An analyst has warned of the difficulty Skype faces in rebuilding its business customer base after it withdrew thousands of London-based SkypeIn numbers with just a month's notice.
Last week it emerged that the VoIP company was withdrawing almost 10,000 0207-prefixed numbers from its SkypeIn service. The 0207 prefix has always been popular with business customers because it implies that the user is based in central London.
SkypeIn is a paid-for service which gives users a geographic number for incoming calls. The withdrawal of the numbers came after talks broke down between Skype and its supplier of 0207 numbers, GCI Telecom. Due to the popularity of 0207 numbers, their cost has risen, and it seems Skype was unwilling to pay more than before to maintain those numbers.
Ian Fogg, an analyst with JupiterResearch, said that Skype must "rebuild trust" among its business customers. "My advice to Skype would be: if you, as a company, wish to target small businesses or even consumers, you need to respond swiftly to reassure your users that this isn't going to happen again," he said. "Don't offer a different number without some kind of transitionary agreement."
Skype has offered affected users new SkypeIn numbers which don't begin with 0207.
But Fogg added that the issue was not so much the changing of numbers, because London's dialling codes have changed several times over the last two decades, but the fact that, with only a month's notice, no transitionary arrangement seems to have been in place for the affected users.
"When a business or a consumer decides to take a subscription service for a number, they expect that to continue," said Fogg. "A lot of Skype's marketing in the UK and Europe has been particularly trying to focus on the business applications of Skype. If they hadn't targeted this area, then this number change wouldn't have been such a big thing."
Many customers have been angered by the changes. One user, who asked to remain anonymous, said he had, until recently, been "an avid recruiter for Skype for Business". He suggested on Monday that: "Skype have got absolutely no idea of the damage this will do to their business."
"My work means I travel quite a lot," said the user, a consultant. "When SkypeIn came in for small businesses, it was the best way of doing business for a small company. To then have a good chunk of all your incoming phone calls just taken away from you is an absolute pain in the backside. The free year's subscription to the random number you might get hardly makes up for the damage done to us as customers."
Another user, who works in the skydiving business, told ZDNet Australia sister site ZDNet.co.uk that he had subscribed to Skype for Business since the service was launched three years ago. "Our number appears on all our literature sent out for the last 12 months," said the user.
"This number is quite deep in the market and our marketing engine has been focused towards getting people to call this telephone number... Personally, I think Skype don't realise what an 0207 number represents, [which] shows a complete lack of understanding of their own customers," the user said.
Part of the problem is the fact that Ofcom, the UK telecoms regulator, cannot intervene in the case. SkypeIn does not offer the ability to call out. Therefore, Skype has no legal obligation to port or redirect numbers to other operators.
A spokesperson for Ofcom said that those affected by Skype's number change would have no recourse other than to go to one of the UK's telecoms arbitration services, CISAS or Otelo. However, Skype is not a member of either service, and it is also not a member of the VoIP providers' association, ITSPA.
"The regulatory position in the UK is not keeping up with where telephony is today," said Fogg. "The bit that's important is not dialling out -- it's the contact number or contact address for incoming calls. That's what's quoted [to customers and contacts]."
Don McQueen, managing director of GCI Telecom, said that the porting or redirecting of numbers between operators remained subject to commercial agreements being struck between those operators. Although he refused to divulge the exact details of the commercial dispute between GCI and Skype, he said that a "nominal fee" for the 0207 numbers had been charged to Skype until recently, when GCI "had to move to a market-rate fee".
"We have offered everyone who has [an affected SkypeIn number] the ability to keep their number with a VoIP service from us at 4 pounds a month," added McQueen, who claimed that just under 10,000 numbers had been affected. "This service [and price] is probably not going to be offered to other people." McQueen said that interested customers should e-mail email@example.com.
As well as Skype, GCI is not a member of ITSPA. ITSPA's recommendation to its members is that they should allow numbers to be ported or redirected when a user changes provider.
ITSPA chairman Eli Katz told ZDNet.co.uk on Monday that this "best practice" recommendation existed because "the regulatory structure today is somewhat complex and in flux" and is, therefore, confusing for consumers and businesses trying to understand their rights.
Skype could offer no comment at the time of writing.