Telecom complaints down 17% overall — but misleading contract complaints surge

For the first time in its seven-year history, the watchdog in charge of dealing with consumer complaints about their telecommunication providers says the number of complaints has gone down.

Watchdog 'cautiously optimistic' industry is becoming more consumer focused

According to the watchdog in charge of the industry, customer complaints about their telecom services declined by 17 per cent in the past year. (Ben Margot/Associated Press)

For the first time in its seven-year history, the watchdog in charge of dealing with consumer complaints about their telecommunication providers says the number of complaints has gone down.

In its annual report published Tuesday, the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services says it received 17 per cent fewer complaints from Canadians about the services they buy from various telecom firms.

Covering everything from landlines to cellphones, and both wireless and wired internet providers, the CCTS is the independent agency tasked with sorting out who's wrong and what the compensation should be when paying customers have problems with their telecom services.

A 30-page terms of service written in small font by a team of lawyers is probably not the best way for customers to really understand what they're getting- CCTS Commissioner Howard Maker

The CCTS saw a total of 11,340 complaints in the past year. That's down by more than 17 per cent from 13,692 the previous year. And that's the first time the number of complaints has actually decreased in the seven years the agency has existed.

On the surface, that's good news. But it remains to be seen whether the drop is truly a sign that an industry with an established reputation for poor customer service is finally cleaning up its act.

"The question is whether these results are anomalous," is how the CCTS's head, Commissioner Howard Maker, put it in an interview, "or whether they represent the beginning of a trend."

"From our examination of other statistics," he said, "we are cautiously optimistic that the industry as a whole is becoming more focused on customer issues and on how it addresses customer problems."

Bell, Rogers top ignominious list

It was an eventful regulatory year for an industry that frequently raises the ire of Canadians. Last December, the CRTC's Wireless Code came into effect, a lengthy code of conduct that attempted to mandate a reduction in some of the most common complaints in the industry by changing company practices.

The CCTS report does seem to suggest that progress is being made on a number of fronts — complaints about incorrect charges showing up on bills, and complaints about spotty, inferior service both declined by more than a sixth.

But hidden in the positive headline number was evidence that one of the most-irritating telecom complaints is actually getting more common: misleading contract terms.

The CCTS saw 1,686 complaints about misleading, fine-print-laden telecom contracts in the past year. It was the second-most frequent customer complaint (behind straight-up billing errors) and it increased by about 75 per cent from the previous year.

"We're a bit disappointed to see this particular issue grow so much," Maker said, adding that he's hopeful the new code will help bring those numbers down over time — it was only implemented in December, and the CCTS report only covers up until July of this year — by making contracts clearer and easier to understand.

"A 30-page terms of service written in small font by a team of lawyers is probably not the best way for customers to really understand what they're getting," Maker said.

Overall instances of complaints were down, but the report also found that it's a bigger problem with some service providers than others.

Almost a third — 32 per cent — of the complaints the CCTS received from Canadians this year were from Bell Canada customers. Almost 3,700 people brought their complains about Bell to the watchdog, far more than any other company.

A Bell spokesman told CBC News that since the company has "significantly more customers than any competitor," it tends to have the highest total CCTS number.

"But we're pleased that we're making progress, underlined by our exceptional customer growth in broadband Internet, wireless and TV services," Bell spokesman Jason Laszlo said in an email.

No. 2 was Rogers, which saw 2,379 complaints, or just over 20 per cent of the total. Together those two companies dominate the telecom market in Canada, so it may be expected that they would engender more than half of all the industry's complaints.

For its part, Rogers says its pleased to be making progress, but acknowledges it has room for improvement. "We’ve seen about a 40-per-cent reduction in the number of customer complaints since last year and our overall share has decreased seven per cent," Rogers spokesman Patricia Trott said in an email to CBC News. "We’re glad to see our renewed focus on providing customers with good service is starting to pay off, but this is a journey and we have a long way to go."

Telus, the third of the so-called Big Three telecom companies, was the source of 653 complaints all year, or just under six per cent of the total.

That's fifth overall, but given their heft in the market, it represents a relatively strong showing. Telus has 11 million customers across Canada but was the source of fewer customer complaints than Fido and Virgin Mobile alone — two subsidiaries of Rogers and Bell.

A spokesman for Telus told CBC News the company is pleased with the progress, noting that Telus' decline of 26 per cent in the number of complaints is the third straight year the company saw fewer complaints.

"It's a key measure of our success in delivering on our 'customers first' approach that we've been focused on for a number of years," the spokesman said. "But we'll certainly be giving the report a good look and parsing what we can so we can make even more improvements."

Indeed, at least one of the company's recent customers says the company is indeed making progress — and he's someone with a track record of not taking any guff from his telecom providers. 

Burnaby, B.C.,'s Matt Buie made headlines this year when a family trip to Mexico resulted in a $22,000 cellphone bill when they returned. Buie had set his phone to "airplane mode" so that it couldn't download any expensive data packets. But while playing a game on his iPhone, Buie's son managed to turn off the airplane mode and download several hundred megabytes worth of in-game downloadable content.

Buie was a Fido customer at the time and after the media outcry, he managed to get the exorbitant fee down to $200. He soon stopped being a Fido customer, and says his best advice to other upset consumers is to resist the lure of a subsidized phone, and instead "never" sign a cellphone contract.

"I go month to month .. if I'm not happy with a service or billing, I call them up," he says. "It's amazing, they start bending over backwards to satisfy me."

Buie is now a Telus customer and he does begrudgingly give the company credit for his customer experience so far. But as the CCTS shows, while progress is being made, there's still room for improvement in the industry as a whole.

"Why would I want to sign a contract with companies that have notoriously been proven to not be forthcoming?" Buie said.


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