We’ve all heard about them. They’re usually found in the depths of press coverage alongside an Apprentice candidate’s debaucherous night on the tiles in Basingstoke and usually envoke a similar emotional reaction in the poor, most probably procrastinating reader. “How could you be so stupid?! When you’re abroad, everyone knows to turn their data roaming off”.
Well, let me tell you. I’ve been one of those procrastinating readers, fast to judge a poor soul’s misfortune as outright stupidity. They should have known that streaming the Best of Cliff Richard was going to cost them the earth as they soaked up the shade in their white-sock bedecked sandals on the patio of their Thomson holiday apartment in Dalaman.
It is now my most despised word in the OED and it’s purely down to what I can safely call misfortune and the harshest customer service I have ever received.
Some background, if I may. As a (previously) savvy internet user, whose career has been built around online marketing, I am reliant on my smart phone more than I am coffee. As a small business owner, my smart phone performs the dutiful role as my alarm clock, my address book, my personal assistant, my mobile office, my social calendar, my modus operandi for dealing with my clients, friends, wife and family on the neverending go, the twentyfoursevenness I long to escape.
And a holiday is when one is supposed to escape. Sure, I dropped a couple of working days at a conference in the middle of it, but needs must.
So there we were, enjoying the high life in New York City. On to Atlantic City for a spot of work and then the big relax on the beach in Florida. Imminent bliss.
Four hours before the flight to the Sunshine State and tragedy strikes. My iPhone 5 completely freezes up, part way through my final email composition. The buttons did nothing although I could still see calls and messages coming through. I’d lost my window on the world as fast as Samson lost his hair. Horribly tragic, I know, but that’s how it felt. I’ve often considered myself addicted and this actually felt worse than the 24 hours after I first quit smoking, so it must have been true.
About 26 hours had passed by the time I was next connected to WIFI for long enough to resolve the freeze. The Apple forums told me the best solution was to install the latest update of iOS – 7.1.1 for the record. I connected my iPhone to my MacBook Pro, the iTunes message popped up. Yes I did want to download and install the latest software update, thank you very much. That should restore my precious iPhone to its former glory and keep me connected – just in case…
I sneakily check my phone once or twice during an informal dinner, so I noticed its absence. In the process of clearing the plates, I checked in on the download/install. It was happening alright, but at some point the WIFI had disconnected and the connection had switched to my apparently still operational 3G signal. Two messages had appeared on my phone from Vodafone, partially alerting me of my impending doom.
“You have now spent £270 on mobile data today”.
“You have now spent £495 on mobile data today”.
Gobsmacked, I pulled out the cable. 500 quid for something out of my control. My wife talked me through the annoyance. It wasn’t the end of the world and we’d get it sorted in the morning.
After a stressful sleep, I was iil-equipped to meet my new nemesis head on. Their combative nature hits me early on.
I awoke to a text from Vodafone. “Due to some unusual spend on your phone, please call Vodafone on +441635692070 before 10am (UK) tomorrow to avoid loss of service. A payment may be required.
Here beginneth the Tale of Immeasurable Woe, Brinkmanship, Stalling Tactics and Astonishingly Poor Customer Service, narrated and illustrated by the self-proclaimed misfortunate martyr, Yours Truly.
“Please Press 1 to hear your balance, Press 2 to pay over the phone, Press 3 to set up a direct debit or Hold to Speak to An Operator.
“(Hold Music), (Hold Music),
“We are extremely busy at the moment. Your call is important to us. Please wait for an operator to become available.
“(Worse Hold music)
“Eligible for an upgrade, please visit Vodafone.co.uk to find out about amazing offers on the brand new Samsung S5”.
“Good afternoon, you’re through to X, how may I help you?”
“Hi there, I received a message to call you. I think I know what it’s about.”
“OK, sir. Please can you tell me the mobile phone number it relates to?” I did.
“And your name, first line of your address and postcode”. I told her.
“Just a few more security questions to make sure you are the account holder. Can you tell me your billing date?” Err – I’m not sure. I think the payment leaves the account on or around the 24th of the month.
“OK, that’s incorrect. Can you tell me what your contract includes?” Unlimited calls, messages and data.
“That’s not quite right. Can you tell me how much your last bill was for?” I’m afraid not.
“I’m afraid you have failed our data protection check this afternoon Mr Galanis. Please try contacting us again later today”.
But… but… you asked me to call.
Ridiculous, but there was an obvious solution. I logged in to my Vodafone account to have the answers ready for the next £1.50/min call. Holy mother of God. I don’t think I’ll ever forget what I saw. The single data session, totalling 888.051MB and lasting no more than 20 minutes had cost added £2670 to my bill!
I’ve never dialled a number so quickly. I had to get this resolved.
