“How to Make Bills Confusing” by BT

Now, I like to think I know a thing or two about telephone bills. So obviously I get upset if I struggle to understand my own bill. Let me tell you a story about my own BT bill over the last few months.

When I moved into my new house a couple of years ago, I did the simple thing and opted for BT fixed line and broadband on one bill, all paid by direct debit. A few months back, after getting poor service from BT’s broadband, I switched ISP. The transfer took place on the expected date of 1st September: when I tried to log on with BT that morning it was unavailable but I was able to connect to my new ISP. However, when my September bill arrived, on September 6th, broadband had been charged for the whole month of September at a cost of £21.27 before tax. Obviously, I rang up and told BT to credit this. After much discussion where BT insisted that the transfer, per their records, had only taken place that day – September 6th (?) – they eventually concluded it was not worth arguing about and agreed to credit me the charge for the whole month of September. I even got a nice letter dated September 7th saying they had credited my account the £21.27.

You can imagine how pleased I was when I got my October bill – which for some reason included a credit of only £11.18. This credit covered the period from September 15th to the end of the September. So, of course, I phoned BT and complained again. This time the CS rep said the remaining credit owed to me had been put to my account – but I would only see it on my November bill. Perplexed, I waited for the November bill.

You can probably see where this is going. When I got the November bill, guess what? No additional credit. So I phoned again, the CS rep agreed to credit the remaining £10.09 before tax, and I got a letter saying that the amount had been credited in the post the next day.

So in December, as anybody might, I looked at my bill to see the credit. No credit. At this point I was angry, but instead of cursing at some poor person in a call centre, I took a look at what had happened to my bill. After some detailed analysis, I could work out what had happened, without needing to have another call to the contact centre – but I doubt the average customer would have done the same. Checking the December bill carefully, there was a mysterious figure of £1.65 carried forward from November – but how could that be when I paid by direct debit? Well, what had happened is that BT, in their wisdom, had not taken any payment in November for the amount that was due. The amount due in November was £1.65 after taking off the credit of £10.09 (and grossing up for tax). So, because BT carried forward the £1.65 instead of taking payment, I actually got a higher bill than normal in December (I hardly ever make landline calls) but everything was even in the end. Just a very confusing way of doing things.

Of course, it was relatively easy to work out what was going on by looking at my paper bill. Screw the earth, I will never trust on-line billing which is why I always insist on old-fashioned paper bills. Looking on-line to see what that said about my bills, the situation was even more confused. On-line there was no mention of a credit, just a list of the unamended total bill values matching the bills that had been sent to me. Flicking to the payment history, November showed “part-payment received” which I guess makes a kind of sense – they netted the credit but did not take the remainder owed by direct debit. But looking at the amount that was due in November, on this screen it was more than the actual bill total (?) even though the actual bill total included the carried forward amount. The actual bill had been £13.50, but the screen said that £15.49 had been due. Ummmm. Mysterious. The carried forward amount, £1.65, was correct, so this implied a credit of £13.84 from £15.49 instead of a credit of £10.09 from £13.50. I looked around for numbers that could explain this strange anomaly of £15.49-£13.50=£1.99. And there was one number. No payment had been taken for my October bill either, because I was in credit at the end of the month. The half month’s credit I had originally received was greater than the amounts charged for that month. My account was in credit by £1.99, although to add further confusion the payment history on-screen stated that £1.99 was owed. Of course, if you add the £1.99 credit balance in October to the further £13.50 credit put on my account in November, you get £15.49. So BT’s on-line history, in short, only correctly states the amount due, and has to fudge all other numbers to make them balance.

Confusing, huh? It seems hard to believe that a large telco can make such hard work of something as simple as crediting a bill and presenting the information to a customer. Well, it seems hard to believe unless you work for telcos and see what a mess they usually make of things.

Of course, there are plenty more stories I can tell about inept billing. And I do not mean from my experience of working in revenue assurance – just from being a customer. I could tell you the story about the operator that gave me a goodwill credit, but got confused about the difference between debits and credits and so added it to my bill as an additional charge instead. Or I could tell you about the mobile CSP which decided, without asking me, to give me on-line access to my own bill, except that when I go on-line I see someone else’s bill. Of course, if it was a normal customer’s bill I see on-line, I would do something about it. But as I see the internal bill of the revenue assurance department in that telco, I do not mind spying on how much they spend on calls. They have a very big roaming bill, actually, which is probably because of all those conferences they attend. You know, those conferences where they tell everyone that they have no errors any more and have run out of ways to improve the integrity of their billing data…

If anyone doubts me, I have the screenshots to prove it ;)

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is the Editor of Commsrisk. Look here for more about the history of Commsrisk and the role played by Eric.

Eric is also the Chief Executive of the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG), a global association of professionals working in risk management and business assurance for communications providers.

Previously Eric was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and he has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and other telcos. He was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.