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Ramandeep Singh, a customer service agent at Bell, talks with clients in their Mississauga call centre. (J.P. MOCZULSKI/J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail)
Ramandeep Singh, a customer service agent at Bell, talks with clients in their Mississauga call centre. (J.P. MOCZULSKI/J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail)


Smart phones raise stakes for telcos Add to ...

In the cellphone days of old, Ramandeep Singh wouldn't be handling a customer call this complicated at Bell Mobility.

"Uh, I'm trying to figure out why I'm not getting e-mails," the caller says.

"What phone are you calling from, ma'am?" asks Mr. Singh, a customer service agent.

"A BlackBerry - I don't know, a Curve or something," she replies. "All I do get are text messages. And when I'm speaking on the phone, people are complaining … It's been really crappy. People just say my voice is all mumbly."

Welcome to customer service in the smart-phone era. As cellphones become as complicated as computers, answering customer complaints is no longer a matter of simply reminding customers which buttons to push. It's become a full-scale - and expensive - technology consultation, in which customer service agents like Mr. Singh are called upon to diagnose software and hardware glitches that can take hours to untangle.

An average service call costs a wireless company $5 to $12 to handle, while the fee for a complicated, lengthy call can soar to $30 or more. Yet Canada's biggest wireless companies have no choice but to improve their customer service or risk losing customers to new wireless entrants.

"Smart phones are driving more calls per client and longer calls per client. And I'd say that's a general industry challenge," says Cameron McCuaig, who has been vice-president of client care at Bell Mobility for seven years. "In essence, we're in the computer business now with all the functionality that you get in a smart phone."

A couple of hours spent listening to random calls at Bell Mobility's Mississauga call centre provides a flavour of what agents must deal with. One older iPhone user called the customer care agent about not being able to connect with her household wireless router. Another caller, a teenaged girl, couldn't navigate her browser to update her BlackBerry operating system. The calls dragged on. Some required customers to hang up, update software, and book a time to call back in so they could be walked through the installation process.

George Cope, who was appointed BCE president and chief executive officer in 2008, came onboard with a mandate to clean up the company's customer service. But it's not just Bell. With a surge of new wireless competition from providers like Wind Mobile and Mobilicity, there's an urgency now for all the established wireless players to get it right.

The cost of dealing with service calls hits directly at the bottom line. If a customer pays a wireless provider $40 a month, but calls twice a month on average with queries, he has essentially erased his profitability to the company.

For Bell and Rogers , the challenge is to find ways to keep those costs in check without losing customers.

At Bell, these efforts are beginning to pay off. By putting manuals online, among other things, the company reduced the volume of customer service calls by 16 per cent in 2009 compared with a year earlier. In an attempt to better deal with increasingly complicated customer queries, Bell has reduced the number of calls outsourced to India. Those calls account for 3 per cent of calls so far in 2010 - down from 22 per cent in 2008.

Last year, Rogers appointed its first ombudsman to intervene on behalf of customers frustrated with the company's traditional channels. It also set up an online help team that will quickly respond to queries typed out to an agent. And, like Bell, Rogers attempted to reduce customers' reasons for calling by putting manuals and billing information online.

Will it be enough? When Wind Mobile launched on Toronto's waterfront in December, the company's chairman Anthony Lacavera announced, "The big three have set the bar low." People cheered. Since then, the company hosted an event at Toronto's Yonge-Dundas Square where people could bring their much-loathed cellphone contracts and tear them up or turn them into paper airplanes.

"Things that were sufficient or acceptable or that you could have gotten away with in the past will now face consumers' resistance," says Amit Kaminer of telecom consultancy SeaBoard Group. "Consumers are now realizing that they have a choice. Their bargaining power against the carrier is increasing. Especially when all new entrants will launch."

The incumbents' bad service has become "low-hanging fruit for new entrants from a marketing point of view," says Greg MacDonald, a telecom analyst at National Bank Financial Inc.

"This is an industry that lends itself to bad customer service," he said. "Getting all those things right is not easy - and it's not cheap."

The rapid growth of smart phones makes the task of cleaning up customer service even more difficult. No matter what Bell and Rogers do, customers are likely to wind up griping.

"They're like the banks," Mr. MacDonald said. "There's no doubt that Rogers and Bell understand this. They know they have to improve or perish."

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