I scraped through the data protection check after about half a dozen new questions were thrown my way. I detailed what had happened and asked what they could do to help me out. The brusque Northern lady I was speaking to at Vodafone had about as much a capacity for sympathy as I had for patience at that moment, although I’m pretty certain she’s carries that mantra on in day to day life.
“You will be liable for this charge Sir. Vodafone made you aware of the costs of mobile data. £5 for the first 5 MB, then £3 per MB thereafter.” I’m aware of that, thank you. What I’m saying is, the phone I have leased from Vodafone crashed. I followed the guidelines for a phone restoration I could find from Apple, and it’s ended up in this disaster. Surely there’s something you can do to erase the cost?
“Let me talk to my manager”
“(Worst Hold Music for 8 minutes)”.
“Sorry about that sir. I’ve just spoken to my manager and we can offer to reduce your bill by 10% as a goodwill gesture.” Yeah, thanks, but that still makes the bill more than £3000. Can’t you see that this was a completely accidental spend outside of my control?
“I see that sir, but you are liable for the usage”.
“I can’t afford to pay it. Can I speak to your manager please?”
“It’s Vodafone’s policy to offer callbacks from managers within 24-48 hours. Shall I arrange this for you?”
“Ok, but is there any way I can speak to someone now?”
“I’m just going to put you on hold, Sir, is that alright?”
“(Worst hold music ever)”.
“Sir, if you agree to pay £2000 now and agree to pay the remainder in 3 weekly installments, I can offer you a 10% discount, right now.” I’ll wait on your manager thanks.
“It’s a one-time offer. It’s likely you won’t get a better offer from a manager”. I’ll take my chances.
Fuming, I hit Google with a vengeance. The previously amusing tales of woe give me hope. The woman who downloaded a Neil Diamond CD in Morocco got the charges waived. The man streaming radio had his £16k bill reduced to £3k. There was hope. Ombudsman involvement had helped many a poor soul out. The advice I could find hinted that the first step was lodging a written complaint to Vodafone, so I constructed it, covering everything that had unfolded and send it via email through their system on 14th April.
Still anxious, as one would be, I kept digging, and found myself reading about roaming data caps. I recall opting into a Euro Traveller bundle Vodafone has on offer, allowing you to transfer the usage allowance you have in the UK to EU countries for £3 per day of travel. A decent deal admittedly. Had it meant I no longer had a data cap on my account? Apparently this only affects additional spend in the EU. A further desperate look at my online account shows that my Roaming Cap is in fact on. I should be permitted to use no more than £42 per month in the Rest of the World zone.
I call back. The man I’m dealing with – Behan perhaps – was far more sympathetic and several hold music ballads later confirms that the cap had been switched on throughout my ordeal but it hadn’t been working. He asks me if I have ever opted out of the data cap for the ROW zone. I was in the States in September last year and again in March this year. I have no recollection of opting out – but expressed that it was kind of irrelevant as the cap showed as on in my account. If I’d opted out, surely it should indicate the cap was off. Vodafone alerts have a canny knack of disappearing over time, so I had no trace of opting out. Behan assured me that, if I hadn’t opted out, my bill would be adjusted to reflect the technical error in Vodafone’s capping tool. Behan also assured me my line would remain open and nothing needed to happen until the bill came through.
He was wrong. I lost signal. Using another line, I called up. After the 5 minute/£7.50 data protection gauntlet, the first lady told me that, because I’d not settled the large sum, they’d suspended my line. I was cut off. The next lady I spoke to with a delightful Indian subcontinental accent, informed me that I could set a four digit PIN rather than go through the data protection rigmorale every time. Astounded, I set it. Little did I know it would probably save me the best part of £100 over the next week. I told my tale of woe. She told me she’d unlocked the line and all would be fine within 2-3 hours.
It wasn’t. I called back, proudly informing the operator of my name and second and third digits of my PIN. It had occurred to me that I was still abroad and perhaps I would have to wait until I was back in the UK and could receive Vodafone coverage for the line to be restored. No, no. A SIM card removal and replace later and all was well with the world.
Now the correct readjustment of my month’s bill to reflect the data cap did sound too good to be true, and sure enough that would prove to be the case. In the meantime, I’d become aware that my nemesis really was to be reckoned with, so I did some more work.
I tried to identify the true cost of data usage to Vodafone in the US. They need to pay a fee, albeit at wholesale prices, whenever one of their users requests usage of an international operator’s mast – hence the concept of roaming fees.
Here are some facts for you:
1) Vodafone is the second largest mobile phone operator in the world, behind China Mobile, in terms of number of connections and annual mobile revenue.
2) AT&T, the network with which Vodafone users are paired up with in the USA, ranks 10th.
3) AT&T mobile users are offered bundles for roaming in over 150 countries, including the UK. Their pay monthly user can add 800 MB of roaming data to their contract for $120 and pay an overage charge of $30/120MB thereafter. So, should they undergo the same misfortune as I did in Ol’ Blighty, they might be crying over their medium over easy breakfast on the flight home for the sake of $144, or in old money, £85.59.
