Posted by: explodingman | September 7, 2007

Of Telcos and Subtle Trickery

Its been a well-known phenomenon worldwide that telcos are not your friend.

They go out of their way to leash their customers by locking phones, charging extra for basic features, enforcing multi-year contracts, and demanding manufacturers remove features from phones if they caused them to lose revenue. (Example: Preventing manufacturers from including Wi-Fi in phones so that they can charge for mobile data at extortion rates.)

Old customer? So?

M1… what can I say about them as a decade-old customer? Nothing much. Since I’m not a high volume user, they have only bothered to send me a phone upgrade offer just once. I’m probably not worth the trouble to keep as a customer. The green and red telcos are more generous in that regard.

I still remember the early days when M1 treated their customers with respect. They would even loan me a phone for free when I sent mine in for repairs. Have you even heard of that?

Getting worse (deliberately)

My personal experience with M1 has been ok until recently, where a few incidents made me think otherwise. These are not accidental, “just my dumb luck”, or “my bad” situations.

These are roadblocks deliberately put in place by the execs in the company to subtly manipulate their customers.

Please fix my SIM card!

SIM cards do get old and sometimes not work. Your phone looks like its working, but you don’t get calls or SMS messages. Most people don’t realize that this problem can be caused by the SIM card.

In the past, I’ve been able to exchange them for a new one by going down to any M1 Shop. (The staff there are friendly in general, though some are more in the “fake friendly” category that’s so often seen in Singapore retail.)

But now you can’t. To exchange a faulty SIM card, I was told that I had to pay a fee for a new SIM card. They will not give me a free exchange even if its spoilt because its my fault.

I have to go to a “customer service center” in some less convenient location, queue up for hours waiting to be serverd, after which the people there will decide if I deserve a new SIM card so that I can continue using my phone line and chalk up more charges in my next bill.

I was kindly warned that it doesn’t look good and I might still have to still pay for the SIM card over there. This is the subtle “fuck with your mind” part, which really means: “Do you want to go all the way there only to find out that you still have to pay? Why not pay us for a new SIM card right here, and save all your trouble?”

Too bad for people who are in the midst of work, and have to get their phones working by seeking help at one of the many M1 Shops found at prime locations. No, you must now go to a “customer service center” to get real customer service. The M1 Shop can only do things that bring in money.

Free (with hidden conditions)

The most infamous technique, is the long-held tradition of giving you some “free” service (like a custom ringtone service), then hiding the * only for the first month fine print in a 6-point, light gray font, at the furthest possible location from the sentence itself. They cross their fingers, hoping that you’re sleepy enough to miss it.

Will they tell you when its up, and ask you to decide if you want to continue? Fat chance. They’ll let it lapse, then “ka-ching”. Call them a day later?

Sorry sir, you have used this service for 1 month and 1 day. You have to pay us for $15 for the 2nd month irregardless.

“Lucky” for me, there was a “promotion” where I could get a new 3G SIM card for free, if I sign up for an “unlimited” video streaming plan. The staff said “You can cancel at anytime by calling the hotline.” Yes, I was lazy, so I signed up.

Rather than giving their customers a flat $5 plan for viewing all their blocky, postage-stamp sized, jerky streaming video, they separated this into three packages: “entertainment”, “music” and “news” which are separately charged.

Another little trick here: Their staff are instructed to sign customers for all three packages without informing the customer. Unless the customer specifies, they will not even tell you that you can actually choose any combination of the three.

And if you forget to cancel all three packages… “ka-ching!”

Update: I went down, NRIC in hand, to the same M1 Shop where I signed up for video streaming. They refused to cancel it for me. The explanation:

M1 Shop provides different services than M1. We cannot cancel it for you here. You must call the hotline.

Great. I can sign up for any service at the M1 Shop but I can’t cancel any of them there, when I used to be able to in the past. I can’t wait to hear M1’s “we have the customer’s interest at heart” explanation.

Free (isn’t very free)

Another trick that was in place when M1 started operation, was to give their customers “free” voicemail service. Which they would then proceed to charge the standard voice call rates when you called the magic number to listen to your voice. If they could, they would make you sit through more unnecessary steps (like “please press 1 to listen again, or 2 to return”) to make your stay on the voicemail system longer.

I’ve tried to cancel voicemail in the past but they gave some bullshit “due to techinical reason… voicemail is free anyway…” excuse. When you get voicemail, you are compelled to find out who called you. Worse, you can’t disable it. “Ka-ching!”

The Password

So I was smart (maybe). I wasn’t going let a telco screw me, so I updated my calendar with the date I should cancel the video streaming. I called them on that day.

