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New nuisance: Call Limit

I have not mentioned the concept of the call limit in the past, and yesterday we unwittingly ran afoul of it.

In a nutshell, when a landline phone service is being established in the UK, the phone company determines the monetary limit that the customer should stay under during any given billing cycle. Exceed the limit – and your outgoing calls are summarily blocked unless you pay down the balance with a credit card (if you are so inclined, you can wait to pay your bill in the normal fashion at the end of the cycle, but you will only be able to receive calls during this time).

When I inquired about the meaning of this limit upon setting up my first UK phone line, the British Telecom rep gave me a spiel about protecting customers from running up bills that they may be unable to pay. Riiiight! How about giving a service provider a ready-to-use safeguard against risks of extending a credit?

Anyway, our limit is at £100. As far as I understand, this is being determined according to the available credit history (and as some of my oldest readers may remember, I had literally none of it at the beginning – I am actually not very sure about its state at present; something to look into). We never had a bill over £55, though.

Suddenly, yesterday afternoon, Natasha dials a number and hears a recorded message of the following content: “This line has been restricted. If you want the restriction lifted, please have your credit card ready”. WTF!

We call customer service and are advised that our current balance is already at £112. When we ask how that is possible, – the last bill of £52 is already paid in full, and we are only in the third week of the monthly cycle, – the rep on the other end mentions many phone calls to Russia. When we counter that we make 40-50 calls to Russia every month and never come even close to £100 in charges, the rep apologizes and advises us that she can only take our payment, but not service our inquiry about the charges. We need to call a different department (remember how that works?), which is currently closed. In the meantime, if we want the unimpeded use of our landline, we need to pay.

I correctly surmise that I’ve got nothing to lose by paying at least a portion of the total, – if I end up successfully disputing the charges, there will be a forward credit on the account, – and that restores the service (not immediately – only by the next morning). Then I call customer service today, and after spending a whole hour on hold and in conversations with two different agents, realize that I’m not going to get anywhere until I receive the next bill. Customer Service Department does not have access to current records – they can only lookup data up to the last billing cycle. They do, however, advise me that I must be not utilizing the discounted way of dialing Russia, which could explain high charges. My protestations, supported by the previous bills that list dozens of cheap Russia calls, are all for naught in the absence of the specific call charges to dispute.

The way we dial Russia is a logical place to look for an explanation. After our friend Ari commented on this post, we recognized that our TalkTalk service provided a comparatively cheap way to call Russia, if only we were dialing with a proper prefix. Since then, Natasha started to utilize that very heavily, especially as she has been talking to her brother almost daily since the events of last December. Some of those calls last for close to an hour, and only a few of such calls would be needed to breach the aforementioned limit at 50p or something per minute.

But, of course, she dials the prefix, lowering the cost to only 4p a minute. Several bills, encompassing hundreds of calls, support the notion that she never forgets to do that. So, having a few of un-prefixed calls charged to us out of the blue can only be explained by glitches in the billing mechanism. Which is a battle I’ll have to wage in a couple of weeks, when the next bill arrives.

But there you have it – a call limit. It melts my heart knowing that the phone company is well protected from us using the phone too much.


  1. Jeri

    You didn’t think that customer service was actually there to help *you* did you? Silly customer. 😉

    (You may not know this but I work for a medium-sized US telephone, cable & internet company.)

  2. Ilya

    It could be that I am no longer in tune with the customer service in the US, Jeri, but I’ve never had that many bad customer service experiences until I moved to the UK (browse “Customerography” for other examples). The way I recall it, US customer services have three important components that are lacking in UK: toll-free numbers, 24×7 helplines (or, at least, hours that considerably extend beyong 9-5 Mon-Fri timeframe), and agents/supervisors who are possibly incentivized to keep the customer at least somewhat content…

    This is a generalization, of course. Bad service happens in the States, exceptional service happens in UK. On average, though, I find the UK service rather lacking…

  3. Vince

    I’m amazed that there are limits. That would greatly annoy me. I use my cell phone for long distance when out and about, and when at home/work I use Skype. I have their $3/month unlimited calling to the US and Canada plan. Calling Russia would be extra, and at least here, price depends on where in Russia (it’s 4.8 cents a minute to most of Russia, but St. Petersburg and Moscow is 2.1 cents a minute, and 7.1 cents a minute to mobile phones). I don’t know what costs would be from the UK.

  4. Ilya

    We don’t use Skype primarily because having the PC regularly occupied for purposes of a phone call would be extremely annoying to me 🙂

    I am pretty sure that the cost would be similar, if not exactly the same… I think we’ll go back to using American calling cards, anyway…

  5. papa

    what amazes me is that the phone company is limiting their profits by trying to avoid the risk of somebody not be able to pay.

  6. Ilya

    Correct observation, Dad, but business models throughout Europe seem to put premium on limiting inconvenience to the provider, rather than on maximizing profits. Of that, I’ve seen tons of examples.

  7. Jeri

    The priorities in most call centers are selling more product/service and maintaining good call stats – which means minimizing average time on the phone and getting to the next call. Most entry level agents are not very interested in solving complex problems, and in fact, would rather not if it would take too much time on the phone and hurt the agent’s call stats.

    Call centers are the sweat shops of the 21st century, it’s really sad.

    I don’t doubt that it might be even more challenging in the UK where state-owned utilities and lack of competition disincent customer service to some degree. Still, in the US, we are regulated and complaints reaching the utilities commission are taken seriously.

    I do think it’s bizarre that a longtime customer with a solid payment history would be limited in a way that impacts the phone company’s revenue! Very strange.

  8. Ilya

    BT’s use of 0800 numbers for customer service is the exception, at least in my experience. Alas, I am not a BT customer…

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