Andrew Bibby


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Andrew Bibby is a professional writer and journalist, working as an independent consultant for a number of international and national organisations, and as a regular contributor to British national newspapers and magazines. He is also the author of a number of books.

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Call centres - time to get your own back

This is an edited version of an article by Andrew Bibby which first appeared in Choice, 2009

Call centres: they're surely one of the most unpleasant aspects of modern life. If you're utterly sick of endless submenus, listening to Vivaldi on hold, or repeating the same information several times over to different agents, here are our tips on how to get your own back – politely and courteously, of course.

What number do you dial?

Most call centres are reached through special 08- telephone numbers. 0800 and 0808 numbers are free, 0844 and 0845 numbers are charged at local rates, and 0870/0871 numbers are charged at national call rates.

Except that, these days, it's a little more complicated. If you have signed up for a inclusive telephone package which offers you free calling, you will probably find that 0844/5 and 0870/1 numbers, unlike normal phone numbers, are excluded from your package. Frustratingly, you'll have to pay for these calls. Even more frustratingly, a part of the cost of your call may well be going to the company or organisation you're calling since it's common for revenue from these calls to be shared in this way.

Even freephone numbers won't necessarily be free if you are using a mobile phone. Paradoxically, depending on your mobile phone tariff, you may save money by ringing a standard geographical phone number.

So how do you find the ‘real' numbers behind the 08- façade? Citizen power and the internet have come together here to launch the participative Say No to 0870 website. This site offers a database of geographic numbers for many of the common 08- numbers, discovered and submitted by users of the website. You may even find local numbers for your bank branch listed here.

Say No to 0870 also has an extensive online discussion forum, where you can post requests for particular numbers.

Get a record of what you said

  “Please note that this call may be monitored…” We have learned to accept that everything we say when ringing up a call centre is likely to be recorded. For some transactions – particularly when money is involved – this can be a welcome safeguard.

The fact remains, however, that call recording can reinforce the sense of power inequality inherent in call centre transactions - we have to wait patiently to get through, they control the technology and get to keep the record of what we said

Although it's currently very little used, customers appear to have a legal right to apply to be given a copy of these recordings. Under the Data Protection Act, there is a standard right to apply to organisations which hold personal information about you. This is known as a ‘subject access request' (ie you're asking to be sent information about yourself), and it applies to private companies as much as to public organisations. (It is quite distinct from the Freedom of Information regulations, which apply just to public bodies).

The right to make subject access requests should be much better known. It is invaluable if you are in dispute with a company, since you can request correspondence and internal documentation – and, if you find that the firm holds wrong information about you, you can point out that they are in breach of the Data Protection Act's duty to process information fairly. The Information Commissioner's Office, the government agency which oversees the Data Protection Act, confirmed that subject access requests can be made for recordings. The ICO says that these may be supplied as transcripts or as electronic recordings, but should be supplied in a form which is intelligible to you.

It's easy to make a request. Write to the Company Secretary of the organisation, at the head office (this information can usually be found on the web), giving your full name and address. It's useful to say in the letter that you are making a subject access request, using the Data Protection Act 1988, and you may wish to send the letter using Royal Mail's ‘signed for' or special delivery services.

Companies may come back to you to ask you for further information or to confirm your identity, but should reply to your request within forty days. They are entitled to ask for a fee (normally no more than £10).

The ICO website has useful information about using the Data Protection Act. Its helpline is on 08456 306060 (or, if you're avoiding 08- numbers, 01625 545745).


“This call is being recorded – by me…”

It's easier than you might think to record the telephone calls you make – so when you first get through to the agent, you'll be able to advise them that you're recording the conversation, too. You just may find that the service you get suddenly improves!

You can record calls either the old-fashioned analogue way (for example, on cassettes or microcassettes) or digitally as electronic files which you can store, for example, on your PC. The latter route enables you to retrieve and edit recordings fairly easily. You can buy special phones with a built-in recording facility, or devices which plug into your phone and enable you to use a recorder you already possess. Prices for these start at about £15 (the cheapest versions work only with cassette recorders). Either go to a specialist electronics shop such as Maplin or check products via the internet.

Incidentally, you have the legal right to record your own conversations for your own use. There may be legal restrictions if you make your recordings available to others.


“My letter is in the post”

If you're utterly sick of speaking to call centres, you may prefer to communicate with your bank, utility company or phone company the old-fashioned way, by letter.

Incoming mail sent to larger organisations – even if you address it to a local office – is likely to be routed to a central handling office, where it may be recorded electronically by being scanned. You won't necessarily get the personal attention you're hoping for.

It's probably better to use the call centre option for relatively simple transactions such as changes to your insurance or your phone tariff. If you feel you are heading towards a potential dispute, use written communication and keep a copy of the letters you send.


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