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Cellphone firms: Respect clients

ACCORDING to the GSM Association, an association of worldwide mobile phone operators, Africa is the fastest-growing mobile market in the world with an annual 20% subscriber growth in the past five years. The association expects the continent’s subscriber base to exceed 735 million by end of 2012 as network operators take advantage of bad and expensive landline connections.
Zimbabwe has been part of this phenomenal growth with the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz) indicating a penetration rate of about 80% in June this year. Statistics show Econet has the lion’s share of the country’s subscriber base with about 6,4 million customers followed by Telecel (1,8 million) and state-owned NetOne (1,6 million).

The three networks remain mainly confined to urban areas, while their increasing operational problems deny millions of customers value for money.
Detracting from these operators’ achievements — with disturbing frequency — is the deteriorating quality of service, leaving customers frustrated as they often fail to complete or receive calls uninterrupted.

This issue of call drops, erratic Internet service and down times has left Zimbabwe’s 9,8 million subscribers seething because over and above the poor networks, they are also unable to reach operators’ offices to register complaints. Instead they receive machine-recorded messages that cannot solve their problems.

Although the network operators are yet to publicly acknowledge inefficiencies of their mobile services, they have developed thick-skins; their robust advertising campaigns in which they extol their increasing subscriber bases, network upgrades and new services bear testimony to this. In the place of smooth and reliable services, they usually offer excuses and positive publicity campaigns to mask their inadequacies.

The height of such arrogance by mobile telecoms companies in Zimbabwe was displayed last week by the country’s largest mobile phone operator in terms of subscriber numbers and market capitalisation, Econet, which unilaterally cut-off calls between itself and NetOne after the latter refused to settle interconnection debts of about US$20,4 million accumulated since dollarisation three years ago.

In complete disregard and contempt for its long-suffering customers, Econet disconnected NetOne without prior notice leaving subscribers stranded and unable to make calls between the two networks.

Although Econet was trying to recover its money, it also hugely inconvenienced its customers who have nothing to do with the disputed interconnection debts. The only conclusion all reasonable customers reached was the company doesn’t care anymore about its subscribers and has become complacent and arrogant, forgetting where it is coming from and who has brought it to where it is today.

Econet only issued a notice on the same day that it had cut off its customers, well after the fact. One can only imagine how much business was lost or the inconveniences caused by the severed connections. Millions of dollars were possibly lost and many inconveniences suffered because of Econet’s unilateral action.

The public has supported Econet from the time it battled government in court to be granted a licence yet this is how the telecoms giant chooses to repay their loyalty. How times have changed and people forget so quickly!

The same network has been short-changing its customers by not compensating them during system outages, network malfunctions and no-service periods, but was quick to punish them over a debt owed by NetOne —something which has nothing to do with its customers. Imagine what will happen if all companies providing public services were to do that.

While Econet may well have a strong business case against NetOne, did it really have to inconvenience millions of its loyal subscribers over such an internal squabble?

Contrast this with Telecel’s swift move to assure its and other networks’ customers that it would keep interconnection with other operators open regardless of any disputes over payment issues. This is the way how to treat customers. Cellphone firms must respect their clients.

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