Thursday, February 09, 2006

Pain, misery and despair: a tale of Vodacom 3G's miserable customer service

Hmmmm. Where to start on this little tale of woe?

At the beginning, I suppose.

20 December. I phone Vodacom's free service line on 155. I'm doing a routine call to see if I've reached my data cap of 1 gig on my 3G wireless internet service.

The 'dashboard' software tells me I'm sitting at 800 megs, so theoretically, I've got an extra 200 megs to go before I start paying R2 per meg of extra traffic. The dashboard software is notoriously inaccurate, which is why I'm phoning. I'm paranoid about going over the cap. My contract allows me 1 gig of 'free' traffic, for which I pay R600 a month. If I go over that, the costs mount quite quickly.

So eventually an operator answers my call. Checks my account. Stays silent for a moment. Composing himself. 'Sir, your account is sitting at around R3 500 at the moment. You've exceeded your cap.'

This is impossible. I haven't done any heavy surfing. I don't cruise porn sites. I don't do anything illegal. And I have a virus checker on my damn computer to prevent trojans.

What's more, Vodacom promises a free service to all of its 3G customers. They offer a free sms message when a user is approaching the 3G cap. Then a second free sms when that cap is reached. I have not received either of these messages.

I tell this to the operator, who suggests that it might be some kind of mistake. I tell him that it's definitely some kind of mistake, and I want to speak to someone about this urgently. He tells me that he's escalating it to the billing department, and that they'll find out what happened and get back to me the next day.

Naturally, the next day, nobody phones me. I call them. Get another operator. Who gives me the same story. I call every day, and get no joy. They refuse to give me names and telephone numbers. There's simply nobody I can speak to. 'Call 155, sir, and quote your reference number.'

Eventually, the day before Christmas, 24 December, I explode over the phone. 'I refuse to pay this R3 500 bill! I will be cancelling the debit order at my bank. I demand that a decision maker speaks to me right now.'

There's an uncomfortable silence on the other end of the line. The call centre operator says, 'Uh… it's not R3 500, sir. It's a little bit more now.'

'HOW MUCH???' I scream.

He starts laughing. Uncontrollably. 'Uhm. Your bill is already around R8 500, sir.'

I'm floored. 'I will NOT be paying a single cent over the R600 per month that I've signed up for. Where the hell is this traffic coming from???'

He doesn't know. But he suggests that I rush out to Vodaworld to have my computer looked at by one of their data experts.

I go to Vodaworld. They check. They find something that COULD be suspicious. It's an EXE file that seems to be running without any real reason. Could be a trojan virus. We disable the EXE, and the traffic stops. But it later turns out to be an EXE file associated with syncing my Nokia 6600 with my computer, and it really ISN'T causing any traffic. There's NOTHING wrong with my computer.

Christmas comes and goes. I'm phoning once or twice a day to try and get this sorted out. I speak to three different supervisors. One of them finally phones me back. Tells me that he understands my problem. But can't promise that I won't have to pay the full bill. I demand to speak to his superior. He gives me a number. The superior tells me to speak to someone else. I do.

The someone else turns out to be Adina. She promises to look into this and call me back. She doesn't call me back.

The money gets taken from my account without my knowledge.

It's now mid-January.

I blow up. Threaten her with the media. She promises to get back to me. Doesn't. I phone her back. 'Why didn't you phone me back?' I ask.

'I did,' she says. 'But I just got your voice mail.'

'Why didn't you leave a message?'

She can't answer.

'What's happening with this bill?' I ask.

She admits that my argument is correct. She admits that it was completely incorrect that nobody from Vodacom got back to me between December 20 and December 24. She admits that I have taken every action to contain this disaster, and that Vodacom has done almost everything wrong in response. 'Just one thing, though,' she says.

'One thing?' I say.

'I just need to check whether or not Vodacom offers the free sms notifications that you've been talking about.'

'Of course they do! I've made more than 60 calls to you people, and every time I'm on hold your slick voice-over TELLS me about them.'

She's adamant that she has to check this out. And I'm adamant that she'd better pay me my money back.

I phone Jon Gericke at SAfm. He and I have been on the radio together for years. 'Jon,' I say, 'can you do me a favour and call the Vodacom 3G helpline and stay on hold until you hear the bit where they promise to notify users with two free smss? Will you record it for me and send me the mp3?'

He's cool with that. And sends me that file five minutes later. I email it to Adina. She doesn't reply.

About ten phone calls later, she tells me that Vodacom has passed a credit note, and I'll be getting the money back. It's now the end of January. She tells me that she's signed the note, and there are just a few more people who have to sign the note, and then the money will be deposited in my account.

Ten more phone calls. And it's Monday 6 February. She tells me, 'No… we put the money into your account on Friday already. It must just be taking time to show on your statement.'

Yesterday, Wednesday 8 February, the amount is reflected on my statement. Deposited on Tuesday 7 February.

In all this time, almost two months since this crisis happened, I have received only three emails, one from Ocker, a supervisor, who acknowledged that my query was being looked into, and one email from Adina, Ocker's superior, containing only her name and phone number, and another from Adina, acknowledging that she has asked the technical department to look into preventing this from happening again. I have not received any written confirmation about what went wrong, nor of her agreement to pay me back.

I've got my money back. But it cost me around 70 phone calls. Maybe 80. And a load of stomach acid. And a load of badwill. To my mind, Vodacom sucks, and their 3G service, to which I'm signed for two years, is a beta test at best, and I, and thousands of other South Africans, are being forced to pay for their mistakes. And they're making it almost impossible for people to get recourse.

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  1. I spoke with MTN about why they are always second with thier products and they say that they would rather be good at something before they release it. How many times have we heard of early adopters being unhappy?

    Go for MTN, the better connection.

  2. ugh... what a tale. And that over Xmas. Glad you got your money back Roy. Seems wireless Internet is still dicy... heard some bad stories about iBurst and Sentech too. Must say I've been two years now on Telkom ADSL and hardly a peep. And at least it keeps getting cheaper.

  3. Apart from the pain, misery and despair of dealing with their bureaucracy, the worst thing for me about the 3G nightmare is the contradictory position I find myself in.

    On the one hand, I LOVE the mobility of the card. I can use it pretty much anywhere there's cellphone reception (when 3G isn't present, it works on GPRS).

    On the other hand, the technology is immature, and I'm spending R600 a month for a service that is essentially a beta test. I should not be paying for this. Their offering is fraught with faults, and their systems are not capable of dealing with users. Why were those two free smss not sent to me? Something must be wrong with the way their technology is working.

    My impulse is to get a court to rescind this contract, because I really believe a case can be made against Vodacom for breach of contract.

    But my other impulse is to keep the service because of the immense freedom it gives me.

    In the end, my own needs will win out. I need the mobility. So I'll stick with it. At the same time, I'd really like Vodacom to wake up and fix this service.

    (And I know I'm not alone. When I took my machine in to Vodaworld, the 3G guys there told me about a chap who had run up a bill of R40 000 without knowing it. He also didn't receive his warning smss, and he also had to run through hoops. I don't know what the outcome was of his case though.)

  4. Goodness Roy, what a mission.

    Glad you got yours back.


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