Don’t wait for cellphone bill shock

To keep a customer demands as much skill as to win one,” goes the American proverb. In the past few months it has become abundantly clear that this is a lesson my cellphone service provider has yet to learn.  

I am deliberately calling my cellphone company a service provider in this column, because that is what it does. But it seems to have conveniently forgotten that.  

I have also not named the company, because I am pretty sure that there are plenty of consumers reading this who have had similar experiences with other service providers. 

This is not a company-specific problem; the industry has a culture of trying to get away with whatever is it can.  

A few months ago, my cellphone bill was abnormally high, more than one-and-a-half times my usual bill. I popped into one of my service provider’s retail stores to check what was going on.  

When I did, I discovered that I had used a tiny amount of data over my allocation and had been charged more than half my normal bill for this infraction. 

To say I was peeved would be putting it mildly.  

By comparison, the sales assistant informed me I was still using the previous month’s voice minutes. 

I hadn’t even started with this month’s allocation and we were halfway through February.  

So I was not using all my voice minutes, but exceeding my data. Clearly this voice-heavy, data-light package was not working for me.  

Because I am on a month-to-month contract, I informed the sales assistant that I would like to downgrade my contract to one where I would be paying for fewer minutes and then could supplement the data allocation.  

When she started discussing package options with me, I discovered that for almost half of what I was paying I could get a package with fewer minutes, but more data than offered by my existing package. 

I then discovered that for less than two thirds of my current bill, I could double my data allocation again and still pay R150 less than I was for my current package.  

Now I was livid. For the past few years my service provider has been charging me an exorbitant amount for a package that is voice-focused, not data-focused, and then penalising me at astronomical rates for any data infraction, while others were paying a lot less for the same service.  

You would think that the service provider would call you after the first data surcharge and offer to move you to a more appropriate package. 

I’ve received numerous calls from my service provider trying to sell me fibre to the home, so it knows how to get hold of me.  

Instead, it chooses to wield the data surcharge stick with gusto.

I am just the latest victim. There are many others.  

Consumers who feel helpless need to realise that they have the power to act. But things will only change if they fight back.  

It was bill shock that prompted me to act. The end result for my service provider is that I now pay it half the amount I used to every month.

The other consequence for my service provider is that where I was perfectly happy a few months ago, I am now actively looking for a better deal. My loyalty to the company has been damaged and the trust relationship shattered. 

All for a few hundred rands in the form of an exorbitant data surcharge.  

It doesn’t make any business sense, unless the mobile companies don’t see us as living, breathing customers, but just revenue numbers.  

Perhaps it’s time you popped into a retail store of your mobile service provider and checked whether your package is actually appropriate for you.  

The lesson I learnt is that you can’t just wait for bill shock to seek answers. You need to constantly be on top of what packages are being offered or your service provider will just sit back and take your hard-earned money with no concern for how well you are being served.  

All around us there are calls for data prices to fall and for exorbitant out-of-bundle data rates to be curbed. It’s time for the regulator to act to protect consumers, because the mobile players are making hay while the sun shines.

This article originally appeared in the 15 March edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.