Time to free the phones

How are you being served?
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Why do lawyers and hotels insist on charging over the odds for telephone calls? Stuart Crainer blows the whistle.

The legal profession has declared itself immune to the customer service revolution. It is above such trifles - or so it seems to think. Take my experiences.

I wanted some legal advice, so called a local solicitors. The receptionist sat patiently by the telephone and let it ring. Some companies insist that a phone is answered within three rings; legal firms tend to take a more relaxed approach. Eventually, the receptionist barked the firm's name at me. I explained my situation. With her hand inexpertly cupped over the receiver, she conferred with a colleague: "He says he wants to talk to a solicitor ... Now, it's not wills or conveyancing, so who would that be?" A few minutes were spent in earnest discussion of who was the most appropriate partner. I was then put through to the wrong one - "I don't why you've been put through to me" - but eventually found a friendly solicitor.

Once again, I ran through the details quickly and asked whether we could arrange a meeting. The solicitor was positive, and we set up an appointment. I then asked what his rates were. "We charge pounds 100 per hour," he said. I was briefly silent, regretting my career choice. The solicitor took this for doubt - which it was - and added, "Of course, I won't charge you for this phone call."

Staggering, really. If you are a plumber you should try it next time a prospective customer calls. "My charge for mending your cistern is pounds 50, but I won't charge you for the two minutes we've spent on the phone."

In many ways, the white-hot heat of technology has bypassed the legal profession. Solicitors tend not to have answering machines - or else they employ receptionists who are such megalomaniacs that they do not deign to switch them on when they disappear at exactly one o'clock for lunch.

Solicitors also manage to have the most expensive phone lines in the world. Simple local calls appear on their invoices as calls which have apparently been diverted to Australia by way of a reverse charge conference call to Caracas. The normal postal system is also eschewed by legal firms. Instead, they use their own system which, as you would expect, costs a lot more. While you and I pay 26 pence for a first-class stamp, solicitors pay at least pounds 5 - and the letter always takes a lot longer to get there. And you can rest assured that the more important the document, the slower it will be.

Hotels have a similar approach to telephone calls. Their extraordinary mark-ups must mean immense profits. But what are we paying for? It is an additional service, the hotels would say by way of justification. This is ludicrous. In 1998, having a telephone in your room is hardly a luxury. The annoyance - let alone the outrage - such charges cause customers cannot be worth it.

In the long term it must be preferable, both for hotels and for solicitors, to increase charges by a few per cent and make calls free. Who knows, it might even provide a competitive advantage.