Note: BCE Inc. complaint figures have been updated to include numbers from Bell Aliant and the Solo brand.
It's the industry many of us love to hate. But a push by phone companies to improve customer service could be putting a dent in our propensity to complain.
The head of Canada's Ombudsman for telecommunications complaints says there was a 17-per-cent drop in the number of customer disputes with their cellphone and Internet providers last year. The industry has a reputation for raising subscribers' ire over billing disputes and service quality complaints but as the country's major telecom players fight to maintain and grow market share, customer service has become an increasing priority.
Howard Maker, who leads the federal Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services (CCTS), says he is cautiously optimistic the decrease in disputes signals the start of a longer-term trend of service providers "trying very hard to do better for their customers."
He said in an interview that research shows it is cheaper for service providers to keep customers satisfied and retain them rather than invest in acquiring new ones, calling it a "no brainer" for industry players to devote resources to customer satisfaction.
"Certainly some of our service providers have taken it to heart," Mr. Maker said, "And you can see if you look at the year-over-year complaint numbers, some of them have been very successful in driving the numbers down."
In its annual report released Tuesday, the CCTS says it accepted 11,340 complaints in 2013-2014 (its reporting year ended on July 31), which was 2,352 or 17 per cent fewer than in 2012-2013.
The commission, which is funded by the industry but acts independently of it, handles complaints about telephone and Internet but not television service. Its mandate is to recommend solutions to disputes between customers and service providers and it successfully resolved 9,754 complaints last year.
Each of the major service providers saw drops in the number of complaints their customers made, with Rogers Communications Inc. (combined with its discount wireless brand Fido) dropping 32 per cent to 3,284, compared with 4,814 complaints about the company and its discount brands in the previous year.
BCE Inc.-owned Bell Canada took the title of worst offender from Rogers this year, with 4,678 complaints about it and its regional affiliate Bell Aliant and its Virgin Mobile Canada and Solo brands, although that was still down 6 per cent from the previous year's 4,987.
However, BCE is bigger than Rogers and had 18.6 million landline, Internet and wireless customers, according to its 2013 annual report, while Rogers had 12.7 million.
On a comparative basis, BCE had 251 complaints per million customers, down from 264 per million in the previous year. Rogers had 259 complaints per million, down from 385 complaints per million customers a year earlier.
Rogers has put a public push on efforts to improve its relationship with subscribers and CEO Guy Laurence created a business unit targeted specifically at customer experience in May. Spokeswoman Patricia Trott said the CCTS numbers show those efforts – which include better communication throughout the business about customer issues and sending prompt e-mails to subscribers summarizing account changes in simple language – are starting to pay off.
"But we still have a long way to go. We recognize the number of complaints is still too high and we're working hard to do better," she added.
At BCE's annual general meeting in May, CEO George Cope told investors improving customer service was also a priority for his company, which has invested $600-million in service enhancements since 2008. (BCE owns 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail.)
"Bell has by far the most communications customers in Canada, so we will tend to have the highest total CCTS number," spokesman Mark Langton said. "But we're pleased to be making progress, especially considering how quickly Bell is growing."
Rogers and BCE are likely looking to replicate some of the success of Telus Corp., which has been an outlier in terms of customer satisfaction among Canada's Big Three telecom providers for several years. The company instituted a "customers first" policy in 2008 that has become the basis of much of its branding and corporate culture and has posted industry leading churn rates, which measure customer turnover.
Telus, with 12.5 million Internet and phone customers, saw a 24-per-cent drop in CCTS complaints to just 825 for itself and its Koodo brand combined. That represented 66 complaints per million subscribers, compared with 87 complaints per million a year earlier. Mr. Maker noted that Telus (not including Koodo) accounted for just 6 per cent of overall complaints, down from 17 per cent four years ago.
"Telus has taken [a customer-centric] philosophy and driven it throughout the organization and certainly as far as their complaint numbers with us, they've been very successful," he said.
"We have been on a journey to improve the customer experience for more than five years," Telus president of consumer and small business solutions David Fuller said in an e-mail. "Although this journey is not finished, these results confirm once again that Telus is providing a truly differentiated customer experience in this industry."
Part of the reason for increased industry attention to customer service can be tied to discussions around a new national code of conduct for wireless providers, some elements of which came into force in December, 2013. There were only 30 confirmed breaches of the code last year, but Mr. Maker says he expects that number will increase this year as more three-year contracts expire and more customers sign up for two-year plans that are completely covered by the terms of the code.
"It is a good news story that complaints are down, by the same token though, there's clearly lots of work to be done," Mr. Maker said, noting that complaints of non-disclosure of contract terms were up last year even in the face of the wireless code, which encourages transparency.
In terms of specific issues, billing errors were the most common complaint last year (at 45 per cent), followed by contract disputes (29 per cent) and service delivery (22 per cent).
Editor's note: A prior version of this story did not include complaint figures from Bell Aliant and the Solo brand as part of BCE Inc.'s total. For that reason, BCE figures from this year and last – including overall complaints, complaints per million customers and the year-over-year change – have been corrected.