Calling customer care? It may not be toll free

Telecom firms charging for inquiries to call centres without govt nod.

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Dev Burman (name changed), a Vodafone customer for six years, is furious with the service. The company is charging 50 paisa per three minutes of a call to customer care. “Have you ever thought of paying for talking to a customer care executive?” Burman said, giving vent to his anger.

The story is the same with other mobile service providers. Ketan Ramachandran, a Bharti Airtel subscriber, said: “Customer care is a service a telecom operator should offer free. Airtel’s interactive voice response system is very tardy and you have to talk to a customer care executive to get an issue sorted out. But now we have to pay for that!” The government’s directive to telecom companies while giving out licences explicitly stated customer service calls should be toll free.

The directive hasn’t changed — the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) has not yet approved the companies’ request to charge subscribers for customer-care calls.

But the freebies are insidiously, gradually disappearing as hyper-competition is driving down mobile operators’ profits.

Over the last two years, the race to grab subscribers has become so intense that telcos started charging as low as 1 paise per pulse per call.

Consequently, the average revenue per subscriber or ‘Arpu’ that telecom companies in India earn has plunged 30% to Rs160 per month — one of the lowest rates in the world — from around Rs225 a year back.

“This is why many freebies will be gradually taken away,” said Romal Shetty, a telecom sector expert with KPMG India. “But the number of customer care calls is increasing (due to network congestion, handset churn problems etc), and this has given the companies an avenue for revenue generation.”

Also, confusion exists between complaint and query. “Since during a call, it is very difficult to distinguish between an enquiry and complaint, there needs to be clear guidance for the customer,” said a former member of Trai who lives in Delhi.

“For complaints, a separate number, 198, should be provided by the companies toll free. For  enquiries, they can charge. But this must be done with elaborate publicity. I haven’t seen any order in this regard being given to the companies yet.

“I’ve personally experienced difficulty because of the confusion. I had to pay my mobile bill by March 24. But they neither sent a paper bill, nor anything on e-mail. So I don’t know what amount I need to pay. Now, if I make a call to customer care, will it be treated as a query, complaint, or request? The companies are taking advantage of this ambiguity.”

Sensing growing customer disenchantment, some companies have brought in clarity between complaint and query in the IVR. A Vodafone Essar spokesperson said: “We changed our IVR system very recently. If you call 111, the IVR will ask whether you want to register a complaint or do something else. If it’s a complaint, the caller will be asked to terminate the call and dial 198, which is toll free. But if you need to talk to an agent, a message will tell you that the call will be charged at 50p for three minutes.”

A Loop Mobile spokesperson said the Ruia Group company plans to roll out a big advertisement campaign for customers. “We have already sent SMSes to our subscribers that some calls to customer care will be charged from April 1.”

A Reliance Communications spokesperson said the company’s customer care numbers have always been toll free if the caller calls from a Reliance number. He said the company will also provide the number 198  toll free for complaints as directed by Trai.

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