of my valuable time.

Most people tell me they are wary of promotions. Apparently the small print usually wipes out most of the promised benefit...really?

Thanks BMI, I feel so rewarded.

Marketing rewards are designed to be complicated. Recently Harrods wrote to me with a privileged and special invitation to join their posh rewards scheme. They sent me an elegant laminated black card which they said was pre-loaded with fifty pounds towards my next purchase.

There is no minimum spend, I can't use it for food, and it expires at the end of the month. I re-read the letter half a dozen times looking for the catch. I googled the card and the offer, convinced it must be a spoof. I couldn't find any sign of a scam. They say if an offer seems to good to be true, then it isn't. Sending out free cash in the post? Come on. The money problem pages are full of such horror stories. Finally there was only one thing left to do; try using the Reward in store. I'm not a Harrods regular, but I had a meeting nearby. I had a strategy too - designed to flush out any catch quickly - before I set my heart on something I didn't need. I would go straight to the Molton Brown counter and ask if they took the Harrods Reward card.

'Yes, have you been sent a letter' the friendly (and very attractive) girl enquires.
Taken aback I confirm I have. 'So its valid against a purchase?'
' Yes, it works just like a gift card.'

I scout the store and find a branch of HMV. They take the Harrods Reward card too. As the shiny black card is swiped in exchange for two over-priced DVD box sets I feel a bit dishonest, to be honest with you.
'That's fifty pounds please' says the assistant handing back the card. 'Isn't the payment on the card?' I ask hesitantly.
Finally I've been scammed.
'Oh sorry, yes of course'. She swipes the card again, and hands back the card along with a bag containing the DVDs.
Or not scammed.

As I pass the Molton Brown counter again on the way out the helpful (pretty) girl smiles. I make a tiny purchase, she gives me some free samples and asks if I have a Reward card. I hand it over with my cash, and she swipes it. Alarm bells don't sound. I'm not arrested by the security men who patrol every entrance.

Yes it's a lovely visit to Harrods, but it makes no sense. I'm even more puzzled after visiting the store than before. Finally I conclude Amex have passed on my details as a high rolling card holder. I spent nearly every penny I could on my Amex card last year to get 2 free BA business class flights (see previous post Rewarding Debt). Amex has recently signed a deal to provide Harrods new Amex Brown card. I can only guess that's also how I've just come to own 2 over-priced DVD box sets for nowt. Strangely enough it doesn't feel as good as I hoped.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

BBC Licence Fee 'It's all in the database'

Television Licensing (run mainly by Capita on behalf of the BBC) is running a new advertising campaign to frighten people into paying their TV licence.

A colour TV licence costs £139.50 - payable under law, if you own a TV, video recorder or set top box.

"Your town. Your Street. Your Home. They're all in the database"

The new campaign's tag line is: 'It's all in the database'. It's a bold line considering the bad publicity surrounding loss of personal data by large organisations recently. Of course the Big Brother notion is designed to be menacing.

What the TV Licensing campaign doesn't tell you is exactly what's in this 'database'.

In fact its just a list of every UK address!

TV Licensing works on the principle that every UK household has a TV - 29.5 million homes - unless you can prove otherwise. There are 25 million licences in force which means they write to the other 4.5 million address repeatedly until they get a satisfactory reason as to why you don't own a TV. If you don't reply, eventually they send round an inspector. Write back and say you don't have a TV and they'll send round an inspector anyway - to check you're not telling porkies.

So 'It's all in the database' means simply - we've got a list of all the addresses in the UK.

It costs £133m a year to collect the Licence Fee (which goes exclusively to the BBC, they receive £3.2b a year from it). Last year £10.7m was spent on postage - writing to the 4.5m homes without a TV licence.

TV Licensing send out 60 million letters a year. It is about the most un-scientific method of detection imaginable.

Last year there were over 31,000 complaints made to TV Licensing from harrassed members of the public.

TV Licensing simply uses 5 escalating levels of threatening letter addressed to 'The Occupant' to pursuade you to pay up. They claim to catch an average of 1,000 unlicensed people a day - 365,000 a year. The BBC won't say how many are actually prosecuted.

