The perils of online billing…

This content is 13 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Like most people, the mail I receive from the postman these days breaks into three categories:

As I use Direct Debits to pay my bills, they generally need little more than a cursory glance before being “filed” (i.e. chucked in a big box until I get around to doing it properly) but I also elect for paper-free billing where it makes sense.

I say “where it makes sense” because so many organisations (e.g. First Direct, ING Direct, Marks and Spencer Money) seem to think that providing records in HTML, CSV or Quicken format is enough – and it’s not, in my opinion.  The paper-free billing that has value to me provides a PDF of the paper bill that would have been sent to me by post and organisations that do this include American Express, BT and E-ON.

The wrong way

If you were watching my Twitter stream over the weekend, you might have seen me ranting about BT‘s paper-free billing though, because there is a catch: and it’s one that’s worth knowing about.

I mentioned how haphazard my paper filing is and my digital filing is not much better.  I get the emails notifying me that my bill is ready for download and I generally think “OK, I’ll look at that later”.  After all, I know it will be paid (by Direct Debit) and, if there is a problem, I’ll notice the exceptionally large/small transaction on my bank account and investigate at that time.  Every once in a while, I get around to downloading the statements and storing them in my “digital filing cabinet” (my NAS, at home).

Except that I’m finding more and more of my providers don’t maintain a complete history for download. And BT was the one that really took the biscuit… I logged into BT’s website to retrieve my statements and successfully downloaded around 15 or 16 months’ worth. My problem was that I had a gap between the last time I did this, and the oldest statement available online.  I called BT, who told me I only have access to 6 months history (really? I can see more than that!) and that I could write a letter requesting the missing statements. Smelling a rat, I asked how much that would cost. £4.80 per bill, I was told. I said I wouldn’t be needing the address, thank you very much, and hung up.

Then I hit Twitter:

If you're going to encourage me to go for paper-free billing, the least you can do is keep my complete history online... #BTDoesntCare
Mark Wilson
#BT have advised me to *write them a letter* then they want me to pay £4.80 for each archived bill. So much for paper-free billing #epicfail
Mark Wilson

I got several sympathetic responses (including one follower who says BT promised him unlimited access to statements when he signed up for paper-free billing so he pushed the issue and was sent every single statement since his account was opened…) but one in particular copied in the @BTCare account. I had previously ignored that account, preferring hashtags like #BTDoesntCare because my previous experience of @BTCare had been unhelpful, but this time they responded with a URL for a web form, promising to follow up the issue.

The next day (a Sunday, no less, and which should be applauded), BT called (from a call centre in Northern Ireland, rather than the normal Indian operation) and explained that I only had access to 6 months statements online and words to the effect of “it wasn’t their fault I hadn’t downloaded my statements in time, as they had sent them to me each month by email”. I pointed out that they hadn’t sent me the statements – what they actually sent was an email saying words to the effect of “your statement is ready, when you want to go and take a look” but not “be quick before it’s gone”. I also highlighted that they give me a £1 a month discount for paper-free billing and to charge any more than that was unreasonable – £4.80 for access to old bills was obscene, especially as I don’t want a paper bill – the PDFs will be fine.  At this point BT changed tack, claiming that they had some discretion, and offering to email me the missing bills.  After needing to speak to my wife (because it’s her name on the account and they can’t cope with two people being jointly responsible for a bill…), they sent me the missing statements and I was a happy camper. Almost.

I say almost because this shouldn’t happen. How many people who are less connected online, or less pushy on the phone, would have just paid up the £33.60 BT wanted for seven statements and invested  time/effort/cost into posting a letter? And why is there only 6 months’ history available (and I’m “lucky” because I can see a bit more than that)?  The answer to that is poor IT, or poor decision making – presumably someone made an arbitrary decision to limit online statement availability and reduce the storage cost to BT – ironically, these statements are clearly available to BT’s customer services staff, although they may well be dynamically generated (as they used to be on the customer-facing website which, incidentally, was a painful process and the reason I rarely went in to download them!). Or, to take another view, how much did sorting out this mess cost BT (quite a bit, I would imagine, so surely it’s better to get it right first time)?

Thanks to @ for fixing up my issue with old statements: shame I had to push so hard; If only first contact centre could have helped...
Mark Wilson

The right way

Now let me give you an example of an organisation that has paper-free statements working perfectly: American Express.

I would use AmEx exclusively if only their cards were as widely accepted as Visa or Mastercard but their web portal allows me to download the most recent six months’ statements and, crucially, to request any previous statements for retrieval within 24 hours, at no cost to me.  At the back end, I’m sure the statements are pulled from near-line or off-line storage to on-line, managing American Express’ storage efficiently but almost transparently to me, and delivering an excellent customer experience.

I’ll finish this post (I’m sorry, it is a bit or a rant), with a partial retweet from Simon Bisson that just about sums up the situation for me:

RT @: [re: my missing statements] [...] They're records, they should be available to us for as long as we have accounts ^MW Hear hear
Mark Wilson

Well done American Express. BT and E-ON you need to do better. Bottom of the class: almost everyone else I deal with…

2 thoughts on “The perils of online billing…

  1. I can’t understand why BT don’t simply email people the PDF bill each month instead of just the reminder that your bill is ready to view! It can’t be too hard to incorporate an attachment to the email!

  2. My thoughts exactly Peter – they’ll probably say it’s for security reasons (email being an insecure transport, etc.) but then again so is the postal system for paper bills…

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