Me: Hi, I’d like to cancel the video streaming service.
Operator: What’s your password sir?
Me: Uhh… do I have one?
Operator: Yes sir. You need to tell us your password so that we can activate services for you over the phone.
Me: I don’t recall having one
Operator: Are you adding or cancelling a service, sir?
Me (stupidly): Cancelling
Operator: I’m so sorry sir. We must have the password… we are not authorized to make any changes to your account over the phone without… this is to protect our customers… you will have to go down to our customer service centers at…

For the record, I did not forget my supposed password. I was not issued one in the past. M1 does not send out those computer-printed mailers that tell you your password either. You can’t reset it at the M1 Shop either. You can do it by calling the hotline, which requires you to tell them your original password. Fantastic.

The introduction of the password puts another roadblock, which some M1 exec probably got promoted for this fantastic idea because they now have less people using the call center.

Call centers have a higher service quality standard. The phone needs to be answered within a couple of seconds, and customers shouldn’t be put on hold for too long. The press reports on this now and then, so they can’t look bad compared to the green and red competitor. Especially not when M1 has topped the ranks in many surveys.

In fact, M1 takes this so seriously they send you a SMS after your call to rank the service provided by the particular call center staff. (Another “ka-ching” opportunity, as you are charged for sending one SMS to them.)

They would rather you go down to their physical store, take a gander at the latest shiny phones (which you can get by signing another 2-year contract) and queue for hours waiting for the three and only three people there to serve you.

For some reason, locals are less likely to complain about long queues, than when they are put on hold. By driving you to their stores, they save money. They need not hire more people at the store since you took the trouble to go all the way there, you have no choice but to queue.

The “we care so much for our customers that we go out of our way to ensure that others cannot impersonate and sabotage our customers and subscribe extra services (for which we will charge and earn more money)” song and dance routine sure sounds legitimate, but is hardly made in the interest of customers when a simple checking of personal particulars is sufficient.

The other telcos do that, and even credit card companies dealing with sensitive financial information do that instead of requiring a password which can be easily forgotten. So what’s the real motivation here?

And the fact that I was asked if I wanted to activate or cancel a service, before I was forcefully refused showed their agenda pretty clearly. They’ll let you through with a quick particulars check if they can bill you for more services (happened to me before), but they will make it difficult for you to cancel anything.

Redefining “unlimited”

If M1 could, they’d get the Oxford Dictionary to change the definition of “unlimited”. But obviously they can’t, so its back to the 6-point fine-print technique.

Some of you may know that when M1 launched their “broadband” service (which is actually slow-as-molasses 3G mobile data) they had the word “unlimited” plastered all over their advertising campaign.

They weaseled in a “fair use policy” which stated that even though its “unlimited” the company had the option to charge their rob-a-bank rates if they (at their discretion) decided that the customer used too much bandwidth.

When consumers cried foul (see this CNET Asia post), they weaseled further and said “we don’t enforce it strictly.”

Oh please, if I’m legally liable, then what is the difference? Its like a dictatorship that makes gatherings of 3 or more people illegal, allows people to gather for barbeques, but enforces it when the an opposing political factions tries to organize any event, then telling the people that “if we don’t enforce the law, what is the law for?”

The “unlmited” video streaming service actually has a very convenient little piece of trickery built in too. You will not be charged the standard per-kilobyte 3G data rate when you actually play the video, but when you use your phone’s browser to surf the web site to see the list of videos available, they charge you. “Ka-ching!”

Try questioning them on this point and they’ll avoid the question by telling you to subscribe to a mobile data plan to defray the per-kilobyte charges (which is still subject to additional rob-a-bank rates after exceeding a certain number of megabytes).

How absurd are the mobile data charges in Singapore? How about $10,000 for 1 miserable gigabyte.

Lessons

I believe the only way is to treat telcos like they’re out to squeeze you dry and make your life difficult when you try to do something that causes them to have to bill you less the next month.

Be very careful when signing up for additional services or contracts. There are loopholes where they charge you extra and nicely-worded “fair use” policies that you will be rushed to sign on-the-spot.

True number portability is coming soon, which will allow you to keep your phone number even when your number appears in your friend’s phone (instead of the pseudo forwarding that is currently available).

In the meantime, don’t sign any contracts so that you can give your telco the finger without them thumbing your nose in response.

Once phones get as powerful as the iPhone, and come with real browsers and IP-based VOIP telephony, telcos will once again be relegated to their original role of providing just the data connection.

We can stream video, surf web sites, download ringtones and do many other things on the internet without paying the telcos for additional services. The telcos fear that, and are squeezing their customers, for as long as they can, by playing these anti-consumer tricks. Don’t be a victim.

If you’ve been played by the telcos here, do share your stories here too.

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