Bunhill: Daylight hold-up pays off for BT

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The Independent Online
SO, BT made profits of pounds 96 a second in its last quarter. Quite a lot of it, I suspect, was drummed up by the growing number of organisations that greet incoming phone calls by plonking them into a queue.

'You are held in a queue and will be answered shortly,' says the recorded message. If you're unlucky, you get a slug of computer-generated music to keep you company. Meanwhile, the meter is ticking away - at 5p a minute for peak-rate local calls and 121 2 p for long-distance.

Numerous businesses, councils, airports, theatres and other organisations programme their overloaded switchboards to trot out the dreaded message. Nowadays, we do more queuing than the average Muscovite. The difference is we do it with a slab of plastic clamped to our ears, listening to electronic Greensleeves.

If just 1 per cent of telephone time is spent in such queues, BT is making pounds 130m a year from the scourge.

Vivienne Peters, head of the Telecommunications Users' Association, says: 'I think it's iniquitous. A lot of people don't realise they are paying when they are held in a queue. They think they don't start paying until they get through to someone.' (Worse still, she says, are mobile telephones. Callers to mobiles that are switched off are still charged 20p for the privilege of hearing a message telling them so.)

British Rail is an exception. Callers to its inquiries numbers are put into a queue, but they keep hearing the ringing tone and therefore do not clock up a bill. Unfortunately, they are not told they are in a queue. Impatient callers visualise a solitary cobweb-covered Bakelite telephone eternally ignored in a deserted office. So BR still gets masses of complaints.

Every company, says Ms Peters, has the painful choice between alienating customers by seeming not to answer the phone or alienating customers by inflating their phone bills.

Of course, they could always employ more switchboard operators and not do either.