Loyalty fails to pay

Which? has discovered that many leading banks, insurers and energy companies are making their existing customers pay to call them while offering new customers access to free phone numbers.

A Which? investigation has found the majority, 27 of the 34 energy providers, banks and insurers we looked at, offer 0800 numbers for new customers, while only six offer 0800 numbers to existing customers.

Companies that operate a two-tier system, offering 0800 numbers for new customers but an 0844 or 0845 number for existing customers, include Churchill, HSBC, Natwest/RBS and Scottish Power.

Worryingly, 20 companies make their customers call often-expensive 0845 numbers to complain about bad service or problems with their bills.

Consumers are faced with a baffling number of different charges depending on the number they call, with call costs for a typical 20 minute peak time call from a BT landline ranging from just over 50p to call 0845 to over £1 to call an 0844 or 0870 number to over £2 to call an 0871 number.

Costs rocket when calling from a mobile with the same typical 20 minute call from an Orange pay monthly phone ranging from £2.50 to £8 depending on the telephone number prefix. With one in seven homes now mobile-only, and almost two thirds of the companies we investigated using 0845 numbers for customer complaint lines, many consumers are paying a premium to complain.

Which? wants to see greater transparency and easy-to-understand information from companies on call costs so consumers can make an informed choice. More than half of the 34 companies we looked at failed to give adequate details about typical call costs on their websites. The companies that we felt did provide clear and comprehensive information included Smile, The Co-operative Bank, John Lewis Insurance, British Gas, Npower, Santander and Barclays.

Richard Lloyd, Which? executive director, said:
“It is unbelievable that companies would add insult to injury by charging their customers a premium to make a complaint. It’s even worse when they offer new customers access to 0800 numbers while leaving loyal customers to pay more.
“We want to see providers being fairer to their existing customers and being more transparent on their call charges so that people are clear what it will cost before they pick up the phone.”

Notes to editors:
1 Which? researchers checked the websites of 34 energy providers, banks and insurers on 6 June 2012 to find the contact numbers for new customers, existing customers and complaints.

2 Only five companies – energy providers British Gas, Cooperative Energy, EDF, Npower and Ovo – offer 0800 numbers for all three services. SSE has pledged to offer 0800 numbers for all customer services in the near future.

3 0800 calls are always free from landlines but the mobile providers we looked at can charge up to 20p per minute. In April Ofcom announced plans to simplify charges with all companies required to give clearer details about call costs, and ‘freephone’ numbers (0800/0808 and 116) to be free from all phones, including mobiles.

4 Confusing costs and lack of trust in services has put many people off calling many numbers, according to Ofcom.

5 We calculated cost per minute and for a 20 minute call for a range of numbers from leading landline and mobile providers – BT, Virgin Media, O2 and Orange. Call costs assumed week day, peak time calls and that landline providers did not have inclusive calls at these times.

6 On a Virgin Media landline, a 20 minute call to a typical 0844 number would cost £2.63 and a similar call to an 0845 number would cost £2.16.

7 On an Orange PAYG mobile, a 20 minute call to a typical 0844 number would cost £8 and on an Orange pay-monthly mobile a 20 minute call to an 0845 number would cost £8.

8 Some companies, including First Direct, HSBC, LV and Scottish Power will call customers back if requested. Some companies – including John Lewis, Lloyds TSB, NPower and Ovo flag an 01, 02 or 03 number to call as an alternative to their 0800 or 0845 numbers. This is excellent practice and we’d like to see more companies doing this.

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