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In the UK it's become usual when attempting to contact any public facing organisation by phone to hear the phrase

"our phones lines are unusually busy right now, please be patient your call is important to us"

Or some similar platitudes.

This has become so prevalent that I can't remember any occasion within the last year that I didn't hear this phrase!

Since their phone lines are (apparently) always this busy, claiming that they are 'unusually busy' would appear to be untruthful.

Assuming that this is a lie (albeit just a little white fib) are the organisations making this claim actually breaking any laws, if so what? and does it make any difference between organisations?

I'm aware that traders have an obligation to honesty under the Customer Rights Act and various consumer protection laws, but is it relevant here? (it's not as if they're lying about a product you're planning to buy). But what about other organisations? My local council has had this message on repeat since covid, but as they're not traders as such, do consumer protection laws apply?

For clarity, I'm interested in all types of public facing organisations. Traders, Utility companies, Local councils, Doctors surgeries - any organisation that has a phone line and always claims to be unusually busy.

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    My bank sent the equivalent reply every time I tried to contact them by their own web site messaging service. Indeed, they only got back to me after weeks. Apparently I was not the only one -- they eventually got reprimanded by the supervising authority for bad customer service for a host of similar reasons. It's managers trying to improve the profit on paper, short term by adjusting excel cell values for "unproductive" personnel head count. Feb 12 at 11:38
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    The reality is probably even much worse than what you see. I remember a few years ago in France it was exposed that some social services had an internal rule that no call could exceed three minutes; so you'd spend 10 minutes waiting listening to music, then be transfered to an operator, then spend 2min30 talking with this operator, then they'd say that for your problem it would be better to transfer you to a different service, then you'd wait 10 minutes listening to music, then you'd spend 2min30 with a second operator, then...
    – Stef
    Feb 12 at 11:57
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    Just noting that this phenomenon is also evident in the US. Feb 13 at 5:31
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    this is similar to the message "a good service is running on all London Underground lines". It's not a good service - it's a standard service!
    – Aaron F
    Feb 13 at 13:51
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    My "favorite" waiting message is "we're unusually busy due to Covid", still used as an excuse is 2024. Feb 13 at 15:12

2 Answers 2

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This week's weekly email from MoneySavingExpert (a UK 'consumer champion' organisation) includes this item (my emphasis):

Please report "sorry, we are experiencing unusually high call volumes" messages. We want to test if some firms have this for EVERY call. If you call a bank, broadband, mobile, credit card, energy, water or sewerage firm, please take 30 seconds to report it via our unusual call volumes tool. In some cases, it may be a breach of the Consumer Duty (please bookmark this for when you need to use it).

There is a link to a webpage where consumers can report receiving such messages. Note that the list of relevant organisations doesn't include local authorities, and I suspect this is because the Consumer Duty referred to - the newly-introduced FCA rules and guidance - applies primarily to financial firms.

That said, the FCA page introducing the rules says

Who this affects   

This policy and guidance is likely to interest:   

  • regulated firms, including those in the e-money and payments sector
  • consumer organisations and individual consumers
  • industry groups/trade bodies
  • policy makers and regulatory bodies
  • industry experts and commentators
  • academics and think tanks

So maybe it would apply to a local council. I also don't know the legal status of FCA 'rules and guidance'. Perhaps when MSE have enough data, there will be a follow-up story.

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    You could improve this answer by finding and quoting the rule which such notices may violate.
    – David42
    Feb 14 at 15:44
  • One could make the argument that their "phones lines are unusually busy" compared to the average phone line, which is not in constant use. Feb 14 at 17:40
  • Many, many thanks to Money Saving Expert for taking that initiative and which part of Government can tell us why Trading Standards and any other Authorities didn't bother to launch such a project years ago? I usually ask the first person I get to speak to whether they're short staffed, but too few understand. Feb 18 at 19:33
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Mouthing platitudes is probably fine

The prohibitions on deceptive and misleading conduct usually excludes marketing puffery, and the phones being unusually busy is probably such.

In any event, unusual is a word that is sufficiently vague that it’s arguably true of any company’s phones if considered over any time the company could choose. For example, if it’s a 24-hour phone line, the hours from 8am to 5pm (which is less than half the time) are probably more busy than the rest of the day. Or, if it’s a beachwear company, the summer months are unusually busy when compared to the rest of the year.

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    "We get so many more calls from 8-5 that it's unusual. Of course we're closed from 5-8."
    – Tiger Guy
    Feb 12 at 14:00
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    In the past 75 years, we've been getting unusually many calls compared to the 1000 years prior!
    – gerrit
    Feb 13 at 9:58
  • Tell them I'm in, and to wait. And once I've left, THEN they can come in to see me. Is that clear?
    – Mazura
    Feb 14 at 4:00
  • I think it depends on whether the message has a version that doesn't include the "unusually busy" wording - It's one thing if you get a different message when there's only 1 person ahead of you in the queue, another if you get the same message when you're first in line but the only one answering the phone is on break as when there's 20 people ahead of you.
    – aslum
    Feb 16 at 21:57
  • It's not a platitude and it's not a question of your or their definition of 'unusually busy'. It's true or it's a lie, and who doesn't recognise that? Feb 18 at 19:35

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