This year, I’ve been embroiled in a battle with Vodafone to refund a phantom phone contract worth £170. I won – but now I understand why millions of consumers would rather suffer in silence than do battle with major corporations and their tortuous complaints process
It all started last year when I was trying to practice what I preach. As a conscientious consumer journalist, I am often writing about the need to keep costs down and – if necessary – switch key bills. For most young people, phone contracts (and particularly meagre data allowances) can be a money trap and it was becoming apparent that my own SIM-only deal was inadequate.
Realising I needed a bigger data allowance, I phoned my provider, TalkMobile, and asked for an upgrade.
This is standard advice for anyone looking to get a better deal: haggle and ye shall receive (at least, I *think* that’s what the Bible said…)
But little did I know I was walking into a cross-selling minefield. I was told TalkMobile was being taken over by the phone giant Vodafone, so I was persuaded to upgrade to a new contract with Vodafone. I was assured that I would be staying within the same company, and that this was very much an in-house switch. Same company, but two different brands. I was a happy customer of TalkMobile and this was the only offer presented to me – so I said yes.
I was told I would receive a new SIM, but I was never told it would be immediately activated. I was never told that I would have to take action if I had second thoughts, that I’d have to notify TalkMobile/Vodafone if I wanted to stick to my deal and maybe just use less data (blame cute animals on YouTube). And why would it occur to me do anything – after all, I was told I was staying in the same company. Surely it would be a case of “business as usual”?
When the letter and new SIM/PAC code arrived, I decided to ignore it, carry on with my deal and be a bit more disciplined in my data use. I knew the PAC code would just expire so I did nothing.
Ha! I’m thoroughly embarrassed to admit that, at that time, I didn’t realise what was going on. The brand merger of TalkMobile and Vodafone never happened – and it was never in the works. I had fallen victim to a backroom deal between two separate companies, with TalkMobile falsely presenting this aggressive attempt to offload customers to a different company as an ongoing brand merger that never materialised.
And I’m even more red-faced to confess that all this led to me being charged £150 for a contract I never activated – all because the money for that new Vodafone SIM was taken from an account I seldom check in my daily life.
My error – or Vodafone’s deception?
Oh, the shame of failing to spot this sooner – and me, a financial blogger and journalist! But let me offer three points of defence. Firstly, if it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone. People have incredibly complex financial lives today, and I’m no exception. I’m a self-employed entrepreneur, so I have multiple accounts performing various professional and personal functions: things occasionally slip through the net.
Secondly, it was an act of extreme bad faith from Vodafone, bordering on downright deception. The SIM card was never activated, the account never used and no contract was ever signed. I never heard so much as a peep from Vodafone for a year while this money was being docked. Even the way the direct debit was set up was sly: in that original phone call to TalkMobile, I was asked to “update” my financial details, but TalkMobile persisted in withdrawing from my main account, while Vodafone set up the direct debit with the new account details I had provided. This was a major reason for not clocking the double payment sooner.
Thirdly, I did realise the error of my ways, but only (ironically) when I decided to upgrade my TalkMobile allowances once and for all earlier this year.
Deja vu! TalkMobile pulled exactly the same trick, insisting that I needed to upgrade to Vodafone. This time, I did bite on the bullet, only to be told it wasn’t possible, because I already had an account with Vodafone. What horror!
If you have ever been burgled, defrauded or lost money in some way, you’ll know the complex mix of emotions that initially hits you. Even when small sums are involved, it’s the fact that you allowed this to happen to yourself that is difficult to process.
This pang of self-loathing was compounded by the shame I felt as a consumer journalist: I surely had a professional AND personal duty to be careful with money. But I wasn’t going to be defeated. This was a phantom phone contract that I should never have paid for. Unfortunately, having the will to win doesn’t make the battle any easier.
Millennial consumers are “suffering in silence”
The latest Consumer Action Monitor study (CAM) shows that 52 per cent of consumers would rather put up and shut up when they experience dreadful service. The report said:
The nature of many complaints is still passive, particularly with the emerging younger consumers: Millennials, especially, are simply suffering in silence or grumbling on social media rather than actively complaining to businesses.
