Formal complaints about telecom services dropped for the third year in a row as Canada's Internet and wireless providers continue their push to be customer friendly in a bid to keep subscribers.
The annual report from the federal Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services (CCTS), published Thursday, has become a yearly chance to see how well the biggest telecom companies are doing in those efforts.
As the industry matures and growth slows, the major Canadian players have been investing in keeping customers happy and reducing the rate of subscriber turnover.
The number of overall complaints to the CCTS dropped 18 per cent in 2015-16 (the report covers the period ending July 31) and CCTS commissioner Howard Maker says part of that is due to efforts by the carriers to keep customer complaints "in-house" and prevent them from escalating to the point where the industry ombudsman has to step in.
"It's very apparent to us that the providers care about their CCTS complaint numbers. It reflects on their brand, on their reputation – and so it's in their interests reputationally and cost-wise to keep the numbers down," he said in an interview.
"But at the end of the day, if customers get a fair outcome to their complaint without having to come to us, that's a good news story.
The steady decline in the number of complaints to the CCTS (this year's drop follows declines of 12 per cent in 2014-15 and 17 per cent in 2013-14) suggests the industry's biggest players are better at avoiding formal complaints, but Mr. Maker says it doesn't mean he will be out of a job any time soon.
"Certainly this is not a report that says all is rainbows and unicorns in telecom customer service," he says. The report reveals disagreements between the telecom providers and CCTS over how to interpret regulations related to a prohibition on 30-day cancellation policies as well as how to calculate charges for data overages on shared cellphone plans.
John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, said it is troubling that customers who do not make formal complaints would not benefit from the CCTS's interpretation of those issues.
"In our view, the clear flouting of the CCTS Commissioner's decisions is a serious issue that should be addressed by the CRTC and one that overshadows the overall drop in wireless complaints," Mr. Lawford said.
The CCTS receives funding from the industry but acts independently of it. The Ottawa-based agency tracks complaints about wireless, Internet and home telephone services and its mandate will expand to include television service in September, 2017.
Wireless services remain the largest source of complaints and the three national carriers – BCE Inc., Rogers Communications Inc. and Telus Corp., and their respective discount brands (Virgin Mobile, Fido and Koodo) – all rank in the top 10 service providers in terms of number of complaints.
But Mr. Maker says that proportionally, complaints about cellular service have fallen over the past two years and now represent about half of all issues. He says there could be a link to the wireless code of conduct the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) introduced about three years ago.
"The code is essentially a regulatory requirement and service providers are always anxious to make sure they're not seen as being in violation of the regulator's requirements of them.
BCE's Bell Canada topped the list of complaints for the fourth year in a row, despite an 18.3-per-cent drop in its complaint numbers. Rogers – which has frequently touted its investments in customer service improvements over the past several years – was second highest but complaints to the CCTS about the company were down 52.5 per cent to just 861.
The CCTS does not provide data on each company's total number of customers for each of the services it tracks (wireless, Internet, home phone and long-distance calling). In their own numbers the carriers do not break out the figures for their discount brands, making it difficult to directly compare the number of complaints to total customers.
Mr. Maker said it was "a concern" that Bell's complaints were going down but its share of the total complaints remained steady. Meanwhile Telus, which has long made customer service a priority and enjoyed a low rate of wireless subscriber turnover, actually saw a 22.3-per-cent increase in complaints to 570.
BCE spokesman Mark Langton noted that Bell is the country's largest communications provider and so "it would tend to have the highest volume of service complaints."
He added that Bell's number of complaints declined for the third year in a row even as it adds customers at a faster pace than its rivals. "Bell's strategy is to lead investment in new networks, research and development and service improvement, and customers are responding."
Luiza Staniec, a spokeswoman for Telus, said the company "remains the best performer amongst full service national carriers," and added that there were only 104 additional complaints to the CCTS this year. "Given our lowest absolute number of complaints there are bound to be ebbs and flows of complaints."
She said Telus, "won't be satisfied until the number is zero," and said it recently introduced a new "personal rep" program (which dedicates a specific call centre employee to each new customer) and it is already reducing call volumes.
Deepak Khandewal, the executive who has been leading Rogers' customer-service overhaul, commented: "We're focused on making things simple, putting our customers in control, and this report shows we are making good progress and there's more work to do."
Top 10 service providers by number of complaints
1. Bell Canada – 2,940 complaints – down 18.3 per cent year over year
2. Rogers – 861 complaints – down 52.5 per cent
3. Telus – 570 complaints – up 22.3 per cent
4. Wind – 498 complaints – down 29.1 per cent
5. Virgin Mobile – 497 complaints – down 18.3 per cent
6. Fido – 453 complaints – down 25.4 per cent
7. Videotron – 402 complaints – up 28.4 per cent
8. Koodo – 207 complaints – up 18.3 per cent
9. Xplornet – 188 complaints – up 86.1 per cent
10. Comwave – 160 complaints – up 11.9 per cent