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Report On Business CCTS reports drop in complaints over phone and Internet services

Even the head of Canada's ombudsman for complaints about phone and Internet services gets irritated with his telecom provider.

"I never tell them who I am, I'm just the next customer in the queue," said Howard Maker, who explained he often has reason to call his own service provider over one issue or another. "I don't have that much hair left to tear out, but I find handfuls on the floor every time after I get off the phone."

The Ottawa-based head of the federal Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services (CCTS) recounts his own story of frustration to make a point: "We all understand there's room for improvement. There's an opportunity to treat customers better, like they matter, and that is reflected in the numbers you see."

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The commission has recently begun to report a downward trend in the number of complaints it fields, as companies place more importance on keeping their customers satisfied in an increasingly competitive landscape. In a mid-year report published Thursday, the CCTS said it accepted 5,468 complaints from Aug. 1 to Jan. 31, 8.5 per cent less than in the same period a year earlier. Last year's annual report showed a 17-per-cent decline in complaints.

And as with previous CCTS reports, Vancouver-based Telus Corp. stands out as an example of the success that can stem from a strong focus on customer service, which the company has placed at the centre of its corporate culture for more than half a decade.

Despite being one of Canada's three biggest wireless carriers and a major Internet provider in the west, Telus attracts only a fraction of the number of complaints aimed at its peers BCE Inc. and Rogers Communications. (BCE owns 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail.)

The company frequently touts its success on this front and also ties its high rate of consumer satisfaction to its lower rate of subscriber turnover.

"[Telus is] very aggressive in marketing their numbers from the CCTS and I don't blame them," Mr. Maker said. "I mean, it's only a small piece of the picture, but really, if they can do it, why can't other organizations do it?"

BCE-owned Bell Canada topped the list for the six-month period with 1,989 complaints while Rogers was second with 1,240. The numbers drop off significantly after those two, down to 361 complaints about Wind Mobile Corp. followed by 312 complaints for Virgin Mobile and 306 complaints about Fido (Virgin and Fido are the discount wireless brands owned by BCE and Rogers, respectively).

Telus had 243 complaints while its discount carrier Koodo attracted 76, the CCTS said in the report, which marked the first time it has provided a mid-year update on its numbers.

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Mr. Maker said billing disputes continued to be the top source of complaints, followed closely by non-disclosure of contract terms.

Another trend was an increase in breaches of the national wireless code, which came into force in December, 2013, but did not apply retroactively to existing contracts. Now, as more customers are covered by its provisions, there were 328 confirmed breaches in the six-month period covered by this report, compared with just 30 breaches in last year's annual report.

The commission and service providers have already clashed over a term that requires carriers to give customers notice before disconnecting them for failure to pay their bills. Mr. Maker said the CCTS has taken a liberal approach to interpreting the provision and required notice be provided before suspensions of service – which they use as a form of warning – as well as complete disconnection. Rogers has applied to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) for clarification of the issue.

The federal government created the CCTS in 2007 and it is funded by the industry but acts independently of it. Its mandate is to receive complaints about telephone and Internet services and recommend solutions over disputes between customers and service providers.

The CRTC announced plans last week to institute a new code of conduct that governs cable and satellite service providers and said it wants to extend the mandate of the CCTS to also include cable and satellite providers.

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