Most of us can’t live without them, but many New Zealanders are struggling to live with their telecommunications providers, too.
Telecommunications firms were the source of the majority of complaints to the Commerce Commission in its most recent financial year.
More than 600 complaints were registered about telcos, compared to 403 about domestic appliances, which came in a distant second.
Of all the traders in the country, Vodafone and Spark generate the most Fair Trading Act complaints.
Jennifer Mahoney, client director of Telecommunications Disputes Resolution (TDR), the scheme that deals with sector complaints, said billing was the number one cause of complaints she saw.
If you want to avoid getting a bad deal from your provider, there are a few things to watch out for.
Know what you’re getting from the start
Consumer NZ head of research Jessica Wilson said providers were keen to advertise that they had the best or fastest service, but it did not always live up to expectations.
Make sure you understand what your broadband speed or phone service will be like at your house, with your usage habits – not the best-case scenario.
Vodafone was in the gun earlier this year when the Commerce Commission said it was not making clear that its Fibre X service was not run on fibreoptic cables, and would not deliver the same speeds that consumers expected when they heard the term “fibre”.
In one case dealt with by TDR, a customer was offered a 5GB or 10GB mobile data plan by a visiting salesman.
When the customer asked for 7GB instead, the salesperson wrote “7GB” on the form and left the customer with the impression that he would get 7GB for the 5GB price.
But when his first bill arrived, the customer realised he was being charged more than expected, He was told he was being charged for extra data use on a 5GB plan – and 7GB was not an option.
After the complaint went to TDR, the customer was released from the plan without penalty.
Wilson said people often complained when they discovered fees they were not expecting – that might be to cover the cost of a required new modem, or if they wanted to pay by credit card.
“Ask at the outset, what are your fees, is there anything else I’m going to have to pay?”
She said, if customers were cold-called, they had the right to change their minds within five days, and cancel the deal.
Check your term
It’s becoming increasingly common for providers to sign people up to fixed terms.
“Most companies are offering incentives to join them – free video on demand or a free modem. But then they want to keep you for 12 months,” said Craig Young, chief executive ot telecommunication users association TUANZ.
“If you cancel in that period you can get some serious charges.”
Understand what fixed term, if any, you’re signing up to, and what will happen if you find a better deal before that time is up.
Young recommended adding a diary note to check again at the end of the fixed term to see if the offer was still the best on the market. Sites such as Broadband Compare make it easier to see what’s available. If someone else is offering a better price, you can see if your existing provider will match it.
Understand what might make your technology obsolete
Sometimes, older devices are no longer able to support new software updates.
This is particularly an issue for Apple devices.
Wilson said whether customers had cause to complain would depend on how much they paid for their device and how quickly they found it was no longer supported.
Watch out for freebies
Wilson said the tempters dangled to get people to sign up often came with a catch. A customer would have to do something else, or meet a particular contract condition, to access them.
The Commerce Commission took action last month after Spark sent letters offering new customers a $100 account credit for subscribing to a particular broadband plan but allegedly failed to mention the offer could only be redeemed by phoning Spark. The commission said it created the impression that customers signing up online would receive the credit, when they would not.
Monitor your bills
Don’t just set and forget. Check your bills each month so you know what you are paying for. Keep an eye out for any charges for breaching a data cap or additional purchases you were not aware of.
In another TDR case, a customer exceeded his mobile data allowance and paid extra charges of $2000.
Take action early
Wilson said her organisation’s surveys should significant dissatisfaction with telecommunications providers’ customer service. When something went wrong, and they had to call a customer service centre, they did not always get the support they needed.
“That’s a recurring issue in our surveys.” She said it was not clear that the situation was improving.
If you get on to any problems early, before they get out of hand, it takes the stress out of the situation and makes it easier to reach a solution. Requesting a callback or opting for live chat support can be less annoying than waiting in a hold queue.