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Jean-Claude Lizé is one of the complaints resolution officers at the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

It is the kind of problem that can drive a consumer around the bend: a wireless company sells a broken phone, then refuses to honour its own exchange policy.

After signing up with a new-entrant carrier, a Mississauga, Ont., man noticed that his new smartphone Samsung Galaxy Note 3 was defective. The smartphone's screen stayed black whenever it rang, so he returned to the store five days later to get a new device. Instead, he was handed a used phone that had problems with e-mail. Unable to help, the carrier's technical support told the store to give the man a new phone, but the manager refused.

"I was really frustrated," the man told a complaints resolution officer with the federal Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services (CCTS), during a telephone call, monitored live by The Globe and Mail with his consent. "Even my son, six years old, he can notice that the device has been used."

Neither the man nor his wireless carrier can be identified due to privacy restrictions. He may be just one consumer flush with frustration, but he is far from alone.

Telecom complaints are soaring, especially when it comes to wireless services. CCTS handled 14,036 complaints during its 2012-2013 fiscal year, up from 10,678 during the prior year.

The CCTS call centre answered more than 134,000 calls and received almost 57,000 written pieces of correspondence in 2012-2013 – and those numbers are expected to increase.

As Canadians hit the malls in search of the best smartphone deals during the holiday shopping season, a new wireless code of conduct has come into force. The code, which effectively kills new three-year contracts and caps roaming charges, among other measures, took effect this month. This is the busiest time of year for wireless carriers, and CCTS, which is helping to enforce the wireless code along with the federal telecom regulator, is bracing for a surge of calls.

"We expect the phones to be busier," commissioner Howard Maker said. "I hear friends of mine talking about [the code] and what it means for them. Nobody really understands as far as I can tell. So, we're going to get a lot of that business."

There are a number of reasons for the rising number of complaints. Canadians are growing more reliant than ever on wireless phones. They are also more aware of the existence of an agency they can call when they are at loggerheads with their phone companies. The commissioner's office was created by the Conservative government in 2007; membership was made mandatory for all telecommunications firms only in 2010.

To respond to the demand, CCTS is preparing to hire, and has plans to move to bigger location in the capital in February. Longer term, however, Mr. Maker is optimistic the number of complaints will decrease as customers and telecoms become more familiar with their rights and obligations.

For now, Canadians are venting in droves. Complaints about wireless roaming shot up by more than 240 per cent in the 2012-13 fiscal year, and there was a 165 per cent increase in grievances about telecoms improperly referring accounts to collection agencies – which can result in damaged credit scores and higher interest rates on loans.

Billing errors are the most common problem – there were more than 2,200 complaints about that – followed by loss of service and repair issues.

In late November, CCTS gave The Globe rare access to its contact centre and offices. The newspaper had to agree to certain limits to what can be reported, to protect the confidentiality of the complainants, but Canadians' frustration with poor customer service was on full display.

"They called me a liar and on top of that they are refusing to help," said a male caller from the Toronto area, who was complaining about persistent dropped calls on an incumbent carrier's discount brand. His iPhone is brand new. "It's not like I am in the middle of nowhere!"

Another customer, who was disputing a U.S. roaming charge with another big carrier's flanker brand, was more blunt: "I tell you, I am to the point where I am almost screaming at them." Then there was a man who tried to cancel his contract with an incumbent carrier after 2-1/2 years only to find out the cancellation fee was bigger than the discount he was originally given for his flip phone, which stopped working more than a year ago.

"There's times when ... I've picked up the phone and immediately they start crying," complaints resolution officer Jean-Claude Lizé said. "Sometimes there are very emotionally-charged calls that you have – situations that are tragic."

Sign reads 'NO PROBLEM'

At first glance, the CCTS call centre seems like a humdrum assemblage of grey cubicles and beige walls. But there is an eye-catching sign that reads "NO PROBLEM!" that staff liken to "don't worry, be happy." Given the type of work that goes on here, listening to consumers grouse day in and day out, one wouldn't expect the office to be overflowing with optimism.

"It would probably be different if they were complaining about us. But they are actually calling to complain about their phone bills, so that makes it easier because you are the help they're seeking," Sébastien Pigeon, a soft-spoken customer service representative, said. The 28-year-old Gatineau, Que., resident keeps a collection of superheros on his desk.

Marco Lanoue, manager of investigations, concedes that some complaints can be "mind-boggling" especially when the root cause is a lack of commonsense such as a telco failing to explain billing charges to customers who seek clarity.

Maintaining impartiality is key. CCTS is funded by the industry, but operates independently. Membership is mandatory for telcos. Those that resist are named and shamed, with the most recalcitrant eventually referred to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission for enforcement.

Although more than 90 per cent of the complaints CCTS handles are resolved, there are some issues that fall outside its mandate – most notably television services. That can create confusion for consumers, especially those that "bundle" their services with one provider.

The telcos don't always play ball when the complaints come in. In 2012-2013, about 41 per cent of complaints were escalated to "investigations" because telecoms failed to respond properly, on time, or at all.

But some companies also provide pleasant surprises. For instance, out of the Big Three companies, Telus Corp.'s complaints tumbled by 27 per cent – even though the industry as a whole registered a 26 per cent increase in consumer grievances.

"This is the second successive year that we've experienced a material decline in the number of complaints," said Telus CEO Darren Entwistle, noting the company began revamping customer service in 2009.

Earlier this year, Telus slashed international roaming rates and scrapped much-hated activation and renewal fees. It also pays its people accordingly: 60 per cent its performance bonus pool is linked to customer service. "And that's for the totality of the organization from the executive leadership team, right down to our front-line team members," Mr. Entwistle said.

Among the other big providers, BCE Inc. and Rogers Communications Inc. also say they are fully supportive of CCTS. "Bell helped found the CCTS, we've served on its board and we market its services to our customers. We appreciate the work it does and use its findings to help us focus where we need to improve," said BCE spokesman Mark Langton. (BCE owns a 15-per-cent stake in The Globe and Mail.)

BCE's Bell Canada division saw its complaint numbers increase by 42.3 per cent on a year-over-year basis, while at Rogers Communications, complaints rose by 32 per cent, according to the CCTS annual report.

Rogers has its own ombudsman to field consumer complaints, but also relies on CCTS's feedback. "For example, in the last report, we realized that we didn't do very well. We've been working for some months on some of those issues and our complaints have dropped dramatically," said spokeswoman Patricia Trott, noting Rogers saw an 18-per-cent drop in the number of complaints referred to CCTS between February and July of this year.

Mr. Maker says his message to the broader industry is that it is cheaper to keep an existing customer than trying to secure a new one.

As for consumers, his advice is to complain when there is a problem – starting with the telecom companies. After all, he himself is a consumer who doesn't hesitate to kick up a fuss. "I am going to complain tomorrow about something," Mr. Maker said. "It's a [wireless] billing issue ... I complained about my Internet last month."

Follow Rita Trichur on Twitter: @ritatrichurOpens in a new window

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