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Frustrated Bell and Rogers customers unite!

They almost made me crazy.

It was Bell that drove my family to Rogers, though that really made no sense either. For years we paid a small fortune to both, to Bell for our home phone and to Rogers for cable TV, Internet and cellphones. In all that time, I didn't have a clue what we were paying for, but I was simply too intimidated to check it out. I once co-chaired the Task Force on Canadian Broadcasting and learned something about these matters. Still, I knew I couldn't handle the runaround so many others had warned me about. So I kept stalling until we were moving house, the perfect time, surely, for a fresh start.

We'd been paying Bell at least $120 a month, and often closer to $200. Yet like most people we now use our home phone much less frequently and only had rudimentary needs - some long distance, voice mail, call display. I called and asked for their best deal for my needs. In minutes I was offered a new package at just under $100, which included 1,500 North American long distance minutes and six "features," including voice mail and call display. Yet we were using no more than 50 to 60 long distance minutes each month (yeah Skype!) and wanted only two features. Nevertheless, I kept being told, that would have cost more, since there was a cheaper special on the larger package. It was senseless, infuriating. I said I'd call back.

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I ended up making six or seven further calls, bizarrely receiving a different price on every one of them - down to $57, back up to $92, and everything in-between. All these were vast improvements over my present deal, but I was offended beyond words at being toyed with this way. I decided it was time to try Rogers' home phone, even though we were paying well over $200 monthly for cable services we didn't want or even know we had.

That's when a new round of soul-destroying fun and games began. It started on Aug. 12 and hasn't been resolved yet. In the process, I've spoken to some 18 Rogers staff, at least one of whom spoke Yiddish to me (a call centre in Brooklyn, maybe?). I finally signed up for a Rogers home phone with 500 long distance minutes and the two features I care about and eliminated a number of cable charges as well. As with Bell, most employees were pleasant enough. Yet every single one of them, every single time, gave me a different story. Now that we were an all-Rogers household, you see, we would get a better overall deal on price. But what that price was, no one could say. Ever. Believe it or not, I was expected to agree on a contract without ever knowing its cost. What fool would do that? Nice to meet you. I had been totally worn down. Rogers had beaten me into abject submission.

But I hadn't seen nothin' yet. The full Monty of psychological warfare had just begun.

The new house was fully hooked up by early September. To get voice mail working - the feature we need most - I just had to call *89, give my phone number, and I'd be walked through the easiest process in the world. It took 13 days. For almost two weeks we could receive no messages when we were out. I was on the phone to Rogers early every day, taking notes.

When would my voice mail work? Once again, each day, every single one of the 12 people I eventually spoke to told me - politely enough - a different story. It would be another two hours, 12 hours, 24 hours, 48 hours, the end of the working day. How is it, I asked each one before eventually hanging up in disgust, fury, despair, self-loathing, barely in control, that each story differed from all the one before? No one, if they were telling the truth, had the slightest idea. Not one could understand how this could be. How is it conceivable that in my Bell dealings, my Rogers negotiations about costs, and now my voice-mail problem, every agent I spoke to gave a different answer. Are they trained to drive us nuts so we'll just give up? What kind of management runs these operations?

As for the voice-mail debacle, what exactly was the problem anyway, I kept asking? No one knew. Wasn't getting voice mail a simple matter? Everyone agreed it was. What should I do if today's promise was again not fulfilled, I asked pitifully. In truth, by now I was pleading, really. I was pathetic. Maybe they weren't trained to show mercy. Please call again, each told me.

I found the experience transformative. Normally, I'm a most forgiving man, gentle to a fault. But now I could feel myself being transformed me into a wild beast. I was feeling abusive, aggressive, belligerent. I was John Baird in Question Period. I hated this new me but I was losing control. I was calling every day. Sometimes I'd wait for half an hour for tech support to answer the phone, only to be told that I needed customer service - another wait. Customer service of course invariably shipped me back to tech support. I sought the counsel of my wise family. Even my tech-savvy son was baffled. We were defeated.

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Almost two weeks into the one-sided battle, just after I had spoken to my 13th different Rogers employee on the voice-mail caper alone, I dialed *89 for maybe the 50th time and it worked. No fuss, no muss. It just worked. No one from the company has ever called to apologize, to explain, or to offer compensation.

But as we now await our bill with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation, we also must endure, with you, the unceasing flood of Rogers ads. And the competing inundation of Bell ads. Both promise the moon. And the headline news about the titanic struggle between Bell and Rogers and their few competitors for primacy in the telecom market. Billions of dollars and a great deal of influence are at stake. But it doesn't take much to see that the problems of little people like us consumers don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

During the hearings of the Task Force on Canadian Broadcasting some time back, a creative public intellectual in Vancouver named Hershel Hardin seriously advocated that the cable industry be put under public ownership. It made perfect sense in every way but the political; it hadn't a ghost of a chance of being taken seriously. But I'm sorry we didn't put the possibility on the table. There must be some way to get these gargantuan oligopolies to care for a moment about their customers.

We're mad as hell and won't take it any more. Revolution, anyone?

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