The BBC stole my money, and now I'm battling to get a TV Licence refund

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 26 December 2008

Thanks to the unique way that the BBC is funded, yesterday I got to enjoy Wallace & Grommit, and the Doctor Who Christmas special.

Thanks to the unique way that the BBC collects that money, I got to pay twice for the privilege.

Moving back to the UK we had a long list of things to sign up to...council tax, water authority, TV Licence etc. I applied for most of them online where possible, and the TV Licence process was pretty painless - you even get your licence sent as a PDF these days.

TV Licence online promo

All that seemed great until I was checking through my bank statements the other day and discovered they'd charged me twice.

Now, I know there are those who say "Radio 4 is worth the price of admission alone and I'd gladly pay more for the BBC" but I'm not one of them. Paying exactly the right amount once is good enough for me.

So I gave them a call.

"Ah yes, I can see what happened here", they said, "we've issued two licences for that address by mistake".

Now their recent blunt and aggressive advertising campaign made a great deal of their all powerful database.

Its in the database

Photo thanks to Roger Lancefield on Flickr

All I can say is that I don't know what they can be using as a primary key, if in the space of a couple of days they managed to issue two licences to the same person, at the same address, with the same postcode and bank details.

And here's the thing.

They were quite capable of going directly to my bank account to steal the money for the duplicate TV Licence.

But for a refund?

Well, I have to apply for that.

At first they were going to post me a form which would take 10 working days, but then on the phone they asked if I had Internet access. I was directed to the TV licensing site and told to search for 'refund application'. No, of course you can't actually apply for a refund online - but you can download a PDF version of the form which at least cuts out the postal delay.

The burden of proof, naturally, falls on me, so I had to supply them copies of my bank statements to demonstrate that they had taken an unauthorised payment from my account.

And I'm not even sure I filled out the form correctly. There was no option to tick for "We made an error and are now making you jump through hoops to get your own money back". I went for option 2.1, but option 2.2 seemed to be equally applicable, although I guess designed for people who have an existing licence, and have now moved to an address with another existing licence. Or possibly I should have gone for 2.3. Who knows?

TV Licence refund form

Their mistake has cost me time, a phone call (on an 0844 number of course), a stamp, and I'm still going to be unnecessarily £140 poorer off over Xmas because of them.

This isn't just a rant for a rants sake. I think there are some really important lessons here about service design and brand reputation management.

Handle mistakes gracefully

This situation is entirely the mistake of the TV Licensing agency. They collect the Licence Fee on behalf of the BBC. I happen to know the intricacies of how all that works - but the brand damage isn't to Capita Business Services Ltd or Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO or their ilk. It is to the BBC.

Look, I'm a well-known BBC fanboy, ex-employee and sometime consultant for the Corporation, but I'm spitting teeth with fury that the BBC stole my money and is making me work hard to get it back. So imagine how much angrier I'd be if I wasn't pre-disposed to feel benevolently towards the BBC.

Customer service isn't about smiling at the customer when things are going right - it is about swiftly and gracefully rectifying mistakes.

Don't do 'one way' service design

The system here smacks of 'one way' service design. Even accepting that mistakes happen, there is no reason why it can't be possible to apply for a refund online. Given the name, address, bank details, licence number and the ability to upload some supporting documentation, I could have sent the TV Licensing people exactly the same information as I just posted off on paper. And, you'll recall, I've already given them my name, address and bank details online.

However, they haven't designed a system that works that way. Their online site is geared towards the initial application for a licence, or the renewal and payment for one. Not for the processing of any errors. The phone operator had to get me to use the site search to download the refund form, because there is no direct navigational path to this task from the homepage - nor is there a simple URL like tvlicensing.co.uk/refund - the URL for the page where you download the form is:

http://tvlicensing.metafaq.com/templates/tvlicensing/main/answerPage
?_mftmfenv:linkEntryCategory=%24licensingInfo&_mftmfenv:linkEntryClient=
%24tvlicensing&_mftmfenv:linkEntryName=%24refund

I have a reputation for being the person in the corner of a meeting who suddenly pipes up with irritating questions like "but what happens if the user does x followed by z rather than y as expected, and then is booted off their computer by one of their kids - is y=true remembered next time they visit?". When you are doing transactional system design you need to consider not just the optimum user paths, but also the user paths that will be taken when something has gone wrong - because they are the most important for protecting the overall user experience and your brand reputation.

