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Consumer watchdog dreams up another free lunch

The Finnish Consumers’ Association today publicly reiterated their disapproval of chargeable customer service numbers. According to the association, businesses who use such numbers “chip away at consumer protection”, and consumers should support businesses that use freephone numbers.

So let’s make telephone calls free, and the world will become a better place—right? Wrong. First of all, anything that can be obtained for free is abused. For example, you may have noted that as the winter holiday season approaches, your local 112 or similar emergency service operator often cautions the public to use such numbers only for true emergencies. These reminders have become necessary because handsets are popular gifts; as calls to the emergency number usually are free, people tend to call such numbers just in order to try out their shiny new phone, selfishly causing responses to life-and-death situations to be delayed.

Similar forms of abuse include asking the emergency operator to call a taxi or to connect a non-emergency call to some third party. Telephone companies and other businesses with widely known freephone numbers suffer from the same predicament, although corporate image reasons may preclude them from complaining in public.

Secondly, the proverbial free meal still does not exist. Whenever a business provides customer service over the telephone, someone will have to pay for the connectivity as well as for the time and other resources provided at the other end of the line. If the call is free of charge for the person placing it, those costs will simply have to be baked into some other price.

In short, not only do freephone services tend to cause unnecessary costs; additionally, those costs are often paid, in the form of higher prices, by innocent third parties—customers who themselves may seldom or never use the “free” services!

Providing customer service on a reasonably priced premium rate number has several advantages. Customers usually have the option to contact businesses by email or over the web, even if it is in order to request a phone call. However, if they do require service over the telephone here and now, the business is automatically compensated. Additionally, if the service is one the business would charge for anyway, a premium rate number means fewer invoices to send and control (and, from the customer’s viewpoint, to pay). Finally, a moderate charge does wonders for clarity and brevity of communication!

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