Canada’s Telecom Companies Put on Call as Consumer Complaints Skyrocket

By: Lee Rickwood

October 29, 2010
Bet you didn’t see this one coming – Canadians complain about cell phone service!

Duh!

In fact, those complaints are rising, and they’re expected to continue to rise in the foreseeable future. 

Among all the telecom-related topics one might complain about, cell phone service tops the list – for the first time, wireless carriers account for more than half of consumer complaints received by Canada’s Commission for Complaints for Telecommunications Services (CCTS).

Cell phone companies in Canada were the target of 52% of the 3,700 complaints received during the 2009 to 2010 monitoring period, the government watchdog reported.

Howard Maker is the country’s Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services.

Reached by (wireline) phone, he said he wasn’t surprised how many complaints we’ve made.

“I’m a consumer too. I’ve made deliberate complaints (like to test the system) and for my own service reasons, I’ve had to make contact with the telecom providers I deal with,” he related. “I know the drill.”

So he knows what other complainants go through, and he’s not surprised at the volume that do. He can take telecom related complaints from individuals across the country, but also from small business owners (small business in this case being defined as a company with less than $ 2500 monthly telecom billing).

For the first time, no matter who made the complaint, over half accepted by CCTS dealt with just one type of business – wireless services.

“That’s more than twice as many complaints about wireless as for any other line of business,” Commissioner Maker acknowledged.  “The wireless business has the highest rate of growth, the greatest pace of change, and the greatest degree of complexity – at least at a retail level. With the recent launch of several new wireless service providers, and the anticipated entry of even more carriers in the near future, there’s every reason to believe we will see higher numbers.”

That’s not an indictment of the new players. In fact, it’s the big three that generate the biggest number of complaints

Bell Mobility received the most (1,428), then Telus (657), then Rogers (540).

Interestingly, one of the new market entrants, Wind Mobile, was the target of only one complaint. CCTS does have a list of all complaint types, and of the companies that received them.

Cell phone user

Complaints about Cellphone Service are Up in Canada

So the bigger players generate bigger complaints, but is that a reflection of sheer volume, or an indication of real underlying problems?

“That’s a difficult question for me, Maker says. “There’s no doubt that the larger the market share, the greater the likelihood of complaints. But (the carriers) do not share data with me about the number of subscribers; currently, we do not have a number that indicates how many complaints per subscriber. Our job is to try and help consumer with problems, and to provide feedback to the carriers about what’s causing the complaints, so it doesn’t matter to us where a dissatisfied customer comes from.”

No matter where they come from, or which company provides their service, most consumers complain about billing errors, contract disputes, and so called ‘number portability’.

That was supposed to free users up, and let them switch carriers while keeping the same phone number. Most of the number portability complaints involved issues of double billing, where customers were charged by their previous and new provider simultaneously during the course of the switch.

CCTS was formed in mid 2007, and it acts as an independent third party agency, with oversight from a board of directors representing industry, academia and the general public.

The federal government is known to favour less regulation and greater marketplace self-direction, but it saw that the telecom market was underserved and less than optimally competitive. Seeking some redress, it mandated the formation of an independent mechanism for complaint resolution, about local and long distance telephone services as well as wireless service and Internet access.

The CCTS received a three year mandate, which is now being reviewed. A public hearing will be held later in November to look at whether the agency continues to operate, and if so, with what additional mandate and what additional resources.

Right now, the agency is funded by all member companies, making up the vast majority of telecom providers in the country. One funding formula sees the companies contribute to the CCTS based on a share of total revenue.

Maker noted however, that a new funding formula – based on actual number of complaints – was being implemented. This “pay as you go” approach, as he called it, could be a stronger motivator for industry reform and reduction of complaints.

But it’s only a motivator. The CCTS is not a regulatory body, and it cannot manage or dictate or pass laws to affect the way a telecom provider operates. It’s in place to provide a dispute resolution mechanism, and to educate and inform both consumers and industry itself.

