CONSUMER RIGHTS

Hanging on the telephone

More than three-quarters of complaints brought by consumers before arbitration panels are about telecommunications companies

Call centers, such as this one, do not always provide customers with a satisfactory solution to their problems
Call centers, such as this one, do not always provide customers with a satisfactory solution to their problemsSANTI BURGOS / EL PAÍS

Mónica L. decided to exchange her cellphone for a model with internet access. Without consulting her, the telephone company signed her up to a monthly tariff that included internet access. Given that the amount was not excessive and the bills were not being sent to her new address - despite having informed the company several times - she did not discover what had happened for four months.

After several conversations with call centers in a bid to cancel the tariff, she was finally told that her petition had now been processed. When her next telephone bill arrived, she discovered that not only had the internet tariff not been cancelled, but that she was being charged for a number of calls that she had not made. She called again, but despite lengthy conversations was unable to resolve the issue. So she decided to stop paying her bills, and at the same time put the matter in the hands of a consumer rights panel, which took six months to decide in her favor, obliging the telephone company to return the 70 euros extra she had been charged. It had taken almost a year to sort out something that should have been resolved with a single phone call.

Mónica's is just one of the thousands of complaints brought every year against Spain's telecoms providers, and dealt with by one of the 72 consumer arbitration panels throughout the country. Since Spain's telecoms sector was opened up in 1998, leading to ferocious competition between operators, the number of complaints has risen dramatically. Consumer rights groups blame the government for not acting more forcefully to regulate operators better. They say that they want more regulations to protect customers, as well as bigger fines for wrongdoers.

Don't blame call center staff

EL PAÍS

Azucena describes her experience working in a call center in the northern city of León as "horrible," due to "minimum wages, IT systems that were constantly breaking down, constant threats of dismissal and anxiety attacks brought on by the rapid pace of work imposed by management. And if you lost a customer or took longer than the three minutes allowed to deal with them, you were out on the street."

She says that most of the problems that customers face with dealing with a call center are rooted in the working conditions of the staff. In most cases, these are companies working to very tight margins and that in turn have outsourced many of their centers to Latin America to reduce costs. Conditions there are worse, and staff are poorly trained.

"It is simply not possible to deal with somebody's problem in three minutes. You have to do all the paperwork while you are talking, and fill in the forms, because they do not allow you any time between calls. And of course you have to follow the rules to the letter, because they listen in on calls. The end result is that a lot of things go wrong and customers end up insulting the staff, who are not to blame," says Azucena.

Sandra, another former call center employee, worked for three months in the department dealing with canceling contracts in Madrid. She says that the root of the problem lies in the incentive system used by telecoms companies. "If you are earning 700 euros, you need the extra money that they give you for holding on to customers. So they teach you techniques: for example, if a customer wants to cancel a contract because the coverage is poor, then the order is not to carry out that request, but instead to tell the customer that a file has now been opened and that their problem is being looked into," she says.

María, who has worked in telecoms sales for the last decade, says that all the companies use similar methods to retain clients, including offers that are often fraudulent. "The sales teams don't lie, per se, but we are economical with the truth. For example, we give prices without sales tax, or service charges, or [without stating] how long a customer will be tied to the contract. The company is constantly on top of you: if you don't follow the rules and your sales are low, then you are out on your ear."

She says that she has been the subject of two formal complaints, with customers accusing her of lying.

On both occasions, the company simply refused to attend the hearing. The judge ruled that she was not guilty, and that it was the company which was acting fraudulently, not her.

"Legislation needs to be constantly updated, particularly in a sector as complex and fast-changing as telecoms; but that isn't the main problem," says Rubén Sánchez, spokesman for consumer watchdog Facua. "The main problem is that the existing legislation is not being applied fully. We need fines that will really dissuade operators from committing abuses in the future, particularly those that are repeat offenders," he adds.

He illustrates the reluctance of the authorities to crack down on telecoms operators: as of June 1, cellphone customers should be able to change their provider in one day; but no sanctions are in place for companies that delay.

Last year alone, arbitration panels dealt with 90,000 cases. Around 75 percent of them were brought by customers against telecoms operators. Such is the workload of the panels that cases involving sums lower than 300 euros will be dealt with by a single arbitrator, a measure that has sped things up and reduced costs. In 2005, OAUT, a special office dealing solely with complaints brought by telecoms users, was set up by the Industry Ministry to help reduce the workload. Last year it found in favor of 45,000 customers - around 72 percent of cases.

The country's telecoms providers say that there is nothing surprising about the number of complaints brought against them, and that it doesn't reflect the overall level of service they offer. They point out that their services are used intensively and constantly, and are considered essential by users. They add that the number of complaints brought against them should be borne in mind by their customer base: 19.3 million fixed lines; 58 million cellphones; and 11 million broadband lines, according to the National Telecommunications Commission (CNT) watchdog.

