The long awaited final version of the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Payments) Regulations (the Regulations), which implement the Consumer Rights Directive, were finally laid before Parliament on 13 December 2013 and come into force on 13 June 2014. BIS has also published additional guidance in an attempt to clarify some aspects of the Regulations which were less than clear in the original draft regulations issued last August.
One of the most contentious changes made by the Regulations is that the use of premium rate and revenue sharing telephone numbers by traders will be significantly limited. Although the regulations do not ban the use of all such numbers, this change will have a significant cost implication for many hospitality and leisure providers which currently utilise customer helpline numbers beginning with 0845 and similar numbers.
What are the new rules?
Under Regulation 41, customer service helplines for calls relating to existing contracts can only be charged at a basic rate.
Therefore businesses must offer one of the following numbers for post contract communications:
- geographic number (which usually begins with the prefix 01,02 and 03);
- a mobile number (which usually begins with the prefix 07);
- free phone numbers (0800 and 0808).
Although ‘basic rate’ is not defined in the regulations, the BIS guidance states that this means the charge should not be more than calling a geographic or mobile number and the number provided should not provide the business with a contribution to costs. Consequently 0845, 0871 and 0872 numbers will not be compliant.
The Government will also be reviewing the basic rate following OFCOM tariff structure reforms which are due to be implemented in 2015. A key feature of OFCOM’s reforms is the proposal to make 0800 and 0808 numbers free on both landlines and mobiles.
Do businesses have to provide a telephone helpline?
The Regulations do not oblige businesses to operate a post- contract telephone helpline. A business operating a post contract helpline may also retain a separate number for non-post contract queries.
If a business does have more than one number it will need to ensure the basic rate helpline number is displayed as prominently as other numbers. This change is unlikely to be welcomed by businesses, especially those which have tried to make it easier for customers to contact them by providing a single telephone number. If a business chooses to have one number which consumers can call in relation to pre or post contract queries, the number must be compliant with the Regulations.
What changes will businesses with helplines have to make?
- Provide a number which meets the above criteria.
- Ensure this number is displayed prominently – this may involve changes to standard letters, marketing, signage etc.
- Consider whether more than one number is required e.g. one for the post contract helpline and one for other enquiries.
For those businesses which already provide free to call 0800 numbers the new rules will have little impact. However, for others the costs of compliance could be substantial, as telephone numbers are currently widely displayed on the side of vehicles, in published materials, delivery notes, customer terms and conditions and in existing customer communications, including websites and advertising materials.
Whilst the majority of consumers will probably welcome these changes, if businesses do continue to operate more than one number it may cause confusion. Consumers who are accustomed to using a single telephone number to contact a trader will now have to select the correct number for their query. We are not convinced that this change delivers its objective, namely making it easier for consumers to access a brand’s help and advice in situations where things have gone wrong.