By calling 34 minutes per day Unlimited, is BT mis-selling?

I explore below a recent encounter with BT, my domestic telecoms provider, as an example of poor communication, product mis-selling and a strained attempt at using social media to mask customer service issues embedded in an organisation.

What's painful for me is that I actually quite like BT - cards on table: I used to work for them, I'm a shareholder and I think on the whole they have pretty good products. So I'm writing this with utmost transparency and a slight pang in my heart.

I may work in telecoms, but in real life I'm also just an ordinary consumer; I need consumer products and consumer levels of service. I should not have to rely on specialist knowledge to use and enjoy mass market products. I also value my time and like my dealings with companies to be efficient and organised.And I also have an interest in interaction design and business processes, especially in the field of customer service, because basically fixing and improving them is what I do for a job.

So, recently I became enagaged in a conversation with BT on Twitter, because I wanted to understand properly what the usage allowance was for BT Broadband talk (a domestic Voice over IP package) - a product for which use is quoted as "unlimited" with the customary asterisk by the side to mean "not REALLY unlimited" (see image).

Here's that twitter conversation word for word.


  • me: So, BT offers "*unlimited broadband talk calls if you redial" but quotes "abuse policy applies" - WHERE IS THIS POLICY? BT website sucks #fb
  • BTCare: Hi, have a look at this .. .. The info you are looking for is at bottom of the page..hope it helps
  • me: That's the page I'm complaining about! It says "Abuse policy applies" - WHERE is the policy!??? (i.e. original question) :-(
  • BTCare: It's at under "Using the service", point 22 to 30. General abuse policy applies to all telephony.
  • me: thank you! I'd like to suggest that references to this policy on product pages are hyperlinked to it. That's how the web works ;-)
  • me: so to be clear: on BT Broadband Talk you can redial every 60 mins for free calls indefinitely and no monthly (abuse) cap applies...
  • BTCare: A Fair Usage Policy of 1000 minutes or 150 calls a month applies. for more info
  • me: thanks. So my next question is, how do you know how many broadband talk minutes you've used? is there a page to find out?
  • BTCare: There is no facility to monitor calls to be honest. As you can see though, you have alot of minutes to use on a monthly basis
  • me: "a lot" = subjective. So BBTalk allowance = 34 mins per day. Calling this "unlimited*" is tantamount to mis-selling. OFCOM's view?


at this point the conversation stopped - it seems BTCare had nothing more to say!

So, let me cover some of the basic errors in this mini-saga.

The First error is that which caused my problem in the first place - lack of clarity on the product pages at such as:


  • mentioning something but not referencing it properly so I can find it
  • writing a single paragraph covering two topics - leaving the reader wondering if the items are related or separate.


The issue here is that the paragaph in question (see first para in image above) starts by covering 0845 & 0870 numbers and then apparently changes in scope without being clear that it does so.

The second error, once the twitter conversation started, was the company didn't LISTEN to my question. I asked for the abuse policy - the response was to tell me where it is mentioned (the very page i was viewing), not where it is published.

The third error is the confusion caused by using the terms "abuse" and "fair use" to describe various forms of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour - this is like introducing some kind of "low-watermark" and "high-watermark" points as to acceptable behaviour. It's like telling a child some of their behaviour is "bad" and some of it is "unacceptable". That's confusing. I don't want that - just tell me what I can and can't do - just draw ONE line in the sand. I asked for the abuse policy because it seemed to that's what going over an allowance would be; turns out I need the fair use policy.

The fourth issue is that the company has "fair use" limits it expects you to abide by, and yet has no way of allowing you to monitor whether you are within those limits. This is patently ridiculous. Who ever heard of a car without a speedo, odometer and fuel guage? This is a 21st Century technology product, billed by usage, a usage you cannot track. It's not just ridiculous, it's verging on sharp practice.

Finally - the crux of my whole enquiry - the fair use (or as I thought, abuse) policy. What BT seems to have confirmed is that your "unlimited" allowance of minutes is actually limited to 1000 per month. It may seem a lot, as BTCare tried to point out, but that's actually under 34 minutes per day. (And please don't insult me by telling me how valuable call minutes are to me; in my world it's nowhere near "a lot").

Can they really be justified in calling this unlimited?

Ways forward

Setting my whole concern about the positioning of "unlimited minutes" itself, I fear this conversation is symptomatic of any large organisation that "talks the talk" as far as customer service is concerned, but fails to grapple with it effectively.

I spend much of my time working with organisations that are struggling in this way. The modern consumer is often a well-informed multi-channel being - often more informed than some of customer service represenatives of the organisation itself. This presents a challenge - and businesses need to rise to that challenge.

There's a bit of back-patting going on at BT over its use of twitter (, but responding on twitter is not really fixing anything. Rather it's implicitly acknowledging that there are cracks in service and attempting to paper over them. And it's not scalable either. Full marks for trying, but you haven't prevented the problem from occuring over and over again.

So, what are the kinds of things organisations like BT need to do to be effective at customer service:

  • they need to listen, listen and listen again - properly
  • continually improve the use of the right tools for content management and publishing, especially across multiple channels; including the training for how to publish customer facing content (I've written for in the past and know what's involved).
  • you need a feedback loop; stop treating web pages of information as the answer to all questions just because it's cheap (this strategy reminds me very much of an anecdote from a bank that revoked its policy on being able to call branches.
    Caller: can I speak to my branch?
    Call Centre: sorry Madam, no. Anything they can answer, I can now answer for you.
    Caller: OK, I think i left my glasses there this morning - have you got them?)
  • view customer service across channels (web, phone, twitter, IM, email) holistically, not as silos - viewing transfer across channels not so much as "escalation" but "unified communication" and embracing it and enabling it rather than denying it
  • test self-service and assisted-service with real "use cases" of real customers - i.e. user centric design with workflows designed around the tasks customers want to complete not pathways designed around internal business processes.

No-one says this is easy - but nor is it impossible.