So now you know what 'It's all in the database' means. They've got a list of addresses.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Now Dixons Chief Exec emails back - its catching on..

The story so far: I have been trying to get the new CEO of Dixons to explain to me why shopping at Dixons doesn't work.

9.45 pm update: I forwarded a copy of my last post to Dixons Chief Executive so that he could discover why the company is losing customers.

TIP: Remember if you're emailing the Chief Executive do it at the weekend or late at night if you want a personal reply (see previous post - Chief Executives love their Blackberries).

This time (and almost immediately) Dixons CEO emailed me a personal (although perhaps little over-used) reply;

I am not sure what I can say. I get a lot of approaches that I cannot directly reply. What I do is read all the complaints sent to me and I am using them to help work out how to fix the business.

My apologies that I have not been able to correspond directly on your issues.

Yours sincerely


Well, fair play, he is using complaints to 'help work out how to fix the business' and he's still reading his email at nearly 10 at night.

Unfortunately judging from my experience the business is unfix able, so Mr Browett should put his Blackberry aside and get some sleep. The sale of technology products is based on 2 fundamentals - price and knowledgeable service. Dixons group don't do either. They can't even run a web store successfully - despite their enormous buying power. What they do offer is a high street showroom where canny shoppers can go and see in the flesh the product they plan to buy cheaper online. In store their sales staff treat the customer with little more than contempt.

Contrast with John Lewis. JL has realised they can't compete with online retailers on price alone - but they can offer knowledgeable customer service and free extended warranties. So you might just leave the store with the product anyway; confident that if things go wrong John Lewis will still be there to help. Try taking something back to Curry's or PC World - or just take a look at the queue at the PC World 'Tech guys' counter - that should convince you you'd be better off shopping anywhere else.

Anyway in fairness to the Dixons chief executive - who's burning the midnight oil trying to work out how to fix the business, I reply:

Thank you for your immediate reply. Your personal directness and openness is exactly what customers want to hear when things go wrong - not some more nonsense.
Good luck with the enormous challenges you face. You are clearly fully focusing your energy on them.

you're a frustrated Dixons, Curry's, PC world customer perhaps you'd like to send him your suggestions on how to 'fix the business'. His email address is hard to find, so here it is:

Late at night is the best time to catch him, but please be gentle; he's probably had a long day.

Another Profit Warning from Dixons

The company which owns Dixons, Currys and PC World is losing customers. Perhaps this is why...

Just after Easter - almost a month ago, I emailed the Chief Executive of DSG International electrical group to tell him why shopping with Dixons doesn't work. Dixons Tax Free prices aren't what they claim and Dixons website is unable to fulfill my order for some recordable DVD's.

After a couple of weeks I had to remind him about my email. Then last week Dixons parent company issued its second profit warning since Christmas. It seems that other shoppers share my unwillingness to spend any more of their hard pressed cash with the Dixons group (Dixons, Currys, PC World).

So Dixons response to my complaint is enlightening. Unlike Ben Verwaayen BT's Chief executive who personally replied to my email last week, Mr John Browett (formerly of Tesco, and DSGI's bright new signing) has someone from 'Executive Correspondence' deal with my complaint.

Their patronising attitude may explain why the groups' tills have stopped jangling. To paraphrase the letter - Currys can sell end of line products at whatever price they like (even if that means the 'High Street' price is cheaper than the 'Tax Free' price at the airport). "On all current lines we will offer the same price minus the equivalent of VAT".

Actually on this point The Executive Correspondence unit is wrong. The Tax Free price is actually the price before VAT is added (14.9% discount - not minus the 17.5% they would have you assume).

Oh and finally and if I want to talk about my order with Dixons Memory Direct I can phone them up.

Currys, Dixons, PC World's contempt for their customers can be found in abundance on web forums. The for example has numerous PC World customers explain why the company, like the products it sells, is destined to become obsolete.

Tonight I emailed John Browett back with a copy of this post and an instruction to cancel my DVD order with Dixons Memory Direct - which 8 weeks after clicking 'confirm order' I'm still waiting for.

