Retail pharmacists spend much of the working day balancing time between running a business and providing service to customers, in addition to updating their knowledge of latest industry developments. Any possibility of timesaving measures is worth serious consideration, providing solutions are dependable and cost effective.

A headache for many surrounds the plethora of companies eager to promote their cheap telephone lines, calls and broadband services. If that wasn’t bad enough, each supplier seems to have an abundance of products available making the choice endless and ridiculously confusing. We will all have been approached by companies offering inclusive minutes, rentals and broadband, and in some cases even television (which of us has the time or inclination to watch during the working day?) in return for a monthly fee which is usually half price or free for the first three, six or even nine months. Do we have time to identify where in the small print we are advised of connection charges for certain types of call or the out of package excess charges? They don’t appear to shout too much about the costs once the discounted holiday period is over, nor the minimum contract term for them to recoup their initial discounts.

How should we make an informed decision concerning the merits of free, top of the range maintenance cover for our important telephone lines against a cheap calls package, both of which may make savings against the larger and higher profile suppliers?

The call package minefield

Call packages are a minefield apart. In return for a regular monthly additional payment and sometimes contracted for a minimum term, they usually provide “free” inclusive local and national calls. These are invariably the cheapest calls you will make, apart from Freephone calls, and rarely do they include calls to mobiles or international calls.

Another marketing ploy enjoyed by some companies is the capped call. Typically these calls will be limited to a charge of 20p and last no more than one hour, if you have time during the working day to make a phone call lasting this long. It is worth noting that most average duration business telephone calls last no longer than two minutes. You might check this on your own itemised bill. In many cases, the supplier imposes a connection charge as soon as your call is connected. The charge rate is usually then set to reach the capped level as soon as possible and in many cases around two minutes in duration.

The marketing hype surrounding this product tends to focus on the low charges per minute for mobile calls, but due to the connection charge the average call can result in excessive overpricing. Additional marketing will also advise of redialling before reaching the time limit but realistically business calls rarely last this long.

Furthermore, many companies will hide extra fees in their small print such as charges for non-direct debit payments and paper bills as well as calls charged per minute and rounded up to the next penny, minimum call charges, connection fees etc. All of these can add to the bottom line and reap significant reward for the supplier.

Consideration should also be given to any company with minimum contract periods beyond reasonable duration. The reasons these contract periods exist at all are for the suppliers to maximise profit. Wholesalers of calls rarely impose such periods on the supplier and therefore you, the customer, should be free from such restrictions. Extra cost is incurred when your supplier imposes financial penalty for ending contracts early. There is minimal wholesale cost in transferring from one supplier to another and therefore no reason that customers should be penalised when changing from one supplier to another.

Rollover Contracts, also known as Automatically Renewable Contracts (ARCs), roll forward to a new minimum contract period – with penalties for leaving – unless the customer actively opts out of the renewal. These were often used until Ofcom banned them from December last year. As part of the new contract process, communications providers should move any customers on this type of contract to an alternative deal and have until 31 December 2012 to completely remove such contracts. Should you learn that you are subject to such a contract you have a right to be advised how the removal will apply and you should contact your provider. This also applies to fixed broadband suppliers.

A major benefit of the privatisation of the telecoms industry was expected to give customers the opportunity to shop around for the most competitive supplier. Ofcom has experienced problems in gaining agreement from the industry in this regard but has now imposed limitations on such contracts.

Searching for unbiased guidance

We may think the best place to begin a search for unbiased guidance will be with the telecommunications industry watchdog, Ofcom, or a comparison website. Despite the Ofcom list being accredited, it is more suited to residential use and unfortunately neither of these options provides us with a comprehensive list of all suppliers. The number of suppliers on these sites invariably is extremely limited and will exclude hundreds of companies, many of which are small, with vastly reduced marketing budgets compared to the big boys and therefore in prime position to provide bespoke and highly cost effective solutions that we seek.

We need our suppliers to have a comprehensive product portfolio that will include any services that we might need and the ability of future proofing our requirements. With the introduction of internet calling (VoIP) in addition to the existing network services such as call diversion, three way calling, call waiting and others required for our pharmacy businesses, we would be disadvantaged by limiting our access to such features.

A few years ago it would have been unheard of to use audio conferencing within a typical pharmacy business. Now, with excessive motoring and labour costs it is becoming much more commonplace to use this service on a pay as you go basis. Competition has driven down costs of this feature and made it far more accessible as a day to day means of communication for many in our industry.

Consideration also needs to be given to ensuring our essential telephone lines and services are repaired in the soonest possible time when faults occur. Costs vary for this. Gone are the days when all our lines were automatically repaired as an emergency service and paid for by British Telecom (or GPO Telephones as it was in those days).

Assessing suppliers’ merits

Unfortunately there are no hard and fast rules when assessing the merits of suppliers. However, a starting place might be searching for complaints against suppliers from the Ofcom website at However this only shows those companies with at least a four per cent market share and excludes the vast majority in the industry. Each complaint to Ofcom however, originates from a dissatisfied customer.

Another indicator to ensuring you have an ethical provider is their ease of contact. Are they difficult to contact? Do they provide telephone numbers so that contact by phone and to a person can be made rather than relying on a reply from a website whenever it happens to be picked up and dealt with? Direct communications are essential for good, on-going customer service. If things go wrong you need to discuss the matter at your convenience and not that of your supplier. Ofcom provide tables showing customer service tables and should be consulted to reduce the likelihood of future potential problems.

Yet the most reliable method of choosing the best low cost supplier may be the simplest. Word of mouth from colleagues or friends, or even those advertising in trusted media. There should be no reluctance to contact these companies and question them about their customer base and the experience of operating in the pharmacy industry. They should be prepared to provide the service you want rather than impose on you a limited service designed for the mass market.

By Malcolm Begg, pharmacist of LCC Communications