12 Comments

Ouch.

My current favorite genre of customer service cock-up is ordering broadband. So many variables and so many incompetent parties to get in the way (the ISP, who makes almost zero margin, BT, enough said etc).

That URL is hilarious.

If you paid by direct debit, phone your bank and claim back that way.

Every single payment you have ever made by direct debit is refundable in this way (or at least it will be until later in 2009 when it changes to 'the last three months').

"Thanks to the unique way that the BBC is funded"

Thanks to the unique way the BBC is funded millions of people are forced to fund it even though they'd happily do without it.

Ah I was going to make the same comment as someone else. You shouldn't have to do this for a direct debit problem - talk to your bank, they're obliged to refund the money for you, which shouldn't be a problem as it's obvious from your statement what's happened. Then it's down to the bank and TV Licensing to sort it out.

Also, I think it's a bit unfair for people to blame the BBC themselves for licensing issues, when it's a separate organisation who deals with the issuing of licenses and the collection of payments etc.

As the other Chris Said, if you paid by Direct Debut, then just get your bank to refund the money via the the Direct Debit Guarantee.

Fair points about the Direct Debit Guarantee, but I'm not naturally inclined to get the customer services department of a third party involved, surely that is only likely to confuse things even further? After all, once the bank refund my money, how do I know which of my two Licences is the valid one if I haven't dealt directly with TV Licensing?

Regarding the point about not blaming the BBC because it is actually Capita or one of the other members of the consortium who have made the error, I felt I addressed that in the original article. I *know* that it is a private agency, not actually members of staff from the BBC, but they are, in their own words: "contracted by the BBC to administer the collection of television licence fees and enforcement of the television licensing system".

Brilliant to read "I'm a well-known BBC fanboy" in this posting.

And apologies, but I got both your licence fees this year, and I've already spent them. ;)

I'd ask the bank to invoke the direct debit guarantee on both of the transactions, and wait to see if Crapita notice. That way, you're the one in credit until they get their act in order. Either way, why should you worry which is the correct payment - the fact that you've paid is evidence enough. If you're very lucky, they'll attempt to make fools of themselves in court over it!

I've found that banks seem reluctant to allow you to invoke it unless you read them the DD guarantee.

If it's a card payment, then ring your bank and ask for a chargeback. That also works very well.

I got your refund and spent it..it was lush..lol

based on the "Its all in the database" image showing a PC without any RAM, doesn't inspire me with confidence either!

I agree with nearly all you say about one way service design, until the point where you start discussing how to build the functionality for online refund applications.

Online functionality is an efficient means of providing an identical service to a large number of people, but is not usually necessary, and often not practical, for dealing with bespoke issues for small numbers of people.

I think the failure you have encountered is a failure to build a customers relations system in which a member of staff takes responsibility for the problem and for sorting it out for you, without requiring you to jump through hoops proving a case that ought to be obvious the moment it is pointed out by telephone or email.

I just applied for a refund from the wonderful TV licence as I am moving abroad. I'd paid for one full year within a period of 6 months as that is how they assured me 'they work'. I was only living in the house for just under 6 months and therefore should've been entitled to a refund for the 6 month period. However, I seemed to have been reimbursed for only 3 months. When I phoned up to correct them and obtain my full refund I was informed that they only refund in 3 months blocks. So as I was in the house just UNDER 6 months I only got refunded for 1 three month block.

This is outragous and I and really don't understand how they can do this as there is no mention of this on their website, or on the licence.

Zoe

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