Cheaper than BT - Scottish and Southern sells mis-information

I'm registered with the Telephone Preference Service and I always 'opt out' from receiving marketing calls - even from companies I buy from. So when I get 'cold called' at home I want to know why.

Today Southern Energy Gas and Electric called me. I buy my gas and electricity from them and now they want to sell me my home phone. When it comes to energy they are top for customer service and very competitive on price. But as a telephone provider well, let's see...

It's a surprise for the badly briefed sales operator that (following my recent spat with BT) that I'm so up to date on the price of BT's calling plans.

Southern Energy are 'much cheaper than BT' gushes the young salesman. 'We've rented lines wholesale and are renting them on to you much cheaper than BT want us to - and our call packages are much cheaper too'.

Once the Southern Energy salesman explains their line rental is £10.49 a month and evening and weekend calls just £2.49 a month I tell him this is actually more expensive than BT - if you sign up for a 12 month contract (rental £10.50 with paper free billing - and free evening and weekend calls). He is taken aback and confused.

I ask for my call to be transferred to his manager. I ask the team leader to repeat the sales proposition so I can discover whether the problem is with the sales script or the salesman. It's the script.

Clearly Southern Energy hasn't done its homework - and is misleading BT customers into believing that their offer is cheaper. I ask to speak to a senior manager. I explain my concern that their sales script is misleading and factually incorrect. He says they are cheaper than BT's 'Standard service'. I reply that there is no 'standard BT service', all BT customers are on one of 3 calling plans - unlimited free weekend, unlimited free evening and weekend or an inclusive paid for plan. I want an explanation. He promises to phone me back within the hour.

An hour later, true to his word, he phones back. He assures me that if their initial sales call is successful it is put through to the 'verification' team in Portsmouth where additional questions are asked. He stresses that the sales team must ask all the questions to establish what a prospective customer's existing contract is before making any claims over savings. He agrees that BT is cheaper for the contract I have described and assures me that the entire sales team has been re-briefed as a result of my call. (To close, I point out that I am opted out from receiving marketing calls from Southern Energy and registered with the TPS, so their sales call is also a breach of the Data Protection Act).

During my wait for a call back I checked the Ofcom website. The regulator is investigating 'Slamming' and mis-selling of home phone contracts and wants to hear from people called by Tesco Telecoms and Economy Calls Ltd. Ofcom is also conducting a wider consultation of home phone contracts and the fairness of additional charges (like cancellation, direct debit discounts, itemised billing). So to conclude, I decide to call them. At least if Southern Energy doesn't do what it promises then the regulator is alerted (after all I'm not going to be receiving any more sales calls from Southern Energy again, ever).

Friday, 18 April 2008

Why UK trains will never work

Why is buying a cheap train ticket so difficult?

I've just been trying to book a ticket for a train journey from Norwich to London. Never mind that on Sunday half of the distance will be covered by a phenomenon well known to British rail travellers - 'a bus replacement service'. There's no mystery about this - it means you pay to go by train, but end up on the bus.

Anyway without access to the online booking facilities I resort to old technology. The Yellow pages and a phone. National Rail enquiries talk me through the timetable, but can't sell a ticket without transferring my call. Then they cut me off.

The Trainline puts me through to a voice recognition computer. After many attempts it manages to translate my journey into a language it can understand. This involves me barking at it. After pressing '1' I can now buy this ticket. Transferred to a real person at a call centre in India he asks me what train I want to travel on. So the voice recognition procedure was just designed to drive up premium rate call revenue...

After checking with my partner I call back to book the £12 ticket quoted. I manage to short-circuit part of the voice recognition trial, but not all of it. Finally I'm back in India (when did UK workers become so expensive that we had to outsource everything?). Yes the heavily discounted £12 ticket is still available. So we get onto the credit card details when he suddenly says - no that ticket's no longer available. What about the £16 first class advance I ask (train fares in the UK are sold like airline tickets, first come very cheap, come late - very dear. No it makes no sense) No the £16 is not available either. The next available fare is £40. I know that this is the maximum price. This makes me sceptical. I know there are lots of price points between the cheapest and the most expensive.

