Business·GO PUBLIC

Bell customer's 5-month fight is 1 of almost 10,000 recent complaints to telco mediator

Matthew Tomlinson spent five months trying to get Bell to give him a TV package at the price he was promised. He’s one of almost 10,000 people who filed a complaint included in a report released today by the telecom mediator, the Commission for Complaints for Telecom-television Services.

Billing issues and misleading contract terms are top issues for consumers

Matthew Tomlinson filed a complaint with the telecom mediator after getting the runaround for five months, trying to fix a billing error with Bell. (Christian Patry/CBC)

Matthew Tomlinson spent five months trying to get Bell to give him a TV package at the price he was promised.

The 47-year-old Ottawa computer analyst says a Bell sales agent signed him up for the wrong TV package last June, which cost him an extra $50 per month.

"I felt like I was misled at every portion of my transaction with Bell," says Tomlinson.

Frustrated, Tomlinson filed a complaint with the telecom mediator, the Commission for Complaints for Telecom-television Services (CCTS).

His complaint is included in a mid-year report released today by the CCTS, indicating that the number of Canadians unhappy with their telco service providers continues to climb.

Complaints up 44%

The CCTS says it accepted 9,831 complaints between August 2018 and January 2019 — a 44 per cent increase over the same period the previous year.

The biggest issues for consumers: billing disputes, misleading contract terms or non-disclosure of information and poor quality of service.

"It's unfortunate that we see the same issues on a regular, recurring basis," CCTS commissioner Howard Maker told Go Public.

CCTS commissioner Howard Maker says many of the problems consumers face with their telco service providers could be easily prevented with better employee training. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

He says by the time consumers have filed a complaint with his organization, they are often at their wits' end.

"It's difficult to see them all have to spend time and resources on things that maybe didn't need to have occurred, if better processes had been in place in the front end."

Ninety-two per cent of complaints to the mediator were resolved, although the CCTS could not address 6,413 other complaints beyond its mandate, including customer service, pricing and operating practices and policies.

Companies with the most complaints

The country's largest service provider continued to receive a disproportionately high number of consumer complaints - Bell Canada was the subject of 3,034 complaints.

Rogers received 915 complaints.

For the first time, Cogeco placed third on the list, with 790 complaints, after an upgrade to its computer system led to customers losing service and being unable to contact technical support.

Telus received 746 complaints, making it the fourth most-complained-about telecom provider.

Freedom Mobile, owned by Shaw, expanded its service areas last year and placed fifth on the list, with 637 complaints.

Top issues raised

Customers filed the most complaints about cellphone issues (37.1 per cent), followed by problems with internet (27.8 per cent) and TV services (18.2 per cent).

Canadians were only recently able to file complaints about TV services. That process was introduced into the CCTS mandate in September 2017.

5 months battling Bell

Tomlinson's complaint last fall said he paid an extra $50 per month after a Bell sales agent signed him up for the wrong TV package."I felt like I was misled at every portion of my transaction with Bell," says Tomlinson. "Every time they told me that something was being fixed, it was never fixed. Every deadline or date they gave me … none of those deadlines were met."

Tomlinson estimates he went back to a Bell retail store more than 10 times, to try to sort out his billing issues. On top of that, he says, he spent countless hours on the phone to Bell.

"I'd go to sales and sales told me, 'No, this is a billing problem, you have to talk to billing.' So there was this really circular logic they were employing to simply keep me from being able to fix my bill."

Tomlinson feared his telco fight would affect his credit rating, because — on the advice of a Bell employee, he says — he stopped paying $50 of his monthly bill because he had not agreed to a higher price. (Christian Patry/CBC)

Finally, Tomlinson complained to Bell's escalation department — but he still didn't hear back, so he filed a complaint with the CCTS.

"This is the most deplorable customer service I've ever experienced," he says. "And I just didn't want it to go unchecked and unnoticed."

In an email to Go Public, Bell spokesperson Nathan Gibson wrote, "This kind of customer experience is rare, and we apologize to Mr. Tomlinson. We have provided coaching to all team members involved to ensure these kinds of mistakes are not repeated."

Gibson also noted that Bell's share of CCTS complaints "declined more than any other service provider" — by 2.4 per cent.

Rogers customer felt 'taken advantage of'

Mike Polera says he filed a complaint last fall with the CCTS, after his experience trying to move his wife's cellphone from another service provider to his Rogers account.

In terms of frustration, "on a scale of one to 10, this was a 12," says Polera, a small business consultant based in Toronto. "I've never seen anything like this."

Mike Polera says he was on the hook for Rogers services he never received, after a frustrating attempt to port his wife’s cell phone to his account. (Submitted by Mike Polera)

Polera first contacted Rogers using a live chat agent, so he was able to save a copy of his chat and have a record of what was promised. When he went to a Rogers retail store to set up his wife's account, store reps couldn't help him and said there were no notes on his file.

"I actually had everything in writing and then found out that none of it was actually applied to my account," says Polera. "It really made me angry. I felt completely taken advantage of."

In frustration, Polera took his cellphone business to another service provider.

He says Rogers then charged him for services the company never delivered, including a $65 charge for a phone number that wasn't Polera's, and an activation fee.

'Then I got angry'

"The first thing that came to my mind was, 'This is absolutely ridiculous'," says Polera. "Then I got angry."

After he wrote to the CCTS, Rogers issued him a credit for more than $350.

Rogers spokesperson Sarah Schmidt told Go Public, "We strive to deliver solutions for our customers the first time they contact us, and in this case we let Mr. Polera down. We see every customer complaint as an opportunity, and we have taken steps to ensure other customers do not experience the same situation."

A telecom watchdog says problems continue to exist in the telecom industry because companies get away with treating customers poorly.

OpenMedia's Laura Tribe says telecom providers don’t face penalties that deter them from mistreating customers. (CBC )

"Fundamentally, the biggest problem with our system right now is there there aren't any strong penalties in place for the telecoms when they do something wrong," says OpenMedia's executive director Laura Tribe.

"Clearly, going through the CCTS and having a complaint filed is not a big enough threat to the telecoms to stop this behaviour."

Telco employees pressed to upsell

Recently, the CRTC issued a report calling for more measures to prevent telecom companies from using aggressive and misleading sales practices.

The recommendations are the result of an eight-month public inquiry conducted by the telecom regulator, prompted in part by months of stories by Go Public about the pressure on telco employees to upsell and mislead customers in order to meet sales targets.

The CRTC report, issued in February, said harmful sales practices "exist in all sales channels, including in store, online, over the phone, and door to door."

Among other things, the CRTC report recommended creating a mandatory internet code of conduct that could include price protections during a contract, and requiring telcos to allow a cooling-off period after purchasing products and services.

Matthew Tomlinson says he still gets angry when he thinks about the hours involved trying to rectify his Bell bill, and the time thousands of other Canadians are spending, in similar situations.

"We don't want to be spending all this extra time away from our children, away from work, away from vacation planning, in order to deal with a problem that ultimately, in the end, it only took about 10 minutes to fix."

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Erica Johnson

Investigative reporter

Erica Johnson is an award-winning investigative journalist. She hosted CBC's consumer program Marketplace for 15 years, investigating everything from dirty hospitals to fraudulent financial advisors. As co-host of the CBC news segment Go Public, Erica continues to expose wrongdoing and hold corporations and governments to account.

With files from Enza Uda