The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Those helplines need help
Telecom companies account for over 19 per cent of the complaints received by the National Consumer Helpline (NCH), followed by banks and insurance companies. About 10 per cent of the complaints received by NCH are against banks.
NCH has started transmitting complaints to various companies and tracks them online to facilitate speedy redressal of grievances. It also receives complaints against various service providers and guides consumers in finding solutions to problems related to products and services. Contact NCH at 1800-11-4000 (toll-free number)

The consumer may be hailed as king but banks and mobile phone service providers hardly believe hell hath no fury like a consumer scorned. Why else would the number of grievances against customer care departments — of late perceived as customer scare departments — mount'

Take the case of Ronen Mookerjee. He had bought a Hyundai Sonata with a car loan from ICICI Bank. The monthly EMI stands at Rs 13,442. A few months down the line, he received a call from the bank saying he was being offered another loan worth Rs 7.83 lakh. Mookerjee claims to have refused it. It was much later that he realised to his dismay that an EMI of Rs 27,335 was being deducted from his bank account. Mookerjee claims he hasn’t received the loan amount and his phone calls to the customer service department to clarify the matter have fallen on deaf ears.

Kalpana V., service manager, ICICI Bank, says in connection with Mookerjee’s car loan query, “We have certain policy rules. Usually a loan account is generated once the loan is disbursed, and thereafter we start deducting the EMI. Also, when we provide a second loan, a fresh agreement is drawn up for which certain documents are required. There could be several reasons for the EMI to have been deducted. So the customer needs to call us up or register a complaint to sort out the matter.”

The phone banking service seems to have added to the woes of the already harried consumer. Getting through to a customer service official is a test of one’s patience. And when one does finally manage to dodge the interactive voice response spiral and connect, one often ends up barking up a stunted customer-friendly tree. But the realisation comes later. Phone banking officials — or rather, centralised call centre agents who serve as an interface between the company and the customer — are in most cases ill-equipped to handle specific queries. They either provide incorrect information, or worse, two officials give contradictory responses to the same query.

Pritee Shah, senior director of the Ahmedabad-based Consumer Education and Research Society (CERS), agrees the problem is serious and it’s time that banks and telecom companies look into it. “We get around 1,000 complaints a month from consumers and a fair percentage of these relate to credit card and telecom companies. The complaints generally relate to not being able to get across to the company and the helplines not being able to satisfy their queries.” This indicates that the phone banking service is far from being consumer friendly.

Mookerjee has had other problems with banks. He had a few Citibank Gold credit cards. Having made a full and final payment of Rs 4.5 lakh to settle his dues, he received a letter from Citibank acknowledging receipt of that amount. One year down the line, Citibank’s credit card department has begun raising bills in respect of these cards, though they stand cancelled.

Again, the customer service official seems clueless. All he is aware of is that a sum of Rs 2 lakh is outstanding. The whys and wherefores are not within his purview. Rajitha R., service quality manager of Citibank, offers an inadequate explanation: “In the past, various agents would take care of settlements on the card. But there must have been some miscommunication. So the concerned person needs to come over and sort out the matter.”

But even when a customer goes across to the bank, his or her problem may remain unresolved. A private banking client of ICICI Lombard had a harrowing time trying to get a duplicate policy. Her call to the customer helpline number was routed to Hyderabad and she was told she would need to pay a demand draft (DD) of Rs 100 at the Birla Towers office in Delhi. After running from pillar to post, she found out that Birla Towers doesn’t handle such matters nor was the DD, which she had already got made, required. The cancellation charges amounted to Rs 55.

ICICI Lombard customer care officials feign surprise at the lackadaisical attitude and claim that for any policy-related problems an Interaction Id Number may be asked for, so that the client doesn’t have to provide the details each time he or she calls up to get an update.

The problem, however, isn’t merely confined to banks. Customer helpline numbers for cell phone companies are as much a bane. An Airtel customer for prepaid services for two years had his service deactivated in January this year without prior intimation. Thereafter, his number has been allocated to someone else who opted for a postpaid connection. Requests for reactivating his connection with the same number have fallen on deaf ears.

Industry sources claim that the problem of unsatisfactory responses is because of the high attrition rate among call centre agents who serve as the interface between the bank and the customer. Only an agent who has been around for a couple of years is knowledgeable enough to provide correct information. But most agents do not stick around for long. They contend that inexperienced agents, no matter how well-trained, can never bring the same quality to their work as they are not knowledgeable enough.

Banks, however, insist that if a customer doesn’t get through to the helpline numbers because of network congestion, he or she has the option of sending either snail mail or an e-mail, the response to which is provided within 48 hours. But this, in effect, defeats the purpose of a phone banking service.

Officials of telecom companies, on their part, insist that 95 per cent of the calls that come in must be answered and 80 per cent within 10 seconds. There are penalties for not adhering to these norms. But if the calls don’t land at all because of call volume, they are helpless.

Perhaps, it’s time they seek some help to help serve their customers better.

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