I ask to be transferred to the operators supervisor. He tries to dissuade me but I am persistent (really? no, you surprise me). The manager says that the system isn't responding. The ticket may be available if I call back in half an hour - or try and book online.

So The Trainline will happily sell me a full price ticket for £40 but if I want to buy a cheap ticket I must try again. I explain that this is fraudulent and the Trainline operators are misleading customers into believing that all the cheap tickets are sold - when they are not.

Exasperated with old technology I go to the library in the Norfolk village I'm staying to use the free Internet access (thank goodness for libraries - I love them). I try the Trainline website - loads of ticket options are on offer for much less than £40. None of them can be booked. I try via National Express East Anglia's website. It diverts me to The Trainline.

Finally telephoning National Express East Anglia yields a ticket at the mythical £12 (£28 cheaper than available from The Trainline fraudsters - this is the same train, same seat).

So the whole booking process has cost about £3 in phone calls and taken 2 hours. To drive their 5 hour 10 minute journey in my own car from A - B with no bus replacement and without the 2 extra changes of transport takes 3 hours. Which is why the UK trains will never work.

I should confess at this point that it's not me taking the journey, but my partner. She also made the final call I describe. The journey time had also extended 30 minutes from the one I was quoted. The helpful UK based National Express East Anglia operator explained the bus bit was 'chaos' and they had to revise the route. I wonder if this is why the Trainline Call centre in India was unable to make bookings?

UPDATE (24th April): 5 days after writing this post the train companies have announced that from next month they will be simplifying ticket types down to just 3; Advance (discounted), Anytime (flexible, peak travel) and Off-peak - purchased on the day of travel. Apparently research has shown travellers don't understand the current system, and less than half of customers believe they are being sold the cheaest ticket. Presumably the change means the train companies will be scrapping most of the cheaper advance tickets too? The train companies deny this. Only time will tell...

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Data protection - is it working?

My partner's 87 year old mother was distressed by more than a dozen 'silent' telephone calls yesterday.

We signed her up for the Telephone Preference Service (TPS) a couple of years ago so that she wouldn't receive nuisance marketing calls (So called 'silent' calls are when the sales company's computerised switchboard dials your number but they don't have any free salespeople to pick up the call - so the computer keeps dialling you until they do).

We asked her to dial 1471 and write down the number the calls were coming from. I put the number 08716641456 into google ('I didn't know you could do that!' exclaims my partner). Someone has helpfully listed it as belonging to Satellite Direct UK. I'd heard of these people recently on BBC's Watchdog. A quick trip to the BBC's website. Satellite Direct has been harassing Sky Television subscribers posing as Sky and trying to sell insurance for the dish and set-top box. Sky brought a high court action against them last year, but it seems they continue to operate.

But surely Sky Customers who are registered with the Telephone Preference Service should be protected from these unsolicited nuisance calls? In theory yes, but apparently not. The Information Commissioner has reminded Satellite Direct to observe their responsibilities under the Data Protection Act (and respect the TPS list of registered people who don't want to receive marketing calls) but it continues to ignore him. The Data Protection legislation sounds like a good idea - but is it working?

Do bosses of companies who fail to comply with The Law face prosecution and imprisonment? No. But surely they face huge fines for breaches of Data Protection Law? Nope. So how much can they be fined? Nothing, zero, zilch. All the Information Commissioner can do is remind them of their obligations under the Act.

An 87 year old lady is at home alone scared to answer her own phone which rings incessantly. It could be her daughter checking to see if she's OK - spreading more alarm when the phone goes unanswered. Meanwhile Satellite Direct UK lines its pockets.

Who is this Data Protection legislation protecting?