4) It is therefore 32.2467578 times cheaper for a user of the world’s 10th largest mobile network to consume data on the world’s second largest mobile network, than it is for this misfortunate martyr to do the opposite.
5) In other words, Vodafone are claiming that their position, as only the world’s second largest mobile network, prohibits them from negotiating a deal that would make their data roaming costs in the US anything less than 32 times more expensive than a smaller network would offer their customers the other way around.
I can concede that costs may be higher in the States from an infrastructure perspective. I can accept that the price in the UK for a domestic or international network to access and serve data is the lowest in the world. I can accept that Vodafone’s sale of the Verizon Wireless network, AT&T’s largest competitor in the States, may have put Vodafone on the back foot.
As a commercially minded person myself, I can see that Vodafone might see the opportunity to overcharge customers on non-EU roaming data to boost profits – particularly if their customers opt in to the plan.
What I cannot accept is that Vodafone pays anything close to £3 per MB for data on the AT&T network. I’d be amazed if it’s even a tenth of that. One of Vodafone’s UK rivals, albeit far smaller, has all but scrapped data roaming charges in the USA. The Three network, at the time of writing, almosts begrudgingly limits it’s All-You-Can-Eat calls/data package to a whopping 25GB per month, available at £41 per month on a 2 year contract. In Vodafone language, this equates to £76,800 (1GB = 1024 MB, (£3 x £1024) x 25 = £76,800.
To look at that commercially, if Vodafone’s pricing is to be taken as read, Three would be out of pocket if one of their customers spent 2 years solid in the USA, consuming 25 GB of data each month to the tune of £1,842,216. (That is £1,843,200 (24x £76,800) – £984 (24 x £41).
One might speculate that Three could be taking a calculated commercial risk in offering such a deal to obtain market share – perhaps the true cost of the data is twice or even Three times the price of the contract (sheer madness)?. If one was on holiday in the States, as I was, for 16 days and racked up a not unreasonable sum of 50 MB of data usage per day (probably 20 minutes on Facebook, maybe a Youtube clip, pulling through 10 emails and using Google Maps to navigate a 10 minute walk – 800 MB in total, even if the true charge of the data to Three was threefold their return on my contract for the period (£20.50), the cost would only be 0.076875p per MB.
I understand the commercial need to keep the true cost that a MB of data costs Vodafone in the US a closely guarded secret, but I am (was) a very good customer to Vodafone. I own three lines on Pay Monthly deals at a combined total of 15 years of loyalty. I dread to think how I have lined their corporate coffers, and might continue to have done so beyond this sorry episode.
What might not be quite so acceptable is to offer any customer £2760 of credit in this day and age, in such a short space of time, without even informing them. Hardly responsible lending, is it?
With that all aside, the data cap on my account was on and Vodafone offered me no information, thanks to their evaporating SMS alerts, of how to opt back in to this IF indeed I had at some point opted out during the contract (again, no evidence put forward of this).
As it turned out, the time spent calculating all of this was not wasted.
My bill arrived over email – I’m kind enough to save them the postage cost every month – late, one assumes because of Easter. Three Thousand, Four Hundred and Sixteen British Pounds and Twenty Nine of Her Majesty’s pennies.
After returning to the UK and taking to social media at a sensible data usage rate, the @VodafoneUKHelp handle tells me that the Customer Relations team doesn’t have a phone number I can contact them on. Marvellous. I find one in a deepest, darkest forum somewhere twenty minutes of my precious time later.
I pick up my complaint with the team there. It’s not been looked at yet. I request what is called a deadlock review, where my case goes to, presumably, some bigwigs in the customer service team. If that fails, they send a letter of deadlock – essentially a big “FU, let’s see what the Ombudsman has to say about it” document. I’m told this review will take place in the next 24 hours and I’ll receive a call either offering me a New Deal or informing me the letter is in the post.
Well, FDR was obviously not on the panel, although I had to call 36 hours later after receiving no call, as promised. On three separate occasions, Vodafone have failed to follow up with a call at management level, as promised. It is only the stress this situation has caused me that has driven me to get to this point within 17 days. Vodafone don’t seem in the least bit concerned that I “owe” them £3416.29 and have cancelled my direct debit. It’s almost as if it’s nothing to them…
And that’s where my nemesis and I have got to. I’m reliant on the Ombudsman to come to my aid. So much for “Power to You”. I’ll keep you posted…
UPDATE – 7th May 2014
After all of your sharing, retweeting, commenting, advice and general support, my story was picked up by the Daily Telegraph in the UK, who used their weight to get Vodafone to comment.
Vodafone did so by waiving all roaming costs for the month and limiting my data roaming charge to €50. I have just paid the revised bill.
Thank you all so much!
The Telegraph article can be found here. It uses snippets from my blog post: