Money: Need a number? 118 118 runs with the idea it can talk you into using a rival firm: Telecoms: Outrage as phone service tries to persuade callers to connect to a different company it is being paid to push. Miles Brignall reports
(Guardian (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) If you rang directory inquires to get the telephone number of, for example, your chosen travel agent - paying perhaps pounds 3.50 for the privilege - would you expect it to try and persuade you to switch to a rival travel firm?
It has emerged this week that when call centre staff at market leader 118 118 are asked for a number of a business, they give a sales pitch highlighting "special offers" from rival firms and suggest the caller calls them, instead.
The practice came to light when a caller asked for a travel agent in Uttoxeter, Staffordshire, only to be offered the number of chain outlet the Flight Centre instead.
The caller was trying to contact Journeys a la Carte, which had just been named the winner of the "best travel agent" category in this year's Guardian and Observer Readers' Travel Awards. But rather than handing over the number or offering to put them through, the caller was read the sales pitch for the Flight Centre.
118 118, which is heavily advertised by a pair of moustachioed 70s runners, has since told Guardian Money it is offering this cross-selling of "carefully selected" partners - with the approval of the regulator - across all its services.
Unsurprisingly, the owner of Journeys a la Carte, Margaret May, is distinctly unimpressed. "We work really hard for our reputation, which is why people want to contact us in the first place. It makes me really angry that people are being encouraged to go elsewhere by this firm. It's not right, and I wonder how many other firms know that this is being done?" she says.
Her staff called 118 118 several times, asking for her firm's details and those of other travel agents. In seven out of nine calls the operator tried to get them to speak to the Flight Centre.
When Money called we were given the same sales pitch: "We have a special offer from another travel company, the Flight Centre, who are offering free flights if they cannot beat the price you are given. Would you like their number or to be connected?" We were asked twice, although the original requested number was eventually handed over.
A spokesman for 118 118 robustly defended the decision to start cross-selling services, and suggested it was partly because the firms on its database had paid nothing to be there.
"118 118 operates ethically and fairly on behalf of callers and businesses, and additional offers that may be made during a call are wholly compliant with the code of practice set out by PhonepayPlus, which regulates all premium rate telephone services. The caller is always, without exception, offered the choice of the number of the listing they called for. We recognise the idea of directory enquiries giving additional information and offers is relatively new. We are pleased to report it is proving its value, offering the prospect of savings and additional choices for callers, and new trade for businesses," he says.
With increasing use of the internet and smartphones, calls to directory inquiry services have fallen - partly because it is so expensive. One minute to 118 118 from a landline costs pounds 3.58; extra minutes are a further pounds 1.99. If you agree to be put through it is pounds 2 a minute for the duration of the call.
PhonepayPlus says: "The decision to provide further information to the customer is in the hands of the provider, but this should be done appropriately so that the caller can reject any alternative and receive the information they requested without undue delay. If a caller feels that they have been unreasonably delayed, then they should contact us."
Fit for purpose? The familar 118 118 runners appear in a series of adverts for the market leading directory enquiries line
(c) 2013 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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