What’s in a Telephone Number?

Change is coming in the way organisations fund their voice-based customer service operations. Both the EU and Ofcom have designs on the number range and pricing of such services. I’ve just spent more than a few bleary eyed hours mugging up to discover this is both a key consumer issue and one that in some areas remains as clear as mud.

As far as the EU’s contribution, their Directive on Consumer Rights comes into force 13th June 2014. This is Europe wide legislation that aims to give people stronger rights when they shop online. Its intent covers situations as broad as horoscopes that appear free but aren’t, to unwanted travel insurance inadvertently purchased through pre-populated online tick boxes. As part of this standardisation of digital consumer rights, there is one aspect that directly concerns contact centres:

“Traders who operate telephone hotlines allowing the consumer to contact them in relation to the contract will not be able charge more than the basic telephone rate for the telephone calls”.

That means if a customer needs to return a faulty item as defined in a refund policy, you can no longer add a service charge on a 0844 number. This signals the end for many 0844, 0845 and 0871 customer service numbers. And certainly kicks all the Premium Rate Service ranges such as 0871, 0872, 0873 and 09 into touch in this context.

The UK legislation for the Directive requires affected businesses to switch to lower cost “basic rate” prefixes for enquiries from customers. Permitted basic rate numbers include those which start with the digits 01, 02 and 03, mobile numbers and those which are free-to-call from fixed and mobile telephones.

This means service organisations with 08x, 087x and 084x numbers might be motivated to exchange the second digit, 8, for a 3, with the rest of the number remaining the same as a solution. Other examples include 0800 and 0808 numbers which are due to be made free when ringing from a mobile by July 2015. This is where the Ofcom part of the legislation kicks in which I’ll get onto in a moment.

To be clear, this is what government guidelines on regulation 41 say.

“Where a telephone helpline is provided, the basic rate requirement means not charging more than a geographic or mobile rate. Consumers should generally expect to pay no more to phone a trader about something they have bought than to call a friend or relative, that is to say the simple cost of connection. This telephone number provided should not provide the trader with a contribution to their costs”.

Charges above the basic rate will still be allowed for services that don’t form part of the contract, such as technical support. Businesses are also still free to use such numbers for sales lines if they so wish. But a complaint line on the other hand does fall into regulation 41 territory.

This is all due to happen by 13th June 2014. The government intends to review the implementation after Ofcom has launched its associated legislation next year.

However, here is one of the ‘clear as mud’ moments I talked about earlier. Although this is all designed to help make this easier for us as consumers, it is not going to be a universally applied rule. Some sectors are exempt: the big one being Financial Services.

This is where it becomes interesting. From the perspective of customer experience and all the customer centric thinking that goes with it, what is now best? This sector has a choice to make. Maybe the FCA will influence their thinking. Maybe the service charge transparency of next year’s Ofcom legislation will help encourage uptake. We shall see.

However there are still ways to escape this for service organisations in other sectors. Peer deeper into the government’s advice and you will spot that it does not mandate you have to provide a telephone service. So you could just cut out that cost through channel migration. However even big proponents on channel shift such as central Government’s digital by default programme show just how difficult this is to achieve if certain customer groups are to have guaranteed access to basic services.

The underlying issue here is simplification. As every customer service operation knows, consumers don’t have enormous appetite when things get complicated.

For instance, let’s just dial back for a moment to that guidance on mobiles. Yes you can use mobiles to deliver a basic rate service and thus comply. However this assumes your number is prefixed 07 and not with 070 and 076 sub-prefixes. Why? Because that number range is devilishly expensive and sometimes used for scamming. This was news to me, maybe not to you. But it proves my point that it ain’t simple.

Thus one of the key benefits that service organisations can achieve in both the EU and Ofcom changes is to shine in terms of their education and ongoing transparency over what it really costs to receive service. That is if it fits into a broader agenda around trust and customer engagement.

This post was just a teaser! Download the full whitepaper for further insights and other good stuff from Martin.

Martin Hill-Wilson
Martin Hill-Wilson

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