Complex technology is just one of the challenges consumers face in the world of phones, broadband and various kinds of content services. The most distressing factor is that this line of business, more than any other, has lost sight of consumer retailing basics. Those consumers who would like to vote with their feet often find they have been tied to fixed-term contracts, possibly unawares.
Rapidly developing communications services are being marketed, sold, and bought extensively and in large volumes. The overwhelming majority of complaints received by the Finnish Consumer Agency are in the category of mobile phone subscriptions, broadband services, pay-TV, mobile content services, digital TV and other communications services. Negligent marketing, convoluted contract terms, service errors, inconsistent product availability and customer service problems all grate on consumers' nerves. They sometimes wonder if the regulations to protect consumers are just obstacles that businesses can swerve around without worry as long as they keep up their speed. New products are also introduced to the market without thorough consideration of the product life cycle or the consumer's point of view.
Problems not explained away by complex technology and high customer volume
Why are consumers particularly irritated by communications services? There is constant technological development in this area, of course, and services change form. One could also argue that the number of complaints is proportional to the large number of customers for these services.
But banks, electric companies and insurance companies have droves of customers, too, yet don't generate a comparable number of complaints. Furthermore, the reports about communications services don't complain much about the complex technical problems that these services tend to involve.
Instead, they are about basic issues and basic consumer protection requirements: truthful marketing, fair contract terms and functional customer service. Indifference to the rules equals indifference toward the customer.
Promises are useless for making a call or surfing the net
Marketing emphasizes inexpensive packages at fixed costs. The limitations of an offer, however, are described in small print at the bottom of the page or TV screen. Contract duration and how binding the terms are seem to constantly come as a surprise to consumers. The costs of making phone calls abroad are often not mentioned at all. Very nice but complicated multifunctional phones are sold to the elderly at phone stores and stands. "Theoretical maximum speeds" almost never achieved in practice are used to promote mobile broadband sales. Prices printed in the largest font in a pay-TV advertisement, it turns out, apply only to the bills for the first two months.
Businesses concentrate on sales and are unprepared to take care of the customer afterwards. Broadband is definitely sold, for example, but takes a long time to be switched to a new address if a customer moves.
A basic principle of consumer retail is that the customer should know what he or she is paying for. One cannot tell what one has purchased based on an itemized mobile phone bill, however, yet one has to pay even if the itemization is inadequate. It is also difficult to pay if a bill never even arrives, or is so complicated that it only raises questions or does not correspond to what was promised – and customer service is busy, of course.
Basic principles of contract law also apply to communications services
Contract terms must be fair. The contracting parties also have an obligation to be loyal to each other. They need to be able to rely on contract continuity: one party cannot unilaterally change the contract terms. The consumer's position is also compromised by the increasingly common use of fixed-term contracts.
Identification of the contracting parties is also a basic principle of contract law. Before commencing "business", systems have to be set up so that it is known who the contracting parties are, and with a way to ensure that minors will make only those purchases they have access to. The communications sector, however, has been content to shrug this off and make arguments about systems not being conducive to identification. It is fortunate that in Finland's policy for a Ubiquitous Society, identification – a precondition for winning customer confidence – has been selected as a key project. It will take time for the project to produce results, however.
Advertising in disguise, from a friend to a friend or around the bend
Marketing has to be recognizable. This must not change as new forms of community activities emerge. Even children must always be able to recognize advertising. Marketing cannot be hidden in web pages for children's entertainment. In television, too, it must be kept in mind that children watch other programs besides the morning shows made for them.
As a rule, a recipient's consent is required for direct electronic marketing. In Finland as well as in other Nordic countries, "tell a friend" features are strictly regulated. In Finland, however, the official guidelines are frowned upon in the industry, which is working on its own guidelines. Advertisers say they should be able to put marketing messages on their websites and invite consumers to forward them in exchange for various benefits. The sender might not even need to see the message contents.
It is strange to have advertising that does not believe in the product advertised enough to make it the main marketing message. Why advertise in a form that is not recognizable? Why not state important restrictions?
Customers seek a reliable partner
The end user – the customer – has been cast adrift. Calls to customer service go unanswered. If a call is answered, the changes promised are not made. Making Internet purchases is difficult, the information one needs is hard to find, one's own selections cannot be easily changed or reviewed.
Finland did not score well on a recent information society evaluation. According to the policy for a Ubiquitous Society, confidence is one of the most important factors in an information society. Broadly speaking, confidence refers to the user's experience or view of service quality. Services must function smoothly and safely in order to generate confidence.
The goal of the Ubiquitous Society policy is to maintain and reinforce this confidence. Judging by the reports received by the Consumer Agency, much work remains to be done. Confidence in new services will not take root until the basics are taken care of.
The author is a Consumer Agency lawyer specializing in communications services