Are You Using the Phone Service You Are Paying For?

First published: 21st October 2010

Many companies, particularly SME's are looking to cut costs and improve efficiency in these difficult economic times. However, they may be overlooking that they are spending thousands more than necessary on phone services, or loosing business because services are not being delivered.

The first place to start checking is the bill - do the services listed match your company's requirements? That may seem obvious, but it is easy to miss small differences - for example, do you know the difference between a Hunting Line and a Premium Hunting Line? Both group together several lines under one number, so an incoming call rings on the first available line. A Premium Hunting Line also provides call transfer, three-way conference and call forwarding, and costs $31 more per month. OK, those are features many companies need, but many companies using hunting lines have them connected to their own office phone system (this may be a PABX or a Keyline system, there is a technical difference, but good luck finding a salesperson who can tell you what that difference is) and the phone system also provides the same features. Therefore, a company can save the extra cost by reminding its staff how to use its existing equipment.

But why would a company decide to change to Premium lines, if it does not need it? Some phone companies are passing on their customer lists to agents ("Authorized Solution Providers") who are making telesales calls to up sell the Premium lines. Often, the change is sweetened by the offer of a "free month" of the new services. So, a member of staff who has forgotten about, or was never told of, the company's phone systems' capabilities might approve the change. Worse, the agent might order the change by mistake! One company found that, during a three-month period in 2002, two different agents for their phone company ordered an upgrade of their Hunting Lines to the Premium service. As the company has five hunting lines, this represents $155 per month or $1860 per year in extra charges. Attentive staff spotted the change, but it could have easily been overlooked. It is remarkable that a phone company will accept an unauthorised change order from a third party (their agent), but require additional confirmation, such as B.R number, when a call is made from one of the very lines in question. Fortunately, a permanent fix to the problem of unauthorised changes by third parties is simple: instruct your phone company to only accept written instructions with a signature and company chop direct from your company.

A second area where there might be problems is with Direct Dial In (DDI) lines. That is where the office extension number becomes the last few digits of the phone number. A small company might be allocated a block of one hundred numbers, and have four physical DDI lines, the public exchange communicates the destination extension to the company's phone system, which then connects the call through directly. DDI lines only allow incoming calls. What happens if there is a fault on one or more lines? The other lines continue to receive calls and the company probably notices no change. However, the callers will receive the "Busy" signal more often. As the phone company relies on customer fault reports a line fault might go unnoticed for months. During that time, the customer is paying for a service that is not being provided, and, at $220 per month for each DDI line, that can soon add up. If asked, the phone company will advise that the equipment vendor would normally test the DDI lines every 3 to 6 months. Companies would be well advised to make sure their maintenance contracts explicitly included such testing.

However, six months is a long time for a phone line to be faulty, especially when your company is paying for it, and perhaps loosing business because of it, so how can you test your own DDI lines? Technically, it is not difficult to test, but it does require some organisation and it quickly becomes more difficult when there are more DDI lines. The objective of the test is to make sure that you can hold as many conversations as the number of DDI lines you are paying for. First, the test should be performed at a quiet time - having other incoming calls during the test will confuse the counting, and the test ties up all the lines. Second, you need as many outgoing lines as you have DDI lines - these can be other office lines or mobile phones. Then, simply use each of the outgoing lines to call different DDI numbers - answer the calls and stay on the line until the test is complete (you may find it convenient to have several people helping you). Make sure you can hold as many simultaneous conversations as you have DDI lines. If you get a Busy signal, then either there is a line fault, or another incoming call is occupying a line. A small company could perform this test weekly; say early Saturday morning, to make sure it was getting what it paid for. One small company with four DDI lines discovered three DDI line faults in a six-month period. Larger companies with more DDI lines would probably find it too difficult to perform an uninterrupted test, so they should discuss other testing options with their system vendor.

So, these are two ways that companies might be paying for more than they are using. Worse, they might be missing business opportunities because customers are getting the Busy signal too often.

No statistics exist about how common these problems are in Hong Kong.

Written in May 2003 for the South China Morning Post, but never published.