Every day my inbox gets flooded with emails from readers complaining about poor customer service by telecom companies and how their problems have not been resolved for many months. Here’s one such email I received recently– ----

Dear Mr Thomas, Your article on the VAS services by telecom companies was very informative for lakhs of subscriber who have been cheated constantly, I would like to bring to ur notice how the telecom co like airtel are lying and refusing to refund the money, I have been charged Rs 7000/- for GPRS and I am still fighting with them to reclaim my amount. Iam sharing u my email correspondence with u in which they have repeatedly changed their replies just not to refund money on flimsy grounds, 1) They said it was pre active service airtel zero rental plan 2) In second communication they said it was a request from my company 3) when asked for proof of request they are saying it was technology up gradation, 4) Now they are saying airtel live was upgraded to zero rental plan as up gradation of services.

I have approached TRAI also but till now they have not responded , Kindly expose them on how they are giving flimsy reasons to consumers and not refunding their money which itself is a scam running into thousand of crores. 1 GB airtel plan is Rs 250/- But the same service is Rs 10,0000/- 1 GB in zero rental plan ?

Yusuf, Chennai ------

The underlying theme of subscribers is that their complaints are not being heard. Here are 3 simple steps, which I think the telecom companies must take if they want to improve their service.

1) A customer complaint system for customers, not telcos: The consumer complaint redressal system is skewed in favour of the telecom companies. The telecom regulator has set up a two-tier complaint redress mechanism, comprising the call centre at the first level and an appellate authority at the next. The problem is that TRAI has allowed operators to set up the entire system. In other major telecom markets, there are independent agencies to deal with telecom consumer complaints. For example, the telecom ombudsman in the UK — known as the Otelo — has been operating since January 2003. TRAI itself had suggested setting up such an agency way back in 2004, but this never got implemented because the Department of Telecom thought it wasn't feasible. Perhaps, it is time now to revisit that proposal.

2) Take the consumers consent before starting a service: Imagine walking down a street and all the shop owners forced you to buy their wares irrespective of whether you want it or not. This may not happen anywhere but in telecom this happens every day. Some two crore subscribers have have complained to the telecom regulator. An audit by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India through independent agencies found that 60 lakh Airtel subscribers have complained in the past 15 months that value-added services had been activated without their consent. As many as 40 lakh Idea Cellular subscribers network were unhappy with the way value-added services had been being forced on them. Value-added services (VAS) include caller ring-back tones, music downloads for which operators collect a monthly fee.

3) Classification of customer service: Telecom companies should learn from other services industries such as aviation and hotel industry. When you book a flight ticket or a hotel room you are given the option to decide what type of service you want. For instance, flight seats are allocated according to class. Those paying higher fares for executive class or business class get the best facilities, in terms of access to lounge areas at airports, special check-in counters, bigger comfortable seats and an unlimited supply of drinks. Those who opt for economy class seats board the flight knowing that there will be lesser leg room. Similarly, when you check into a five-star hotel, you have the option of picking a luxury suite which comes with king size bed, personal Jacuzzi and with the best view or you can settle for an ordinary no frills room. Telecom operators could take a leaf out of the airline and hotel industry page and should also categorise their consumers depending on usage. A high paying customer, who spends more than Rs 1,000 a month, should be entitled to a higher grade customer service. I am not suggesting that those who pay Rs 50 should be given a shoddy treatment. After all, the customer who stays in an ordinary suite is still given basic services by the hotel. But by offering graded customer care two things will happen. Firstly, it will help operators retain the high paying subscribers. Secondly, a customer will be empowered to choose for himself the kind of service he wants and hence it will act as an incentive to the low paying subscriber to start using more to upgrade himself to the next level