NEARLY three-quarters of UK financial services have been using only premium rate numbers for calls to their customer service lines, new research by consumer group Which? has found.
Three high street banks have agreed to switch to local call rate lines after the study found that 177 out of 242 customer service or complaint lines of financial services companies are expensive 084 or 087 numbers, which can cost up to 41p a minute.
Barclays – as well as its credit card brand Barclaycard – and Royal Bank of Scotland, along with RBS sister brand NatWest, today announced that they will provide cheaper, local call rate lines for their customers.
The announcements come as Which? said it would focus its Costly Calls campaign on financial services firms, which are exempt from new European Union rules due to come into force next year.
Which? found that four in ten people prefer to call financial firms with inquiries, and nearly a third would rather complain by phone.
Executive director Richard Lloyd said: “Millions of us prefer to deal with our bank on the phone, yet we are expected to cough up for a costly call when we do.
“We applaud Barclays and Barclaycard for breaking from the pack on high rate numbers and want to see other financial firms follow their lead.”
The EU Consumer Rights Directive ban on the use of expensive numbers for customer helplines will be launched next year, but financial firms are currently excluded. Travel firms are also exempt from the ban.
Which? is calling on the Financial Conduct Authority to clarify existing rules to stop financial services companies from using high rate numbers on complaints lines and to change the rules so they also cover customer helplines.
Almost all of the credit cards providers investigated use 084 or 087 numbers for complaints or customer service helplines and nine in ten of current account providers use them for complaints or customer service helplines.
Existing customers are also being charged more than new ones with free-from-landline 0800 numbers used for 52 per cent of sales or new customer lines, compared to just 26 per cent for existing customers and 21 per cent for complaints.
The research also revealed that customers do not know how much they will be charged when making calls to their bank, payday loans company or insurance provider.
A total of 40 per cent of people say they do not know which high rate number would cost the most if called from a mobile phone and over a third admit the same about calling from a landline.
RBS, NatWest and Barclays said they wanted to provide the “best possible” service to customers.
“We want to be the best bank in the UK for customer service and we’ll only achieve that by making it easy to deal with us and doing the right thing for our customers,” said Les Matheson, interim chief executive for UK retail at RBS and NatWest.
The organisation is to create a “phased approach” in switching the lines, beginning with general banking inquiries – which account for two million of the 2.5 million calls it receives every month – and will have local call rate lines by the end of this month.
It will also introduce basic rate numbers for mortgage, lost and stolen cards and charges inquiry lines by the end of the year and freephone numbers for calls to departments dealing with fraud and financial difficulty by the end of March next year.
In a joint statement, Ashok Vaswani, chief executive of Barclays retail and business banking, and Val Soranno Keating, chief executive of Barclaycard, said: “For many customers the telephone is the most convenient way in which to contact us, so it’s right that we have taken this step to ensure that no customer need dial a premium or high rate number simply to speak to us.”
The watchdog, which is also targeting its campaign at public bodies and the travel industry, also analysed 115 telephone numbers used by 73 public bodies and found that around a quarter of the numbers remain high rate. The bodies included the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, the Department for International Development as well as government agencies such as Jobcentre Plus, the Student Loans Company and The Pension Service.
A recent investigation by Scotland on Sunday’s sister paper The Scotsman found that the Student Loans Company alone has raised more than £1 million in revenue over the past five years using 0845 numbers.