Picking up the phone with the intention to complain about a service you have received or a product you’re not happy with, should be straightforward. Pick up the phone, dial and you’re put through to a friendly voice on the other end. However more and more of us are still not happy that the call to complain is worth a complaint in itself.

Many retailers still use so-called “service” numbers, starting with 0844 and 0845. Charges vary, but can be up to 5p a minute on a BT landline or 76p per minute from a mobile.

It doesn’t sound a lot but consider that you could be on hold for a while and that cost starts to rise very quickly.

Janet Bell found herself in that familiar situation when she wanted to swap a new dishwasher that didn’t fit, for a different, slimmer version. She initially sent four emails to Homebase. The automated responses informed her that someone would contact her in 48 hours but that if she wanted a quicker response she should call their 0845 number – the call lasted 25 minutes and cost her £8.43 but her problem was still not resolved.

In the end, Janet communicated in person and for free. She went back to the store and got a refund.

There are other numbers companies use that you should be wary of like those starting with 0871 and 0870. Even worse are the 09 premium rate lines costing up to £2.55 per minute from a mobile, and £1.53 from a BT landline. Providers of horoscopes and competitions often use these.

As do the budget airline Vueling. Sue Casas called them when they rearranged her flight unexpectedly.

Sue had to make eight calls in total the most of which had her on hold for 34 minutes before she was cut off. When she returned back from her holiday to see her bill she was shocked that the calls had totalled £105.

Companies don’t have to use such numbers. They could use those beginning with 0800 which are free from landlines or 03 numbers, which are included in your minutes if you have a Pay-Monthly mobile.

Our team checked 20 of the biggest online retailers to discover what they charge for calling to complain.

Five companies chose to use numbers beginning with 0843 and 0844. And another five – that’s Apple, Argos, John Lewis, M&S and Play.com – used 0845. As this is more expensive on average across all networks, it was these companies that we put to the test.

First up, how much do their service lines cost you before you even get to speak to an advisor?

To make this fair, our team called each company 10 times.

M&S remained the fastest with an average wait of 1min 9secs, which could cost up to 47pence from some mobile networks.

Second was Play.com with an average wait of one minute and nineteen seconds. Cost? Just 3p from a landline – and up to 54 pence from some mobiles – although one call to them did last 5mins 57secs - which could have cost up to £2.43 if we’d rung from a mobile.

Next it was John Lewis, closely followed by Argos. But the company with the longest average wait was Apple with three minutes and seven seconds. Costing up to 6 pence from a landline, and as much as £1.28 from some mobiles.

So that’s how long you can wait – and how much you can pay – when you call to complain. But what about when you’re calling to buy?

Both Apple and M&S have separate phone lines for sales queries. So, we made ten calls to each of them.

On average they did answer their sales line 36 seconds faster than they answered their customer service line.

So, using a mobile, it cost us up to 25p less to buy something than to complain.

As for Apple – on average we got through to their sales line two minutes and three seconds faster than when we were calling to register a complaint. And the sales line is a cheaper 0800 number.

If you’re using a mobile, calling Apple to complain can cost up to £1.05 mroe than when calling them to buy something.

And remember - that’s before you even speak to anyone

Company Responses

 

M&S

Service – whether it’s in-store, online or over the phone – is one of our five core values. It’s part of our heritage. That’s why we invest heavily in a network of UK call centres that are amongst the best in the business.

We have one of the best records in the industry in terms of call answering times and are comfortably ahead of the sector averages and benchmarks.

The call answering times you outline include 42 second options message.

The options are an important part of the operation. It’s right to have one central M&S number, but there are parts of the business that require a very different call centre. The best example is M&S Bank (option 1) where it is a legal requirement to have different systems for M&S Bank and non-bank employees.

The options are therefore designed to save customers time by putting them through to the correct advisor, first time.

However we do agree that it’s important to get customers speaking to an advisor at the earliest possible opportunity and had already been looking at reducing the length of the message.

Without causing a disruption in service and still giving our customers the four options we currently have, we can reduce the message length by 10 seconds. The changes are due to be implemented in early December.

We record our call answering times after the customer has been through the options message. Some key stats:

  • Average time it takes an advisor to answer a call is 13 seconds;
  • Our target is to answer 80% of calls within 20 seconds;
  • 96% of calls are answered within one minute.

