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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Customer care lines: To pay or not

Features of the week:

Agitations for a toll-free customer care lines by telecom consumers in the country have translated to a one-day forum. REMMY NWEKE examines the options.

SINCE the return of democracy in the nation’s polity in 1999, a lot has happened in the way Nigerian telecommunications consumers react to issues.

This transcends using the instrument of telecommunications to advocate for better services, including whether to pay for customer care lines of telecom operators or not.

The concern therefore generated mostly over the five years of evolution of telecommunications in the country and precisely on the Global System for Mobile communications (GSM), has continued to surface as subscribers increase. At the last count in August, the nation’s subscriber base has reached 25m.

Hence, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) decided to hold a one-day forum to deliberate on whether or not telecom subscribers should pay for customer care lines, penultimate Tuesday in Lagos.

Proponents:

Proponents of toll-free customer lines like the National Association of Telecom Subscribers of Nigeria (NATCOMS) led by Chief Deolu Ogunbanjo, insisted that five years is enough for telecom operators in the country to recoup their investments as it were.

Therefore, it’s high time subscribers began to enjoy some incentives obtainable in other countries, such as Tanzania, South Africa and as matter of fact, like in other countries in the continent from operators in Nigeria.

Worthy of note is that at inception of GSM revolution in the country, the likes of then Econet, now CelTel Nigeria used toll free customer lines as bench mark for subscribers’ attraction on the network coupled with unlimited validity period which has since been reversed.

Situation report:

Current state of customer lines in the country shows, for instance, that customer care line of CelTel Nigeria, could be reached on 111 from where a customer could choose to either speak with an operator by pressing ‘0’ or another information to be followed via Interactive Voice Response (IVR) which are all free of charge.

On MTN, customer care lines could be assessed by dialing ‘181’ for voice prompt and ‘180’ for customer care specialist. The ‘181’ on MTN is free but speaking with a specialist costs about N25 for a given duration.

For subscribers on the Second National Operator (SNO), Globacom, they could reach the customer care via 121, which also costs about N25 for the time engaged on the line.

Also for the Mobile Telecommunications Limited (MTel), now a subsidiary of Transcorp, the service is currently free. Equally the customer care lines of the Unified License Operator (ULO), Starcomms, Private Telecom Operator (PTO), RelTel, as well as MTS are all free among others.

However, operators offering ‘booster’ to the Commercial Telephone Operators (CTOs) among those charging for using customer care lines made it free for CTOs.

Indications are that estimated 85 per cent of the networks offer free customer care lines.

But one thing uppermost on the minds of telecom activists has been that the battle for toll free lines is now focusing on GSM and Unified License Operators respectively.

Off-shore situation:

Investigations by our correspondent revealed that in Tanzania, for instance, CelTel offers free customer care 24-hour call centre. According to the marketing director, Ms Margaret Kositany, “We’ll answer your questions and we’ll help you to make the most of Celtel services understandable and beneficial.”

She also informed that customers could call CelTel Tanzania by just dialing ‘100’ from a local Celtel phone, even as one could also dial +25578 4105300 from any phone, or +25578 4105300 “if one is abroad.”

For the corporate customers or those interested on making inquires on high-net services, she said, “Our corporate advisors spend time understanding your business. They work as part of your team to make sure that you make the most of Celtel. Ask to speak to a corporate advisor by calling 0748 104 220 from any phone. You can also call our customer care team on 123 from your Celtel phone, or +25578 4105400 from any phone and they will put you in touch with a corporate advisor.”

Although MTN Uganda has a customer care line, it was not explicit on charges or if it is free but said it could be reached via 123 ‘help line.’

On the other hand, Vodacom’s customer care in South Africa could be reached from a Vodacom cell phone on 111 for general enquiries, 114 for Vodago queries and both are free. But for those calling from other telcos such as Telkom, they could reach Vodacom and Vodago on 082 -111 and -114 for general and specific queries and will be charged.

Is the forum necessary?

Another thing that divides the stakeholders as far as customer care lines is concerned has been the essence of debating the issue before NCC could take action. While to some, it is worthwhile, but for others, it is sheer fraud, because according to such, the issue of whether to pay or not for customer care lines have been debated over and over again at the monthly telecom consumers’ parliament. The Parliament is organized by NCC through its Consumer Affairs Bureau (CAB).

Therefore, coming up with the idea of the forum, they argued, was ill-advised and thus could be an avenue to embezzle fund from NCC, which is regarded as the richest among government agencies in the country that has floating fund. This has made opponents of the forum idea to, in fact, call for the intervention of Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) in the matter.

They also argued that NCC created the CAB to serve as a one-stop shop which stakeholders could rely upon for information on the telecommunications industry in the country, above all its goals, as a protector of the consumers since NCC is charged with the task of monitoring and controlling telecommunications operators in Nigeria in order to protect consumers from unscrupulous practices in the industry, this they noted has taken over five years to gain attention and should now be viewed a means of fraudulent practice within the commission.

They further questioned the audacity of NCC in mediating and resolving disputes between consumers and service providers.

Conclusion

Above all that may have traversed between the operators and consumers at the one-day forum, industry observers agreed that the onus is on the NCC to take the right decision and direct the operators appropriately.

Even though it has been like a ‘war zone’ as consumers cum telecom activists engaged operators, some good news may be coming the way of Nigerians as MTN hitherto known for charging on its customer line since entering the nation’s market indicated interest to make its free before the end of this year.

The fact that if the importance of seeing a customer as a king still upholds, then those operators still charging on their customer lines, which most subscribers use mainly for reporting faults on their network should do a detour of charging subscribers.

This is because with the Unified License Regime (ULR), tendencies are that subscribers may be as mobile as never before including changing their network intermittently


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