Friday, December 28, 2012

The Bells Are Ringing

No not the words from the 1942 song made famous by Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, nor church bells praising the beginning of better days. Rather this refers to Bell Canada, or for that matter any one of our telecommunication providers who supply our phones, television and internet for the residential consumer. Hands up if any one of you have had a problem that brought in return frustration and a run around from your provider as you tried to explain your situation. No doubt there would be many hands bopping in the air each attached to its own horror story.

In Ontario among the vast variety of telecommunications providers all shuffling for a share of of the market; the biggest are Bell Canada, TELUS and Rogers. Each with their own catchy slogans vying for the attention of the would be consumer, hoping that like the Asian carp we will simply jump on board. Technology itself is changing rapidly providing new must have gadgets; slimmer televisions, faster internet, and all of this at the touch of a screen. Soon even the buttons will be a thing of the past replaced with voice activated touch screens, as has the need for pen pals, now comfortably substituted with Facebook friends.

Yet how do these providers of our services, our needs treat us the consumer once we become a member of the family. Each has a 'customer service' department with supposedly trained staff to handle issues brought to their attention, either providing answers to our questions or referring us to qualified individuals who can provide the solution required. That at least is the image we are sold, but what happens when the 'corporate machine' breaks down and 'customer service' becomes only an illusion?

Bell Canada without hesitation is the biggest provider to the mass market covering television, phone, internet and cell phones. Statistics provided on Wikipedia show a revenue for 2011 at $19.49 billion and a net income of $2.159 billion in 2010. It truly is a large organization with some 55,250 employees in 2011, and although its size and share of the market is strong Bell Canada can never remain complacent resting on its success.

The marketing people at Bell gave birth to a slogan “Today Just Got Better,” its purpose is to make us the customers and potential customers feel confident with the choice we made. What happens when today is no better than yesterday, and tomorrow is shaping up to be even worse. How does Bell Canada really deal with its customers when it is more than a simple billing enquiry or technical problem? As documentation shows it simply tries to ignore the situation till its out of control.

One such scenario began with numerous calls by a customer regarding his internet service. The popular excuse he was given was that the physical distance of his house from the relay station was the reason for the problem. Finally in early August 2012 he found out after over an hour on the phone with a Bell internet technician that he had been charged for months for a level of service that he had not been getting. This was only the beginning of a journey of discovery on how much better his 'today' was to be.

Several weeks prior to the August hour long marathon on his cellphone this customer had found trouble with his home phone. The trouble was simple, it was not working. Again he called on more than one occasion only to be told that there did not appear to be any problems with the account that it had to be his equipment. This individual bought a new phone and still it did not work. Frustrated, fully confident that he had bills stamped by a bank teller, he had a repair technician come to the house. Prognosis was that there were no problems with the home line nor up the pole. He called the accounts people the next day and after arguing with the staff from accounting found out that his home phone indeed had been cut off by Bell. This was difficult to understand as he had the bills stamped by a bank teller. A meeting with the bank manager confirmed that the bank had inadvertently credited payments to the Bell internet account. The bank sent a letter to Bell Canada explaining the error on the part of the bank.

Bell refused to transfer funds from the internet account that was in credit to balance out the situation and at this point the whole issue with Bell reached a fever point. His bank manager had sent a letter to Bell Canada explaining the situation. This customer decided to send an email to Bell's Customer Service and another addressed to Andrew Wright, Vice President Residential Services, both were sent August 21st. No response and no reply. Another email was sent August 28th and a letter September 18th. No response and no reply from anyone at Bell. Finally this individual wrote Ellen Roseman, Consumer Reporter at The Toronto Star. Just one day after sending Ms. Roseman the email one Sami Selmani from the Executive Offices of Bell called. Mr. Selmani confirmed that a reporter had contacted senior management and the file was given to him.

At the same time as sending his email to Ms. Roseman at The Star this individual wrote the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunication Services. The CCTS is a non-profit corporation incorporated under Canadian federal legislation as an agency to address telecommunication services complaints. As a non-profit and independent corporation it is funded by telecommunication providers with annual Canadian telecom revenue greater than 10 million; such as Bell Canada, Rogers, Fido, Cogeco and more.

Bell Canada ignored its customer and every attempt he made to sort out this situation. Yet once a reporter contacted Bell, management decided to immediately pay attention. In three separate conversations totalling over an hour and a half, all recorded, Bell's representative, their negotiator, Mr. Sami Selmani refused to deal with key issues. His response as to why Bell ignored numerous attempts made by the customer to resolve the issue was “you must understand that it is a big company” or “I don't want to talk about the past.” Mr. Selmani had ignored the overcharging for both the internet and home phone, he ignored the stress created by Bell to an individual, a customer who did not see today or any day get better.

As consumers we are at the mercy of these companies, and any competition amongst the telecommunication providers is more of a smokescreen than a reality. Most consumers would not be aware of the CCTS and attempt to handle their problems with the individual provider. At the same time the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunication Services (CCTS) is a non-profit corporation funded by the telecommunication providers themselves. When a consumer is made aware of the CCTS and brings forth details of his particular situation he must first agree to certain terms and conditions before the CCTS even decides to review the facts provided. All these terms and conditions are outlined in the CCTS Procedural Code and in the Privacy Policy document, and any individual requesting an investigation by the CCTS must consent to be bound under both.

Telecommunications are a necessity today. There is no choice we need telephone and internet service in our day to day living. As consumers we create the demand expecting that there will be some form of competition in the marketplace for choice. Often the competition appears to be more in the services provided rather than in pricing policy. Yet as in the case of Bell Canada service was not provided at the least adequate level, escalating to an investigation by the CCTS which is underway. Bell Canada's Sami Selmani refused to acknowledge the real issues in a veiled attempt at resolution with Bell's customer.

As consumers individually there is little the large corporations fear, public attention, or even the threat of it is the key in dealing with such issues. Bell Canada broke their silent ignorance only after a reporter contacted senior management.

The emails and letter to Bell are published here including the final letter to the CCTS after phone calls dealing with Sami Selmani from Bell Canada. This is simply one example of abuse by a corporation more concerned with profit and covering up their own errors. There are many more individuals who have faced similar frustration and treatment from their particular providers of telecom services. It is important to know your rights and that organizations such as the CCTS exist. Your telecommunications provider will not tell you of them and the CCTS does not make a public list of actions taken against its own funding members.

The CCTS investigation is ongoing, Roseman of The Star has not made further comment and the Bell customer is the publisher of Mayorgate.

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