On the issue you’ve raised about the 0845 609 0200 number being answered sooner than 0845 302 1234, the only reason for this is that the options message is shorter because we do not have to include M&S Bank in the list. The average time it takes to answer calls (after the options message) is actually higher, 18 seconds versus 12.

It’s also worth highlighting the rise of social media as a tool for customers to contact us. The number of people contacting us on Facebook and Twitter has increased hugely in the past twelve months and we now have a dedicated team of customer service advisors working on social media contacts only.

 

A spokesperson for Apple says,

We offer customers a range of convenient ways to obtain the service they need including web, email and phone. Customers can call our freephone 0800 number for customer service and this number is shown on the homepage of the Apple Online Store.

A spokesperson for Argos says,

Argos Contact Centres deal with around nine million customer telephone calls every year and we aim to connect customers to an advisor as quickly as possible.

When a customer rings they may initially be required to listen to an IVR, which is a pre-recorded message carrying important regulatory information such as Data Protection Act requirements or marketing preferences. Sometimes these messages offer customer advice to help us deal with their inquiry more efficiently, for example, have their order and catalogue numbers ready. Customers are then offered a number of automated options to ensure we can direct them to the right advisor first time. It can take between one minute and 15 seconds and up to two minutes for this process.

Once the IVRs and the automated options are complete, we measure the time it takes to connect the caller to an agent. We aim to answer 80 per cent of calls within 15 seconds of the customer selecting their option although this can vary depending on the volume of calls coming through at that time and the available resource to answer them. The total waiting time for the customer will depend on which option they need to select for their query, however, the majority of calls are answered within the 15 second target.

We recognise that we can make improvements to our call centre service overall and are reviewing the customer experience and journey to see how we can streamline the process, making it faster and better for our customers.

We understand BBC Watchdog’s concerns about the cost to customers to call 0845 numbers, in particular the cost of calling from a mobile compared to a landline. However these charges are set by the telephone network provider and are not unique to us. We fully support OfCom’s review into non-geographic call charges with mobile phone companies.

A spokesperson for John Lewis says,

The number called for John Lewis is the customer service line for our online sales. We provide an 0845 number because our service centre is a centralised operation and we find that an 0845 number better manages customer expectations in this regard. We also provide options for contact via email which have no cost to the customer.

We have analysed the calling behaviours of our customers and over 80% call us from a land line rather than a mobile; three quarters of these call us during the day. For these customers, calls to an 0845 number are significantly cheaper than calling an 01 or 02 geographic number.

For the remaining 20% of customers who call using a mobile, Ofcom statistics for 2011 suggest that half of all mobile phones are on a pay as you go contract. We acknowledge that different mobile operators charge different amounts, but by no means are all mobile calls cheaper to 01 or 02 geographic numbers. We also acknowledge that those on some calling plans will have 01 and 02 numbers included, but not necessarily 0845 numbers.

Finally, with regards to the time taken to connect to a customer service representative, the majority of the time (depending on the options pressed) is used to get the customer to the correct place to answer the query at the first point of contact. Once the appropriate option has been selected, the average time to answer is 20 seconds. We believe that this strikes the right balance in terms of answering the call as quickly as possible, whilst ensuring they are put through to the best place efficiently.

A spokesperson for Play.Com says,

In August Rakuten’s Play.com moved its Contact Centre back to the UK in order to improve its customer service proposition. Rakuten’s Play.com continues to listen to its customers’ feedback, which then directs new initiatives to improve customer experience. Rakuten’s Play.com makes no revenues from the 0845 extension, and its phone number strategy is currently one of many elements being reviewed to drive continuous customer experience improvements.

The company independently monitors average response rates and over the last three months 80% of calls have been answered within 62 seconds, though at peak times this may vary slightly. Rakuten’s Play.com is pleased to offer multi-channel customer service contact options - shoppers can speak to the customer service team directly via email or social media (facebook or twitter) for free and the team aims to reply within 24 hours to all enquiries.

 

A spokesperson for Homebase says,

Homebase customer service line operates as an 0845 line, which, when called from a landline, should offer the same call charges to the caller as ringing a local number.

Homebase does not set the cost for the calls and these are set by each individual telephone service provider.

Calls from mobiles to 0845 numbers can be significantly more expensive than landlines. Many service providers have automated messages informing customers of this but Homebase has no control over the messages that are made. As Mrs Bell rang from a mobile her call costs far exceeded those of landline calls to the same number.

We are sorry that the Bell family have had difficulty in trying to contact Homebase and will look into this issue in more detail.