The issue here is not just the number of complaints, which arguably need to be seen in the context of the number of customers, but rather the difficulties in dealing with them; a process described by many as agonizing, due to the inefficiency of call centers. Add to that long waiting times; outlining the same problem to a succession of employees, none of who are able to provide a reference number, or who have seemingly been briefed to prevent you from canceling a contract or moving to another provider; threats to blacklist you; poor coordination between departments, and so on.

In August, Alfons Conesa, the director of the Catalan Consumer Agency (ACC), told the media that he was considering taking the telecoms providers to court, saying that his office "is turning into their customer service department." The ACC is putting together a list of every complaint brought to its attention to try to determine whether the telecoms companies are guilty of deliberate malpractice, in which case the matter would be put in the hands of the courts.

We need fines that will really dissuade operators from committing abuses"

Faced with what seems like stonewalling, and by now tired of the endless round of being put on hold only to end up talking to the first person they have spoken to, many customers simply give up, and do not bother making a formal complaint to bodies like the ACC. Others are prepared to persist, but even then only a tiny proportion manage to resolve their problem by approaching publicly funded arbitration panels or consumer rights groups.

The National Consumer Institute says that in 2010, it cost the state 2.2 billion euros in wages to arbitrators. José Ramón Lozano, the secretary general of the UNAE National Federation of Consumers, says that the backlog of cases in which it is mired "is largely due to the telecoms companies." He argues that "hefty fines could help sort the problem out."

Consumer arbitration panels and the OAUT can force telecoms providers to return money to customers they have wrongly charged, but they have no remit to issue fines. This responsibility falls to the regional governments, and in particular to the office of the Secretary of State for Telecommunications and the Information Society (SETSI). But so far, nobody has been prepared to issue a heavy fine.

Without knowing it, she had signed up to a tariff that included internet access

"In general, they are not doing enough. SETSI, the sector regulator, has close ties to the companies, and so fails to act decisively," says Eugenio Ribón, in charge of the legal department of CEACCU, which represents Spanish consumers. He details the main problems with telecoms suppliers: signing customers up for services they do not want, misleading advertising, disproportionate charges for changing contractor, adding extras to bills, and bills for services that haven't been used.

SETSI accepts that there are problems, but says that it works hard to protect the rights of consumers. "We are constantly carrying out inspections and we keep a close eye on the companies. We are also in the process of preparing a complete overhaul of the legislation governing telecommunications to adapt it to new problems," says a spokesman. The same spokesman says that in 2011, it issued 30 fines to telecoms companies, but refuses to say for what, or how much.

As for the regional governments, to cite one example: Madrid issued 15 fines last year worth 1.4 billion; consumer rights groups say that these fines have little impact on companies, which are easily able to factor in such costs.

According to the experts, the Spanish Data Protection Agency (AEDP) is the only body prepared to take action to protect consumers. Telecoms providers will often provide debt collection agencies with information about customers without bothering to check the reasons for a bill being unpaid, or even after a customer has put the matter in the hands of an arbitration panel, which is against the law. In a bid to crack down on such practices, in 2010, the AEDP opened 1,170 cases, and imposed 134 fines against telecoms companies. In total, it issued fines worth 9.1 billion euros, almost three times those imposed on banks. Needless to say, the telecoms companies have already factored such costs into their budgets. They also know that the terrible reputation their customer service departments enjoy will also put consumers off making a complaint.

The new law should make firms have an office where people can go in person"

The Council of Consumers and Users (CCU), the umbrella organization that represents the main consumer rights groups, says that most telecoms providers see fines as simply a group of costs that are more than offset by the profits they make from dissatisfied users who simply give up and do not pursue complaints. This means that customer services are never improved.

Francisca Sauquillo, the head of the CCU, says that legislation is urgently needed to regulate customer service departments and call centers. The previous government was in the process of preparing new laws, which were put on hold when the election campaign began last year. The new administration has promised to push the legislation through Congress, but not before making several amendments.

"The new law should oblige companies to have an office where people can go in person to make a complaint. And it should also impose limits on telesales, which are aggressive, with misleading, confusing, and constantly changing information, to the extent that users rarely know what they are signing up for," says Sauquillo.

Redtel accepts that the telecoms providers' customer service departments "could work better," but rejects the need for new legislation regulating them "because all the operators are putting their own measures into place with this in mind."

Telefónica says that it is ending the practice of outsourcing its customer service departments to Latin America, a practice that has prompted many complaints: "Customers feel that they will be better attended by people closer to home." For its part, ONO, one of the smaller providers, says that it will be using Spanish staff to deal with "delicate" matters like canceling a contract or moving to another provider, but will continue to outsource other issues to its call centers in Latin America.

Telefónica says that it is ending the practice of outsourcingto Latin America

Vodafone says that it has introduced a support network in its shops staffed by around 130 experts who will provide a personalized service to customers. It has also set up a customer service department to deal exclusively with cellphone internet problems, as well as a forum on its webpage to allow customers to consult experts.

Jazztel is focusing its efforts on setting up a customer attention network staffed by its own employees, rather than subcontracting the service out, arguing that it will be able to deal more efficiently with problems without third parties.