Telecom watchdog logs 8,000 complaints this year, down 18%

Canada's telecom complaints watchdog heard 8,197 different complaints from Canadians about their phone, internet or wireless services this year, a figure that has fallen for the third year in a row.

Complaints about wireless service make up more than half of Canadians' complaints

Canadians have less to complain about from their telecom services, but wireless gripes still lead the way. (Ben Margot/Associated Press)

Canada's telecom complaints watchdog heard 8,197 different complaints from Canadians about their phone, internet or wireless services this year, a figure that has fallen for the third year in a row.

The Commissioner for Complaints for Telecom Services is an arm's-length agency that has the mandate to mediate disputes between customers and telecom service providers and try to make things better.

In its 2015-16 report, the watchdog found that the volume of complaints declined 18 per cent last year compared with the year prior. But customers still say they have a lot to complain about. The average complainant raised 1.9 issues with the watchdog. Which means even if a dispute has escalated enough to land on the desk of a third party to resolve, it's actually about more than one specific thing — it's closer to two.

Wireless complaints dominate

Far and away, Canadians complained most of all about their wireless plans, as complaints about cellular services made up more than half of all complaints received. Things like misleading information about contract terms, incorrect charges and defective refund systems came up a lot.

While wireless service remains a thorn in the side of many consumers, commissioner Howard Maker says he's glad to see the number of complaints declining.

"For many years wireless has dominated the complaints," he said. "At one point it was close to two-thirds of all complaints, but now it's fair to say it's down to half of the complaints we get."

Bell tops list again

As the largest telecom provider in Canada by far, it's not surprising to see Bell Canada top the list of companies most complained about. While Bell saw its complaint volume decline by 18 per cent, the watchdog still saw 2,940 complaints about the company — more than a third of the total, and more than 2,000 more complaints than Rogers, second on the list.

For the period covered in the report, Bell said it had predicted a 17 per cent improvement based on internal numbers and ultimately surpassed that figure.

"We're growing faster than our competitors, but we also continue to see notable improvements in service performance," Bell said in an email to CBC News.

For its part, Rogers said it was pleased to see its complaint volume fall by more than half to 861 complaints.

"We know behind every complaint is a person and a family who expected a better experience," the company's chief customer officer Deepak Khandelwal said. "We're focused on making things simple, putting our customers in control, and this report shows we are making good progress and there's more work to do."

Telus ranked third with 570 complaints, but that figure represents a 22 per cent increase over the previous year's level.

A spokeswoman for Telus noted that the company had the best performance among the big three carriers.

"In this case we are up 104 complaints, which needs to be taken in the context of 12.6 million customer connections," Telus's Luiza Staniec said in an email, adding that the company is always working to improve customer service.

Maker said he's pleased to see some of Canada's biggest telecom companies doing a better job of resolving disputes with their own customers before they land on his agency's desk.

"Service providers have become sensitive to the numbers we release," he said. "They don't want lots of complaints recorded against them [so] some are trying to do legitimately better at the front line to their customers as a result."

And the squeaky wheel often gets the grease, it seems. Maker says the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecom Services has an 89 per cent success rate for its files, where both the customer and the company involved say they are satisfied with the result. And most cases are resolved within the first 30 days, he adds.

Almost of half of the solutions end up with the customer getting a relatively small financial payment of under $100, or in just under half of all concluded complaints, up to $500. But the agency says it was able to get consumers almost $3.5 million in compensation in their cases this year.

Which is why his message to any customers with a valid complaint about their telecom service is clear: "If you have a problem with your telecom provider, you should raise it with them [and] insist that they make it right," he said.

"But if you don't get the fix you think you're entitled to, we're there."