While the number of complaints has gone up – from 2.5 to 4.2 per person – the number of satisfied customers at the end of it all remains low. The report said: “Many consumers are still not getting back what they want from the complaints process.” The time, hassle and anguish involved in making a complaint, particularly when multiple companies are involved, is enough to put most people off.
Prior to my experience, I may have felt this was apathy writ large. Now, I know just how painful it can be to make anything other than a very basic complaint.
I initially spent a whole morning, and the best part of an afternoon, talking to both companies on the phone. I was back and forth to each party more times than a tennis ball on Wimbledon’s Centre Court. I was held on the line for 15 – 20 minute chunks at a time, having to listen to god-awful MOTR pop before having to repeat basic details about what had gone wrong over…and over…and over again.
Both companies initially refused to accept any responsibility. Customer representatives coldly pinned the blame on me. When I asked to escalate the complaint – an option that most people don’t realise is available – I saw the first signs of capitulation. TalkMobile semi-apologised for the lack of clarity and promised me free phone time for a few months. Rest assured, as soon as this window is over, I will be moving on, pronto!
But Vodafone remained implacable. The company told me the phantom contract was my fault and that a refund was out of the question. If I wasn’t happy, I could email to make an official complaint – which I did. But I received no acknowledgement and if there was another way of complaining, I wasn’t told about it.
Worse still, Vodafone actually kept charging me, despite my pleas to stop the phantom contract! Only this time, the amounts were different each month, unlike the steady £10 they withdrew previously. What was going on?
Defiance – then a climbdown
I was thoroughly exhausted and depressed by the whole episode, so I parked it. But a month ago, I renewed my efforts to get my money back, only this time I pulled the J card (yep, we journalists do sometimes abuse our position to get complaints resolved – hey, it makes up for iffy pay and being the subject of hatred in many quarters.)
This time, I got somewhere. Walking down the street, I saw a few missed calls and a Voicemail message – all from the office of Vodafone’s chief executive. I phoned back, fully expecting another gruelling round of the Blame Game. Thankfully, Vodafone accepted the whole fiasco should never have happened. TalkMobile didn’t make the nature of the phoney ‘upgrade’ clear, I should never have been charged for a contract I didn’t use and that direct debit should have been killed the moment I made my initial complaint. I had gone from fearing a trial by Ombudsman to complete vindication in five minutes flat.
I got my £170 back. But it was a pyrrhic victory. Sure, having the money in my account was a huge relief. But at what cost to my time and short-term well-being?
I can’t imagine how much worse this episode would have been for someone who wasn’t a self-employed and hardened financial journalist. I have a flexible job, so I could devote hours during the working day to making this complaint (and believe me, I needed to!)
Totting up the time I spent phoning, emailing and cross-checking documents, I reckon I spent two working days trying to resolve this wretched case.
Someone who has to work full-time, or look after others, or has any other kind of major responsibility in their life, just wouldn’t have the bandwidth. And what about the elderly, or those with disabilities and/or learning difficulties? Indeed, 70 per cent of consumers classified as “vulnerable” are reluctant to complain, according to the CAM report, far above the national average.
Okay, we can’t realistically hope for a world free from complaints. Consumers get things wrong – yes, even me! – and so do companies. We must allow for forbearance on both sides. But many financial companies unnecessarily prolong and exacerbate their complaints process, one that is every consumer’s right to pursue, through poor internal communication, a lack of empathy and a crude “one-size-fits-all” system that belies their huge profits.
I note Vodafone’s turnover actually fell by 6.8 per cent in its last published period, despite low levels of “churn” from European customers (i.e. mugs like you and me failing to switch phone contracts, for fear of the bother it might bring.) There’s something wrong with this picture: maybe Vodafone should concentrate less on its faltering international expansion and invest more in treating its existing customers better. Or perhaps that’s too much to ask for…
In any event, the affair has left me with many unanswered questions: why was I charged for a SIM card that was never activated? What contract or agreement did I sign? Why was my initial complaint ignored? Why did Vodafone initially refuse payments for a service it knew I didn’t use? And why did I keep being charged after I asked for the direct debit to be stopped?
But at least I now know why most consumers prefer to pay a premium to have an easier life…
Tell me what you think – have you ever brought a complex complaint? Have you ever had to write something off? Let me know by leaving a comment or tweeting me – @ionayoungmoney.