Customers are an important part of commerce – no customer, no business. So customers really are important. In the area of phone services, the option to transfer phone numbers gave consumers a genuine opportunity to respond to shortcomings in a company's service by changing providers. If competition works too well, however, it often happens that a new way is found to put the brakes on consumers' extravagant demands.
In the case of housing loans, this came in the form of add-on services, such as payment protection insurance and medical expense insurance, that one cannot walk away from quite so easily to use another company instead. Fixed-term contracts for phone services are a way to keep consumers in line, by force if necessary. Companies usually understand that it is not worthwhile to keep customers against their will – business guides emphasize that it is better to let them go and get them back again later.
Bundled phone service contracts, however, cannot be undone even by death. As a result, draft legislation on bundling includes a distinct, highly unusual section that separately defines how to get out of a contract – the only question left open is what is considered fair as the final bill. Under the law that is currently in effect, since the death of a contracting party, for example, is not listed as one of the "social obstacles to payment", telecom operators could interpret the law literally to mean that a customer's death does not spell the end of a fixed-term contract.
However, one may ask if there are really any better alternatives for a customer to switch to. The problem in this line of business is a typical one for essential services: when there are sure to be customers and everyone needs the service, there is no genuine competition. Legislation cannot resolve the situation unless it includes adequate economic sanctions, or unless there is a real change in attitudes.
Pay-TV services are sending out dubious messages, too. The small print flows thick, the free becomes not free, offer limitations are not stated, etc. Perhaps the strangest aspect of this is that the content of the service being sold to consumers seems to be in constant flux. As a matter of fact, the service might be summed up as "buy 3–10 channels for 10–100 euro, and we'll tell you two weeks in advance what you'll be getting each month." Is that fair?
We have invited telecom operators to a discussion about substantive improvements in June, and pay-TV operators later this year. Let us hope that the customer will finally become the centre of attention instead of just a buzzword!