Canadian consumers left reeling from customer service nightmares with telecoms

TORONTO – Jessie Lee Manuel describes her experience with Bell as a “$1000 lesson learned.”

After signing a three-year contract with the wireless provider, Manuel discovered her brand new cellphone did not receive service in her home in Oakville, Ontario. She says she was told she would either have to wait for the possibility of Bell building a new tower in her area, or have her line put on suspension while continuing to pay her $80 per month bill.

After seven months she cancelled her contract, incurring a $700 termination fee – a large price to pay for a phone with no service.

Manuel is not alone.

In a report detailing consumer issues with Canadian telecom companies released Thursday, grassroots advocacy group OpenMedia compiled the “cellphone horror stories” of 2,859 Canadians fed up with high bills and a lack of respect from their wireless providers.

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The report, entitled “Time for an Upgrade: Demanding Choice in Canada’s Cell Phone Market,” calls for more competition in the mobile market, highlighting three main areas of concern for Canadian consumers: price gouging, restrictive contracts and disrespectful customer service.

“Government policy has allowed three incumbent service providers – Bell, Telus, and Rogers – to control almost 94 per cent of the cellphone market,” reads the report.

“Respondents expressed frustration that Canadian wireless services are lagging behind other industrialized nations, both in terms of quality and price.”

Consumers responded to OpenMedia’s Cellphone Horror Story campaign with a lot of passion, described executive director Steve Anderson. Feedback was collected through social media outlets, emails and online ads.

Some consumers submitted short comments describing their run-ins with telecom companies, while some opted for longer form stories – one email stretching 14 pages in length.

We reached out to our social media audience, asking Global News’ readers on Facebook to tell us their horror stories. 54 comments, 55 likes, 30 shares and multiple messages to our inbox later, we spoke to many consumers who had similar horror stories.

According to the report, one of the main sources of anger from OpenMedia’s respondents was in regards to the termination fee – paid to a service provider if the customer decides to leave their contract early.

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In Manuel’s case the termination fee was not waved despite the fact that the phone did not receive service in her home.

“I used to work for an American cellphone provider and it was in our contract to waive the termination fee if it was determined we did not provide coverage to the customer,” Manuel told Global News. “I asked Bell if they did the same, even offered to give the phone back, but they refused.”

Problems with contracts

More than 18 per cent of those who submitted stories to OpenMedia complained that customers were faced with contracts that could be automatically renewed without the customer’s consent.

Joshua Cremers, a former loyal Rogers customer, watched as the cost of his cellphone bill kept going up due to “extras.”

After changing his plan to accommodate his and his wife’s usage his bill still continued to shock him and he became frustrated with the amount of dropped calls and poor service.

“The straw that broke the camel’s back was we found out they added an extra year to our contract without telling us, or us signing anything,” Cremers told Global News.

This is a common tale in the world of Canadian telecom companies, said executive director of OpenMedia Steve Anderson, one that falls into a legal gray area making it hard for consumers to fight.

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“The legality of that is questionable – but I think they are able to do it because, really, what are you going to do against a big telecom company like that? Are you going to file a big lawsuit? You could, but your recourse is kind of limited when you are talking about a company that size,” said Anderson.

Through this report OpenMedia is calling on the CRTC to closely consider a national set of rules with firm financial penalties for companies who change contracts on customers – but until then consumers are stuck weighing the options of legal action for themselves, said Anderson.

Placing blame on the customer

OpenMedia’s report revealed 4.75 per cent of customer’s comments noted that their wireless service had been disconnected due to billing issues, noting that a provider’s default response seemed to be shutting off the service rather than contacting the customer.

“Often it transpired that there was an error on the part of the service provider but it was the customer who was inconvenienced and who had to remedy the problem,” reads the report.

On Feb. 11, 2013 Loretta Goodrunning’s trip to Las Vegas turned sour after her cellphone was shut off by Fido, 24 hours after she landed in Nevada.

Fido (owned by Rogers) explained to Goodrunning that they assumed the phone had been stolen, despite the fact that she had informed the company she was travelling and added U.S. roaming coverage to her account.

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According to Goodrunning, they then continued to ask her for her monthly payment, but when she explained she had made the payment in question they told her they couldn’t find it.

“I told them until they find the $150 I paid they were not getting a dime from me. Two weeks later the payment was found and they wanted me back,” said Goodrunning.

“I told them there was no way I’ll return, I’ll pay and talk where I am in control.”

