Rebtel fools the user making “free” calls

Problem

For a business model that depends on loyal users, distrust is a big issue. That’s the case for “Free Calls” by Rebtel, a cheap way to call abroad:

This is how it works:

  1. You login to the website of Rebtel and buy some credit.
  2. Somewhere on the website you enter your friend’s number from another country.
  3. Rebtel generates a number in your own country so that whenever you call that, your friend’s phone will ring in another country.
  4. Your friend hangs up on you as soon as he gets the call, but calls you back on the number that he sees from you on his caller ID. This number will be a number in your friend’s country.
  5. Then you can talk for “free”.

Sounds amazing, right? The only problem is that it’s not technically free. Both you and your friend are paying for the call you make to your local numbers. From Rebtel’s perspective, this call is free because you don’t pay Rebtel anything, but from the user’s perspective this is not free and in fact can be quite expensive. Depending on your subscription plan, sometimes calling your friend directly in another country can be less expensive than using Rebtel’s “free call”.

I was granted a 10$ account from Rebtel to try their service, but I should commit honestly I wouldn’t pay for such service.

As a common user scenario, let’s say an American wants to call a Canadian. Both countries are English speaking and neighbors so it’s not a rare situation. Just to make it more like real life, let’s take a look at the prices from AT&T, one of the biggest telephone companies in the north america: 6$ per month for unlimited calls!

Reference, Date: 2012-03-11

If you have a mobile plan that allows you to call any number in your country for free, and your friend has the same, and both of you are in a list of certain countries, then you can use Rebtel to make a totally free call. It may be a more complicated process to start the call, and the call quality may not be good but hey it’s free! ;-)

Unfortunately the rest of us have to pay something to our operators even though it’s “Free” from Rebtel’s point of view. This dishonesty in Rebtel’s messaging made a lot of customers unhappy because first they see the “Free Call” in the ads and website then they end up paying piles of money to their local telephone companies. Many people don’t complain about it swallowing the frustration by believing that there were stupid not to read how this system works. But users are not wrong. Rebtel is a complicated service and it is not very honest in its messaging. But some complain. Hear some of the frustrated users: link1link2, link3, link4, … These are just a few of hundreds of complains around the Internet. The most common opinion I found about Rebtel is that it is a great idea, but the “Free Call” is deceiving and many users learned it after they payed piles of money so it created a very bad first impression. However, I guess many users just become suspicious hearing the “Free International Calls” without using the Internet. They don’t even try the service before reading reviews.

Read more about Rebtel on their own site: Direct Call, Collect Call

Solution

International calls are quite expensive until the world embraces next generation networks. As many users have already complained, Rebtel’s messaging fooled them. Rebtel is a complicated system, just as the real phone operators. First of all Rebtel should not use the phrase “Free Call” because from user’s perspective it is not really free. Of course if you are one of those users with an unlimited local call subscription and your friend has the same benefit, maybe we can call it “Free Call”. But otherwise (which is the majority of the cases) users pay one way or another. If they don’t pay to Rebtel, it doesn’t make it free! In the user centered design (UCD), concepts should be seen from the eyes of the user and reflected as they understand it.

Rebtel needs to be more transparent about how the customer is charged. Even though it has a page for “rates” and shows the price on its applications, it doesn’t mention anything about the price of the local call. That is the extra step that an excellent service provider may take to provide a trustworthy service, but of course there are a lot of technical difficulties to overcome. For example it is extremely hard to know what subscription the user is using and how much it will cost them to call a local number. In this case the user should be informed as much as possible.

Rebtel’s target user group is the people who want to pay less for international calls. For them every penny counts. If they are being charged for an extra and Rebtel is aware of that, it should show a big warning informing the users about the risk they are put into and how they can calculate the exact price of the call. I suggest something like this:

Warning!

This call is not totally free. You don’t pay anything to Rebtel but you pay the tariff to call this number (+44LOCALNUM). Please contact your phone operator for more information about the exact price you are charged for placing this call. The same applies to your friend for calling this number: +1FRIENDLOCALNUM. Your friend pays it to his or her operator according to their tariff.

Note

I’ve talked about this issue with Rebtel’s product manager and marketing about a year ago. They seemed reluctant to change the messaging despite of a plan to completely redesign their website. They believed it is working and the cash-flow from the users can be interpreted as they are happy with it. Obviously that is not the answer I was looking for, but it says one important point about interaction design: the core thoughts that develop a product will hardly change by the people who maintain it. In other words: “get it right from the beginning or it will be really hard to fix later.”

Update (2012-04-21)

A friend of mine told me that Rebtel has changed its web design and messaging after this blog post. I took a look and yes it has changed so the above snapshots are not valid anymore BUT even though they took the time to change the site, they still have the same fishy messaging:

Rebtel still fools the users with new colorful messaging

Yeah talk as much as you like, anywhere in the world, with OR without 3G/WiFi! I wonder if Rebtel’s marketing team has ever tried that on their budget? Apparently Swedish law cannot prevent such deceiving advertisements otherwise companies like Rebtel or Firstdate would not last for so long. But there are other Swedish companies like Spotify which are very honest in their messaging.

 

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7 comments on “Rebtel fools the user making “free” calls

  1. Pingback: Firstdate fools the user with false advertisement | user.wordpress.com

  2. Pingback: Rebtel Android app doesn’t remember the mobile phone | user.wordpress.com

  3. eh, if you call rebtel numbers using a google voice app, then it is considered free, since google voice is free to call locally in the US….might not be the case for the receiving end, since they will have to spend their local minutes for the phone call…

  4. Hi Alex. My comments are a bit late, but may be of some interest. I’ve been using Rebtel for years… for free. It’s a bit fiddly to set up, as you said, but once set up, I find it very useful.

    I’m an American expat, living on a narrowboat in London, UK. I’m constantly calling friends, family and business contacts back in the US. If it’s someone I don’t call regularly (or my mother who often can’t be bothered to call me back), I’ll dial my local access number (020 3326 0000), then the US number. I pay 1.5 US cents per minute (both mobiles and landlines).

    If it’s a regular number, I’ll put it into my rebtel account, set it up on my mobile phone’s speed-dial and give them the local call-back number. I have unlimited calls to UK local landlines on my phone service. They call back to a local landline so it’s almost always included in their contact… Free for both of us.

    It works for me. And, it’s made a huge difference in keeping up with the lives of the people I care about back in the US.

    • This post is a little old. I contacted Rebtel about this issue in their copywriting and marketing message and they have redesigned their whole site 2 times since then.
      Rebtel is a good thing for people who have free local calls. But saying that it’s free for everyone is a marketing trick.

      • Hi Alex I did free call to USA like the above man did and I was doing it for last five years until yesterday. From yesterday when try to call the recorded voice message says this service is not anymore. I Don’t know its only me or they really stop this very useful and free service?

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