CCTS, in its Annual Report, has criticized the industry’s failure to make the sign-up and portability process more understandable and comprehensible for consumers. 

The report also warns consumers about the need to understand the telecom contracts they sign. “It is up to the consumer to do their own ‘due diligence,’ Maker points out. “Knowledge will empower the consumer.”

CCTS also challenges the industry to improve its processes and the training of its employees to ensure that customers are treated fairly and the process works as intended. Maker sees the rapid pace of technological change as a challenge to both consumers and the companies that serve them. The number of products, packages, options and add-ons being offered is often confusing both sides of the equation.

As well, Maker described, companies and consumers alike need to do a better job of “document retention” – her described a number of generic case studies in which either the customer, or the provider, could not locate the original contract or service descriptions.

“We’ve told industry that we can affirm their conduct if they cannot come up with a contract,” he underscores.

But he cannot dictate to them. “It depends on how the service providers conduct themselves; we are not a regulator, and that is out of our control.”

Of course, it is to industry advantage to reduce customer complaints, and provide uncompromised service across the board.

The best way to mandate great service is for consumer to be informed, active and engaged in their own purchase decisions, and the products or services those decisions bring.

“Canadians are increasingly aware they can contact us with their concerns or complaints,” Maker points out (and it may be another reason behind the increased number of complaints).  “We’re conducting public education activities, in partnership with our participating service providers, to increase that awareness. We can take inquiries or complaints by phone, fax, letter or by filling in our secure and confidential online forms.”

Overall, he notes, the CCTS received some 3,700 complaints. Nearly 3,500 were resolved to both parties satisfaction once his organization got involved.

“Technically, we’re in the business of making complaints go away; in effect putting ourselves out of business.

“But I never lose sleep thinking that’s going to happen!”

The Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services is an independent organization dedicated to working with consumer and small business customers and participating Canadian telecommunication service providers to resolve complaints relating to most deregulated retail telecommunications services.

submitted by Lee Rickwood

# # #

So, what’s your tech?

Do you have a complaint about cellphone service in Canada?

And have you told the Commissioner?


2 comments

  1. msismey@gmail.com'
    mike sismey

    I am currently negotiating with Fido via the ccts the terms of ending my contract early.Unfortunately I have been disheartened by the experience thus far and I do not have any confidence the ccts will do anything other than serve the interests of the cellphone provider. And why do I feel this way? Some examples of how my complaint has been handled are:

    – My investigator only reviewing cherry picked ‘voice notes’ of my complaint calls to fido which they provided as evidence . Notes I have no access to.

    -Weeks into the investigation the ccts investigator asked me to provide several months of invoices.Invoices with highlighted details relevant to my case that I had already provided with my initial complaint. It quickly became obvious none of my submitted evidence had been read by the investigator, nor ever will be.

    -A endless uphill battle on my part unsuccessfully trying to convince the investigator the cellphone provider contract is superseded by the laws within the consumer protection act.Frustratingly the investigator kept referring to it as the consumer protection “program”.Even after I emailed them a copy of the consumer protection act to read over and find out what it was.

    Having the investigator acknowledge along with fido that my phone was faulty and never worked properly through no fault of my own yet baffled as to why I wouldn’t agree to abide by Fidos terms and conditions that state Fido is not responsible for any problem for any reason.

    – Any conversation that I had with the investigator which involved my mentioning consumer rights in support for my argument being cut off by the investigator quoting as thrir reason the ccts policy within their rules and guidelines “that the investigation would not be conducted in a legalistic manner”.Which I was stunned to learn when I checked later is a actual ccts rule.

    Well that last example pretty much says it all.

    I learned today the investigator has completed their so called investigation and my file now being forwarded through two levels of management with a recommendation expected to be made shortly.

    Gee I wonder which side they’ll favor in their decision?

    Whatever.

    July 15th 2011

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