According to the OpenMedia report, 2.08 per cent of respondents were accused by customer service representatives of lying about their problems and 9.36 per cent reported that the onus was placed on the customer to remedy their own issue.

But, for Goodrunning, the damage had already been done.

During the time her cellphone was shut off her father-in-law passed away and she missed his funeral because her family was unable to get a hold of her.

After speaking with a Fido customer service representative over the phone and explaining that Fido had shut the phone off by accident in addition to making false claims that she had not paid her bill, she says that the representative told her he could not fix her “persona dilemmas” and said that Fido couldn’t bring her father-in-law back.

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Global News contacted Rogers, as well as the two other major telecom providers Telus and Bell, for comment on the report released by OpenMedia and the complaints of Canadians expressed in it.

A Rogers spokesperson responded with a statement that read in part, “This report does not reflect the millions of Canadians who are satisfied with their cell service. By soliciting only negative views this report fails to recognize the positive steps the wireless industry has recently taken to improve customer experience.”

TELUS spokesperson Shawn Hall responded with a statement that read in part “the OpenMedia report clearly demonstrates Telus is doing pretty well. We are not perfect and have more to do, but our work to put customers first is paying off. Telus attracted only 17 per cent of complaints they heard, a much smaller percentage than our marketshare.”

Bell issued a statement to Global News that read in part, “Canadians enjoy the most advanced wireless networks, the most powerful wireless devices and the best services available in the world. Prices are comparable with those of our international peers, and often less expensive than the U.S.”

All three carriers noted that they have been listening to customer concerns and they all noted of recent changes to their services that they say improve their customer service.

Some Canadians feel stuck between a rock and a hard place with telecom companies

With three major telecom companies making up 94 per cent of the market, respondents to OpenMedia’s Cellphone Horror Story showed that Canadians are looking for more choice in the market -35 per cent of consumer stories reflected this.

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“Respondents complained that the lack of many independent companies providing alternate options meant that there is little choice other than to accept the poor service offered by the incumbents,” read the report.

Independent providers, such as Wind and Mobilicity do exist in the Canadian market but have disadvantages such as smaller networks when compared to big name companies.

Manuel, our first example of a cellphone horror story, felt discouraged after cancelling her contract with Bell because of what she described as a “revolving door” between the three major telecoms.

“If we are dissatisfied with Bell or Rogers, what are our options? The smaller companies like Wind or Koodo are a gamble. It’s too new to jump on board with a commitment that truly sounds too good to be true, and their coverage is quite spotty. In the end, if we decide to cancel with, say Rogers, eventually we’ll be back,” she said.

Manuel, who was previously employed by an American cellphone provider, also felt that Canadians are not being treated as well as our neighbours to the south.

“Canadians are definitely receiving much higher rate plans and poorer quality customer service. I had spent countless hours resolving customer complaints, going line by line through usage details in order to discover an alleged error, and giving them the benefit of the doubt in order to keep their satisfaction,” said Manuel.

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“Canadians on the other hand are treated like criminals – the bills are always our fault, or there was no error on the service providers’ behalf, and the resolution is always the same – pay or cancel.”

Are changes coming that will provide relief?

On Thursday, the federal government made an announcement in hopes to bolster competition between cellphone providers in attempts to keep prices for consumers.

Industry Canada, the government department (along with the CRTC) responsible for maintaining a balanced market place for cellphone services, announced they are extending rules first set out in 2008 to facilitate things like tower-sharing between competitors such as Rogers and Wind Mobile as well as network roaming.

The feds also noted they will take a more active role in making sure telecoms are playing nice with each other, while shortening the time it takes to resolve a dispute.

In short, the government hopes these measures will keep pressure on the market place, creating more choice for consumers and ultimately, competitive prices.

But, carriers are also responding to customers.

In a statement issued to Global News, Rogers noted that they are already addressing many of the recommendations raised in the report, alongside some recent changes that include a changed unlocking policy that allows customers to unlock their phones after 90 days if their accounts are in good standing and a flextab program that allows customers to upgrade their phone at any time by paying off the balance of the subsidy received on the device.

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A spokesperson for Telus also noted that the company has re-written contracts in plain language to make them easier to understand, eliminated contract cancellation charges in favour of device balance and has gotten rid of device activation fees, among other things.

Additionally, Bell said in their statement to Global News that they have worked to include “all-in” pricing in their advertising, aligned early cancellation fees to standards set by provinces and noted that they have been unlocking devices for customers since 2009.


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