WENDY KNOWLER: Left to languish in Vodacom ‘customer care’ hell after dodgy telesales laptop deal
Long-suffering Vodacom customer spent a year trying to reverse telesales laptop deal and stop debit orders coming off his bank account
I present to you today case study number 458 as evidence of why I say that agreeing to a cellphone contract over the phone is a seriously bad idea. OK, I made that number up — but, if anything, that’s an underestimate of the number of the seriously dodgy telesales cellphone contracts I’ve investigated over the years.
It would be bad enough if the consumer got justice quickly and painlessly after pointing out they had been misled about the length of the contract, the subscription fee, the phone specs, or myriad other sales agent lies, but too often that’s not what happens. They’re denied access to the call recording, fobbed off, and then left to languish in “customer care” hell for months, sometimes years. The injustice of it does my head in, frankly.
And so to my latest case. On January 15, Hermann Reuter e-mailed me, describing his maddening engagement with Vodacom about an injustice that had been dragging on for more than a year without resolution.
The only response he’d got from Vodacom customer care to his e-mail of more than two months earlier was a cheery e-mail notification that “this service has been moved to our ToBi support channels”. That’s a chatbot service. This while Vodacom continued to take about R400 from his bank account every month for a contract he’d cancelled a year earlier. His ordeal began in November 2022, when he made the mistake of agreeing to a laptop contract when called by a sales agent representing Vodacom.
He had been intending to buy a laptop from a national retailer on their Black Friday sale at the time, but was sweet-talked into the Vodacom contract. But when the laptop was delivered, it was immediately apparent to him that its specs did not correspond with what the sales agent had told him.
It would be bad enough if the consumer got justice quickly and painlessly after pointing out they had been misled ... but too often that’s not what happens. They’re denied access to the call recording, fobbed off, and then left to languish in 'customer care' hell for months, sometimes years
So he took this up with Vodacom, whose staff listened to the recording of the sales call and confirmed the sales agent had indeed lied to Reuters about the laptop. He was then given the option of sending the laptop back and cancelling the contract. Three days before Christmas — of 2022, let’s not forget — Reuter handed over the laptop, in its original packaging, to a courier service. He has a reference number confirming it was received by Vodacom at Randjespark, Midrand, three days later.
But every month, that extra R400 continued to be debited from his account, on top of the debit for his legitimate pre-existing contract. He started documenting his attempts to stop that debit order from April last year. He was referred here and there, reassured of “escalation”, promised that a service request would be sent to the sales department, referred to the “stop service” line, and on it went.
No-one in “cancellations” or “sales” took responsibility for the problem. In desperation, Reuter visited his local Vodacom branch in the Garden Route Mall, where staff told him they had no mandate to deal with telesales contracts. Bear this in mind when you’re tempted to agree to a cellphone contract over the phone. You can’t sort out any dispute face to face — you’re stuck with the faceless “customer care” people and bots.
Reuter complained to the Consumer Goods and Service Ombud and was referred to the National Consumer Commission. No response. It gets “better”. Four months ago, he received another telesales call — this time an invitation to upgrade his other Vodacom contract. “When I expressed hesitance to make a new deal with Vodacom until the issue of the laptop was sorted out, the agent confirmed that she could see that the service request had been logged successfully and I would be paid a full refund of all money debited to date.”
Not only did he not get that refund — an undertaking the telesales agent had no authority to give — but the laptop contract subscription kept on being debited. “I am really tired and do not know what I have done wrong that Vodacom cannot assist me with the simple request to stop withdrawing [stealing] money from my account, and hopefully repay the full amount,” he told Vodacom in November.
No response. Utterly defeated, he asked me to intervene in that January 15 e-mail. A day after I sent Vodacom a media query about his case, Reuter received an email from a “executive client liaison officer”. Now, one would expect the first line of such an e-mail to contain a profuse apology for what Reuter has been put through since November 2022. But no. “Kindly note that I have tried contacting you on 071... unsuccessfully,” it read.
In fact, the e-mail didn’t include a sorry of any kind. It confirmed what should have happened a year ago: “The cancellation has been loaded, effective immediately... [and] we are busy processing the credit note to your Vodacom account...” In fairness, the woman did apologise when she got hold of Reuter on the phone later. Here’s what Vodacom told me: “As soon as we are able to pull the call recordings, we will run a full root-cause analysis [of what went wrong[.”
So what happened? “There was in issue with the manner in which the laptop was booked with our courier company, which also contributed to the delay in the cancellations of this contract. “Part of the root-cause analysis will include investigating what transpired with the courier company, as well as what transpired during the call interaction with our call centre agents.”
Finally, is Vodacom’s entire customer service delivery being handed over to a bot called ToBi? Apparently not. “This chatbot only enhances the way we engage with customers. In instances where the customer’s query is too complex for ToBi to resolve, it is [routed] to a human agent.”
Incredibly, neither the bots nor the humans were able to reverse the raiding of Reuters bank account because of what they knew to be a lie on the part of their mandated telesales agent — in the course of an entire year. I’ll say it again: agree to a cellphone contract over the phone at your peril.
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