GO PUBLIC

Telecom mediator adds staff to deal with soaring complaints about Bell, Rogers, Telus and others

Almost 7,000 telecom customer complaints have been accepted by CCTS in recent months, a 73 per cent increase over the same period last year.

Top topic: customers say they were misled, misinformed

Customer complaints to Canada's telecom ombudsman, the CCTS, are up by 73 per cent over the same period last year. (Shutterstock)

So many people filed complaints with the Commission for Complaints for Telecom-television Services in recent months, the telecom mediator had to add staff to deal with the volume.

In its mid-year report released today, the CCTS says it accepted 6,849 complaints between August 2017 and January 2018, a 73 per cent increase over the same period the previous year.

"It's disappointing," says CCTS commissioner Howard Maker. "Obviously there are challenges — miscommunication, misunderstandings, poorly written documents. It's a bit frustrating."

Howard Maker, Commissioner for Complaints for Telecom-television Services, says people become 'emotional' when they feel wronged by their telecom service provider. (CBC)

He attributed part of the increase in complaints to recent telecom coverage in the media — including Go Public reports — alerting the public to the CCTS — a dispute-resolution organization geared to mediating issues between consumers and telecom providers, with a resolution rate of about 90 per cent.

Bell tops list

Bell continued to be the most complained-about telecom service provider, the focus of 2,275 complaints, comprising just over 33 per cent of all accepted complaints.

Rogers was the target of 707 complaints, with just over 10 per cent of all complaints.

Telus was complained about 511 times, comprising 7.5 per cent of all complaints.

For comparison, Bell has 22.1 million  "customer connections," Rogers has 17 million and Telus has 13.1 million.

Smaller carriers such as Virgin Mobile Canada (owned by Bell), ​Vidéotron (owned by Quebecor), Fido (owned by Rogers), Freedom Mobile (owned by Shaw) and Xplornet received the bulk of the remaining complaints.

James Hong of Toronto says he would have filed a CCTS complaint about Bell last fall, but didn't know the organization existed until he read a Go Public story that sounded almost identical to his experience. 

"It was a bait and switch," says Hong, describing what happened when a door-to-door sales rep for Bell came to his home last July.  

Bell customer James Hong filed a complaint with the CCTS after he says he felt misled on price by a sales rep for the company. (James Hong)

Hong says the rep promised a monthly price of $76.99 for internet, TV and home phone service, but by October his bill was almost $20 higher.

When he complained, Hong says Bell management "did pretty much nothing."  When he learned his bill would go up another $7 this month, he pulled the plug on Bell and switched providers.

"From a consumer's perspective, you just feel cheated," he says. "It doesn't feel good."

Last month he filed a complaint with the CCTS, which will be reflected in the organization's end-of-year report.

In an email to Go Public, Bell spokesperson Nathan Gibson pointed out that all major service providers recently experienced increases in complaints, and attributed that rise to increased awareness of the CCTS and its services.

"It's surprising the commissioner highlighted Bell as having the most complaints," writes Gibson. "Considering we do have the most customers by far and our proportion of overall complaints continues to decrease more quickly than our competitors."

Top complaints

Complaints about misleading information, or not disclosing all contract terms were most common — almost 2,000 people wrote with concerns.  Cell phone customers formed the majority of those complaints, with 1,023 complaints.                            

"I think wireless is a much more complex business for customers to navigate," says Maker. "This seems to be apparent from our numbers."  

Maker said many customers find cellphone contracts confusing, and that the telecom industry should review whether language in their contracts needs to be simplified.

Incorrect charges were the second-most cited issue, receiving 1,737 complaints.

Poor quality of service placed third on the list, with 1,188 complaints.

Thousands of complaints not investigated

The CCTS also received almost 6,000 complaints it didn't investigate, saying they were beyond the organization's mandate, which is determined by the telecom regulator, the CRTC.

Those included complaints about customer service, such as long wait times on the phone, and service reps who customers felt were rude.

Complaints about telemarketing and unsolicited messages aren't investigated, either, as Gary MacIsaac of Vancouver learned after he wrote to the CCTS last fall.

In his complaint, he describes aggressive door-to-door marketing tactics by reps selling Telus products.

"They do not accept 'No thanks' as an answer," MacIsaac told Go Public, writing that he had to tell one sales rep that he wasn't interested four times but he "proceeded to continue with the sales push as though I'd said nothing."

In MacIsaac's complaint, he suggests a "Do not knock" list be created, similar to Canada's "Do not call" list for telemarketers.

Although the CCTS didn't accept his complaint, the mediator forwarded the complaint to Telus, and MacIsaac says sales reps for Telus have since stopped coming to his home.

In an email to Go Public, Telus senior vice-president of customer experience Arleen King did not address MacIsaac's complaint, and called the 511 complaints to the CCTS "511 opportunities for improvement."

King also pointed out that Telus has had the fewest complaints of the three major telecoms for the last six years, although it is also smaller than both Bell and Rogers.

'It shows there are problems'

The executive director of Ottawa's Public Interest Advocacy Centre, John Lawford, says the spike in consumer complaints is further evidence that sales practices of Canada's major telecoms need to be investigated.

PIAC formally requested a public inquiry by the CRTC, but the telecom regulator rejected that idea, saying there were other avenues consumers could use to deal with problems, such as complaining to their telecom provider, and escalating a complaint to the CCTS if needed.

PIAC'S John Lawford says the increase points to the need for a review of sales practices of Canada's telcos. (Erica Johnson/CBC)

"Somebody needs to do a sales practices review," says Lawford. "If the CRTC doesn't want to, Parliament could take it up in committee hearings, or it could be done another way — the Ministry of Industry could investigate."

"When there's a 73 per cent increase in complaints, it shows there are problems," says Lawford. "And many aren't being resolved by the carriers."

About the Author

Erica Johnson

Investigative reporter

Erica Johnson is an award-winning investigative journalist. She hosted CBC's consumer program Marketplace for 15 years, investigating everything from dirty hospitals to fraudulent financial advisors. As co-host of the CBC news segment Go Public, Erica continues to expose wrongdoing and hold corporations and governments to account.

With files from Enza Uda

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