The BA buck stops with...well not me actually

Willie Walsh, BA's chief executive has previously said the buck stops with him - admitting some responsibility for the disastrous opening of BA's new home at Heathrow's Terminal 5. Funny then that today BA has announced it is 2 other directors who are leaving - including Operations Director Gareth Kirkwood who fled from the TV cameras on day 1.
Meanwhile Mr Walsh is due to be grilled by the major shareholders this week. The airline has already said it expects the chaos to cost £16m. It could be much more - who's booking with BA these days? In another development the Royal Bank of Scotland group's insurance arm (Direct Line, Privilege and more) has said it won't cover bag losses from T5 for new travel insurance policies. So that's a clear message - fly BA and if they lose your bag that's their problem - not ours. Or perhaps - don't fly BA. Another reason why Mr Walsh will soon be clearing his desk.

Friday, 11 April 2008

BT - stop press - reply from the Chief Exec

The story so far:
I believe British Telecom tricked customers into paying an extra 2000% (was 5p now 90p) for 60 minute evening calls by offering free weekend calls as a smokescreen. I emailed BT's chief exec to complain. He personally replied not once, but twice.

I felt it was only fair to send a copy of my last post to BT's Chief Executive Ben Verwaayen, which I did immediately. I prefaced it with a note:

Dear Mr. Verwaayen,

I very much appreciate your quick and personal response to my complaint

I have published an account of the handling of my complaint in my blog and
pasted it here so that BT may learn something from my experience.

As a shareholder I hope BT won't lose too many customers as a result of the
recent poorly implemented price-plan changes.

Within 4 minutes I received another personal reply:

We are going to learn from your email, b elieve me!



Telephony Misery Update

Back with BT - so full marks to chief executive Ben Verwaayen for personally punching out a reply to my complaint (probably on his blackberry) at 07.45 yesterday. He has re-invented BT's business model in his 5 years in charge, but now his tenure is ending. The executive who called me from the Chairman's office at midday was less impressive - in fact he sounded like he was auditioning for a task in TV's The Apprentice rather than dealing with my complaint. The manager who called me at 17.50 hrs patiently explained the procedure which followed my online request to switch to Free Unlimited and Weekend calls (in exchange for a 12 month contract).

These are:

1. Orders placed before 4pm are active the following day.
2. Orders placed after 4pm are active the day after.
3. Only working days count - these are Monday to Friday.

4. My order was received at 20.50 hrs Friday. It was aknowledged by automated email.
5. My order was active from 23.11 hrs on Monday, so my evening call made at 20.29 hrs Monday was charged not free.
(Friday post 4pm orders are processed Monday - and no, I don't know why my service started Monday night, rather than Tuesday...)

6. Although my online account states I am paying a monthly fee for free weekend and evening calls this will be shown as a credit on the actual bill and won't be charged.

I asked why none of the 3 operators at Customer services could give me this simple information and I had to ask BT's Chief Executive?
But more importantly why isn't all this in BT's lengthy terms and conditions, or the email confirming the order?
And why does the confirmation email say "we'll write to you to confirm your account has been updated" when they don't
(Apparently BT is processing millions of orders and 'couldn't write to all the customers when the service is active'. So why say you will? Doh!).

BT finally let themselves down when the email confirming all this important information fails to arrive.

So I dig out the letter and leaflet BT sent customers back in February explaining their new calling plans:

The main letter is clear - 'Free Weekend calls' is the headline and paragraphs 1 & 2.

Paragraph 3 tells customers line rental is increasing (and some other changes, see enclosed T&C) - but you can avoid this with paper-free billing - paragraph 4.

Paragraph 5 - enjoy your free weekend calls. Oh and there's an excited PS. too: 'Enjoy UK calls this weekend - they're free.'

So what about those other 'important changes'? (para 3). The removal of 5p evening calls - of course that price increase that's in the letter too right?
Er no.
But it's really clear on page 1 of the T&C isn't it?
Er, no.
But surely it will be made really clear that the cost of evening calls is increasing significantly?
Er, no.
Where's this important change to the cost of calls explained then?
Top of page 2 of course.
Page 2?
Do you mean you stopped reading at page 1?

"From 1st April 2008 the Evening rate for UK geographic calls will change from 4.5 pence for calls up to an hour to 1.5 pence per minute and a 6p set up fee will apply."

So those free weekend calls. When do they start - Friday evening?
Er no. They run from Midnight Friday to midnight Sunday.
But those times are all clearly set out in the Terms and Conditions right?
Er no. They are at
What! Not in the letter or the leaflet?
Er no.

Well done BT - for a company in the communications business you have touched a new low.

So how did O2 fare with the problem I reported to customer services?
O2 were a little slow off the mark - when I reported that their broadband service had stopped sending email to my mobile - but quickly recovered when they realised the number of customers affected. My service was restored at 23.00 hrs, during which time I received a reassuring call from customer services and several test emails - leaving me very confident the problem would be sorted out quickly.

O2 - what a contrast to BT.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

BA - Sorry, we've lost the plot

British Airways has just emailed its monthly newsletter to Executive Club members.

are the high yielding frequent flyers who buy the premium price business tickets month in month out. So with all BA's recent troubles - hundreds of cancelled flights, thousands of missing bags, hours of delays, what sort of conciliatory message would you send out this month to your most valued customers? Bonus frequent flyer miles? 2 for 1 offer perhaps? Or a free one-way upgrade...

Try this:

"I was looking forward to telling you about the success of Terminal 5 this month, however, as you will be aware, we have experienced operational challenges since the opening of the terminal. I have spoken to a number of members personally and I recognise that we have let customers down. I, along with the rest of the team at British Airways are dedicated to meeting your expectations for Terminal 5 and offering you an improved experience.

If you are flying with us in the next few days, can I recommend that you check for the latest update or call us on 0800 727 800."

So judging from the sign-off it looks like BA don't expect their troubles to end any time soon. No consolation for business people who still have to fly. BA don't even seem to have done a simple marketing thing like check which of their executive club members has stopped flying with them. All my flights this year from Heathrow have been with BMI. My partner hasn't flown BA since emailing Willie Walsh to complain about the frequent cancellation of BA's UK short haul services.

BMI have emailed me with personalised incentives every week this month (more miles, money off my next flight) and have won all my business as a result. BA are so busy hand sorting missing bags that when they finish they'll discover they've lost all their customers as well.

More telephony misery

It's all telephony problems today. An executive calls from the Chairman's Office at BT (see previous post and update). He explains they will investigate the poor customer service I have received and respond. Just for fun I set a deadline of 4pm before I notify Ofcom.

O2 have an altogether different customer service approach. UK based call centres, no endless menus to select from and people who know stuff (or more accurately have been trained). Unfortunately the bit of my O2 broadband service which delivers email to my mobile has abruptly stopped delivering. After an hour on the phone I discover that this is a freshly emerging fault at O2 HQ. I am assured they will come back to me when they know more.

A couple of hours later and I start receiving test emails to my O2 inbox (but sadly not my mobile). Then O2 call me to discuss my broadband service. They offer helpful general advice and reassure me they are working fast to resolve the email issue. I also have a 100 day money-back satisfaction guarantee on my side (but I doubt I'll be exercising it).

Meanwhile BT are very quiet. If o2 ever decide to offer home phone packages I will happily give BT the boot. I see from the various forums I visit that BT has lost a lot of loyalty over the sneaky way they've introduced the new price hikes.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

BT - Oh dear!

I wanted to make a few telephone calls tonight. Nothing that couldn't wait, so I wanted them to be free. Last Friday evening I signed up for a 12 month BT contract in exchange for free weekend and evening calls. A year long commitment isn't a problem - I've just taken a 12 month broadband contract with O2 so I need a BT line. In fact the two contracts being in sync will be an advantage if I want to change providers in the future.

So have BT actioned my new calling plan with free evening calls? I dial 150. Big mistake. After many menus, press 1, press 2, etc I appear to be talking to an offshore call centre. After 15 minutes I am assured my new calling plan has been in force since Monday. I am sceptical about this. I have an online BT account and in the recent calls tab I can see a call from Monday evening lasting 16 minutes billed at 27p. If I was on the new plan the call would be free.

My call is transferred to e-billing. After much delay, and constant reference to my 'broadband' by an operator who is working on auto-pilot in the wrong department I am informed they only have a verified bill until the end of March. So I have more information about my account than BT? Yes, apparently.

I ask for my call to be transferred to a manager. 'I have been told my evenng calls have been free since monday, but my account shows you are charging for them.'
'We can refund the 27p' offers the manager. I explain he is missing the point.

BT has been heavily criticised for its latest marketing wheeze - free weekend calls, but a 2000% cost increase for evening calls. You can avoid this by signing a contract for 12 months. But their operators can't tell you with any confidence when the contract is effective.

If I make 60 minute calls tonight will they be free, or cost 90p each? I have no idea and neither does BT.

I aksed the manager to have someone from customer care call me - because I planned to complain to Ofcom. When asked for the spelling of his name he hung up.

BT has decided to extract more spend from its customers - but (like British Gas) will probably learn the hard way that more value can come at great cost - fewer customers.

UPDATE 10th April 07.45 hrs. I was so frustrated after writing the above post that I copied and pasted it as an email to BT's chief executive Ben Verwaayen. To my surprise he personally replied at 07.45 this morning to say:

"I will ask our high level complaints team to look into this

Don't hold your breath, but I'll keep you posted.

Ofcom gets tough on 'adult chat'

In a timely (and completely co-incidental) anouncement following my last post about Ofcom being 'asleep at the wheel' the communications regulator has said that the TV programmes and TV channels which appear to rely on generating premium rate telephone calls for revenue (Five's Quiz Call, and the Babestation Channel - among many others) will have to prove that their expensive viewer telephone calls (£1.50+ a minute) are in fact 'editorial content'. If they cannot prove this they will have to re-classify as TV shopping channels. This will also impose restrictions on the amount of advertising time.

The latest proposals effectively ban TV channels like Babestation - as under current legislation adult chat advertising is prohibited on free-to-air unencrypted channels. Quite how these channels have flouted the rules for so long is another question. Ofcom first began making noises about tightening up the regulation of the 'adult chat' TV channels some 2 years ago.

If you've never watched them prepare for a shock when tuning in to the 900 range of channels on your Sky epg (Babestation 906). Did you know that even went on on your TV? Your children and their friends can watch the girls as they pleasure themselves too - unless you've specifically set up the parental controls on your Sky box. The girlie presenters on some of the channels even explain which 4 digits on your sky viewing card you need to enter to unblock and enjoy the post watershed content! I'm amazed the Daily Mail has missed this story.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Sneaky BT...

BT recently announced free unlimited weekend calls for its customers. Sounds like a great deal, doesn't it? Er, no. Buried deep in the incomprehensible terms and conditions Together Option 1 customers (who make up 10.8 million - in other words the majority - of BT's customers) will discover the real cost of those 'free' weekend calls next time they get their bill.

A few years ago BT ran a very high profile TV ad featuring Jeremy Clarkson extolling the virtues of BT's 5p an hour evening call rate. BT has just scrapped that rate, but they've kept it pretty quiet. Now it will cost 1.5p a minute or 90p an hour for a call which used to cost 5p.

OK so for 3 nights of the week calls will be free - but for 4 nights of the week a 60 minute call which used to cost 5p now costs 90p. BT say their customers will be better off. That, I suppose, depends on how many calls you make. You'd have to make 18 'free' weekend calls (which used to cost 5p) to save the new 90p cost of one weekday evening call. Go figure. How has Ofcom allowed BT to confuse its customers like this? Perhaps not unlike the FSA - they are they asleep at the wheel? (as they were with 'premium rate TV telephony and still are over adult 'chat' TV channels - the babe stations).

BT can't do maths and they can't spell either. In their terms and conditions they refer to Weekend Unlimited (formally Option 1) sic. Hope some legal eagles can have fun with their mistake (void terms and conditions perhaps?)

Finally moneysavingexpert recommends switching all calls to primus 2 saver. This apparently gives free weekend and evening calls. BT will offer you this too - in exchange for a rolling 12 month contract, with penalties if you terminate early. I think BT may have shot themselves in the foot and the head this time.