What do I do with Airtel?

Symbolism with Simbo Olorunfemi

Email: simboor@yahoo.com Twitter: @simboolorunfemi

Simbo QED“A good company is known… not because they have produced the best product in the market but by the way they take care of the people i.e. customers using their products/services, especially, when such a customer is having issues with the product.” – Ikenna Ogbaraegbe

There is something not just right for the customer in the world of our GSM telecoms providers. The gang of four seems to have the understanding that they have been licensed to ride roughshod over their customers, while they routinely ferry plane-loads of cash to their owners, in the name of profit. Customer service desks exist, mostly to please regulators, and not to make customers happy. They toss customers to and fro over minor complaints that could be resolved in a moment. The customer is put ‘on hold’ in an endless wait over the phone, just to be able to lodge minor complaints. He finally gets through to the customer service representative to be told that the issue cannot be resolved at the moment, as the customer’s current details have not been updated. He is told to repeat the call.

One would think that after a decade in business, the companies by now will have in place robust customer service delivery platforms to make life easy for customers, but that obviously is not a priority.  They are rather busy in turf battles over football sponsorship and ephemeral reality shows. They prefer to throw their weight around, in sponsorship of all forms of inanities with little value for the Nigerian project. Telecoms brand managers have suddenly become overnight celebrities, cat-walking different colours of carpet, competing for attention with their own brands. Today, show dominates business. Hype outshines service.

The Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) must have thought enabling the Mobile Number Portability Regime which allows customers to migrate from one provider to the other while retaining their numbers will do the magic of reining in the providers from their wayward ways. What were they to know? They would not have known that not many people will follow the cue from Saka. But that, in itself, is telling.  Most customers are simply stuck wherever they are, seeing that ‘porting’ makes little or no difference. What is the difference between six and half-a- dozen, they ask themselves. Who ports from Libya to Syria?   Customers are stuck, receiving tons of spam messages from the providers’ funny short codes, while the regulator snores. What can we do?

When my Grandmother said something about the customer being king, she probably did not have Airtel in mind. My Facebook friend, Bumite Susan wrote – “I hate Airtel network with passion….with what they did to me today.” What could they have done to Susan? Ikenna Ogbaraegbe writes on Airtel’s Facebook page – “Airtel … has the worst customer service in Nigeria.” Airtel did not bother to respond, not even to the customer’s expletives. What could Airtel have done to Ikenna?

For years, Airtel insisted on harassing me with calls from one of their short codes, in spite of several appeals to the customer service representatives. Nothing could stop Airtel. Calls came deep into the night. They called me in the course of official business. They called any hour of the day. Airtel was an all-round nuisance. Left with nothing to do, I saved the number on my phone as ‘Wahala People’ and assigned a distinct ringtone to it.

I finally was in luck with one of their customer service representatives sometime in May, this year, as he succeeded in disabling the service.  But, was I shocked to learn from him that the calls Airtel had been making to me, for years, had actually been at my expense. Airtel was either charging me N50 for each call or doing so on weekly basis. I protested to Airtel and demanded that they track how long the calls had been coming and make a refund of all that they had fraudulently debited from my account. You would think that the company will be apologetic. Not, Airtel. It opted to rather ignore the customer, scurrying around to cover its dirty tracks. Not even a mail to the corporate affairs chief was deemed worthy of acknowledgement. The customer service team promised to investigate, that they have been doing for over three months, with no update.

Following my complaints to Consumer Protection Council (CPC) and NCC in June, Airtel’s Oluwaseyi Dalmeida of Service Recovery Unit finally called me. He claimed to have been in the process of generating a log of the calls. That was taking time, given the length of time involved, he said. He has not gotten back to me since then and refused to respond to a call placed to his phone. Yet, Dalmeida, in a mail sent to NCC on July 25th 2014, claimed thus: “Our investigation revealed that the customer’s subscribed to a Value Added Service (VAS) operating on the Airtel network with the short code 54950 on Feb 12 2014.”

I have asked Airtel to explain the following to me – How can I subscribe to a service that was already active for over a year before then? How could I have subscribed on February 12, 2014 for a service that I had called their Customer Service Desk in 2013 about, asking them to desist from calling me with, but they never did? What is there to subscribe to in 54950, even when I would elect not to subscribe for data service with Airtel for the iPhone in which their sim resides? What record do I have with Airtel or any other provider of ever subscribing for VAS? Airtel obviously is lacking in integrity, otherwise it will not blatantly put out a lie that I subscribed to its nuisance-added service.

I still do not know how long Airtel has been fleecing me. I have challenged Airtel to produce the log and evidence of subscription, but they won’t. NCC receives a response from Airtel, asks for my position, which I sent promptly. Has NCC gone to sleep? CPC sends a letter to Airtel, waiting on me for an update, months after. But that is our fate, as Nigerians. There is nowhere to turn.

I cannot be absolute about which GSM company provides the worst telecommunications service in the country, as complaints come from everywhere. But since customer service has to be experienced to be able to come to an unbiased judgement, Airtel truly stands out, in my limited interaction with service providers, as a sad story to tell.

You would think the essence of customer service is to patiently listen to the customer, take ownership of the problem, responsibility for fixing it and ensure that you restore his confidence in your product or service. Obviously, for Airtel, that is not the case.

Call customer service, the first thing you notice is the lack of interest in listening to you. When the representative is not busy mixing up names, he is too distracted or irritated to follow the thread of the complaint. He is too eager to pass the blame for whatever that might have gone wrong onto the customer. It would seem that the customer service representatives are specifically schooled to assume that only stupid customers call them to lodge complaints. They are schooled to lecture the customer on what he must have done wrong to complicate his own life.

If you need help in understanding the mind of our service providers, Emeka Oparah, Director, Corporate Communications & CSR, at Airtel, offers an insight. He says – “The customers most times do not totally understand what they want. Sometimes they have products or services they use with little or no understanding of how it operates. They sometimes do not understand the benefits they derive from these products. Customers complain about various issues that they could easily have understood if they had read the manuals or the policies regarding the services. They buy products without knowing what the service provider is offering.” Emeka Oparah is right. As an Airtel customer, there are many things I did not know. There are many things I did not understand. I did not know Airtel could be so crude. I did not know that rather than take responsibility for its ineptitude, Airtel will opt to ignore its customer. I had little or no understanding that Airtel has no clear procedure for resolving complaints.

Most customers, he says, do not understand what they want. I beg to disagree. I know what I want, Sir. The provider might be confused in identifying what the customer wants. But I know what I want and I am definitely not confused. I want a service provider that will not force a product which I did not subscribe for on me. I want a provider that will respond to my complaints, live up to its promise and not insist on harassing me with prank calls, then lie about it. I want a provider that will not be too arrogant to admit error, but one that will not be hesitant in coming down from its pent-house.

Now is the time to begin to look beyond NCC and CPC for redress. The process in court might be slow, but it sometimes delivers on its promise. It might still be the saving grace for Nigerians from the hands of the oligopoly with a stranglehold on telecoms service in Nigeria. Howard Schultz says, “mass advertising can help build brands, but authenticity is what makes them last.” I hope some people understand that.