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.

No comments: