New Phone, New Billing Confusion

British revenue assurance pros with long memories will recall that I used to be the troublemaker who kept insisting retail phone bills were a lot less accurate than the UK regulator was willing to admit. There were many reasons to doubt the claims made about UK billing accuracy, including:

  • Why would retail bills be so much more accurate than the known and easily verified accuracy of interconnect bills? No significant additional work was done to ensure the accuracy of retail bills, and retail bills are more prone to error because the charges are much more difficult to calculate.
  • If the retail bills really were as accurate as claimed, why go to so much trouble to create a process where auditors used subjective judgment to exclude ‘exceptional’ errors from the measurement of accuracy? Why rely upon that process so often?
  • How could an industry claim statistically stupendous levels of accuracy after performing so few tests and doing so little audit work?
  • Why were there so many mistakes on the phone bills I received as a consumer?

The experience of one person is not statistically meaningful, but if phone bills were as accurate as claimed then the chances of my receiving so many erroneous bills should have been astronomically small. The most outspoken critic of UK phone billing accuracy was coincidentally receiving bills with errors that were supposed to be fantastically unlikely! So now you know what to expect when I tell you about a text message I received from a comms provider after entering into a new contract.

Hello again, we’ve put all the details of your new phone plan in one place so you can see exactly what you are getting. Have a look now at…

So I looked. The screen told me that monthly cost for a £25 plan with a 30 percent discount would be £20.83. Which is obviously wrong, because taking 30 percent from £25 leaves £17.50. That was the price I was quoted by the customer services rep when I agreed to the contract, and hence was the price I expected to see.

So how does a £17.50 monthly cost leap up to £20.83 without explanation? I telephoned my provider to find out. The answer I was given was that the monthly charge would be £17.50. The poor lady on the other end of the line could not explain why her company’s systems were saying I would be charged £20.83 each month. She assured me any errors would be resolved, but that I would have to wait for an actual bill to query them. Whilst I was glad to hear there was no reason to expect my bill would be higher than the amount I had agreed to pay, it was mystifying that a provider would encourage me to check “all the details” of my new tariff if their systems are going to show me the wrong information!

So I asked if there was a mismatch between the system the customer service rep was using (which told her the bill would be £17.50) and the one that powers the web portal I was looking at (telling me £20.83). The poor lady had no real answer, and there was no way to escalate this issue except by arranging a callback from her manager. So I agreed to receive the manager’s call within the next two hours…

After two days elapsed it became clear that nobody was going to call me back. So I called the provider again, and was put through to a helpful chap called Richard. After reiterating my complaint, Richard used his calculator to determine the likely explanation of the discrepancy: £20.83 is the monthly price of the plan before adding 20 percent Value Added Tax (VAT). Including VAT would raise the price paid by the consumer to £25. So the figure displayed was showing the charge before VAT, but it also omitted the 30 percent discount I was supposed to receive. Why would anyone design a self-service portal that advises you of a monthly charge that is not the amount you will be actually charged because it ignores the discounts on the plan?

Sadly, Richard could not answer that question, and nor did I expect him to. So our productive conversation moved on to my using some magic words so Richard could explain to his manager why my complaint must be escalated – instead of being ignored in the same way that must have happened countless times as customers entitled to discounts queried what they were shown online. The good news is that the provider finally admitted there was a fundamental flaw in their approach and recognized the need to fix it instead of making excuses for misinformation. It is just a shame that the UK’s comms regulator has never learned how to do the same.

If you enjoyed this story then you will get more of the same wry observations about the telecoms industry by watching RAG Television, the live streaming discussion show hosted by Lee Scargall and me. Today’s show will feature our review of 2020 and analysis of the results of the RAG RAFM Survey. Just flick to the RAG TV webpage to watch live and join the discussion at 8am Eastern, 1pm UK and 6.30pm Indian time. You can save the show in the right time zone per your diary by clicking here, or receive automatic updates of all our weekly Wednesday shows by subscribing here.

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.