Most manufacturers and service providers have email IDs where customers can send in their complaints regarding unsatisfactory products or services.
Write to them, and you promptly get a response with a PR spiel, saying “Thank you for writing to us. We are looking into your grievance and strive to serve you better.” That calms you down and makes you feel good—but what is the response in reality?
It is an 'auto response' acknowledgement, triggered not by any human being actually reading your complaint but by the computer, automatically, irrespective of the nature of your complaint. And that’s it. Often, nothing further happens. This is a fraud on customers.
I bought a 500gm (grammes) pack of Nilgiri butter costing Rs265 and took it home, only to find that it was covered with spots of black fungus. Returning to the supermarket where I bought the stuff, along with the bill, meant extra exertion and harassment (I am 80 years old). The store said it will forward the defective goods, along with my complaint, to the manufacturer. I returned home and also sent off an email complaint to their grievance cell, on 24 September 2020, and promptly, within hours, came an acknowledgement saying “Thank you for contacting us. Your feedback is important to us…We are looking into your complaint. Our customer care team will respond within a maximum of two days…”.
That was it. It’s a standard, automated acknowledgement and means nothing. Perhaps no human employee at the factory even reads the complaint. Only the machine triggers an automatic acknowledgement.
Nothing further happened, even after three weeks. (What was that spiel about “maximum of two days”?) So what is the point in having a grievance cell, or a customer care team, or complaining to it? Just a PR initiative? Do you keep on sending reminders, spending time and effort, or give up? Most customers would want to be pragmatic and opt for the latter.
I remember sending an email to Airtel, seeking a recharge clarification, and got an automated response asking me to call 121 as they needed more information. What more information, when I have already given all relevant details? I also requested a reply by email as I have a hearing problem (and telephone conversations become difficult). Once again the 'automated' reply came in by email asking me to call. So, does no one even read customers’ complaints?
My mobile was given to me by my daughter for her to call and check if I am OK, I don’t make outgoing calls (I have finger coordination problems in punching keys. The only two outgoing calls I made were to my daughter, by just pressing the button on her incoming number—for which Airtel has deducted over Rs500 from my prepaid balance.)
I complained again. It made absolutely no difference to Airtel; again and again, I got the same automatic reply asking me to call. What does one do, especially if one is a senior citizen with restricted mobility? I did get two calls from Airtel employees (after a consumer protection organisation contacted them on my behalf) but it made no difference—no apologies, much less solutions, were offered.
I have with me a Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) announcement saying that telecom service-providers cannot arbitrarily hike charges. Who cares? Airtel nearly doubled its 28 days validity extension charges from Rs23 to Rs45 last year.
TRAI could do nothing. So what does it regulate?
Telecom companies owe the government a huge amount— Rs1.6 lakh crore—in arrears as adjusted gross revenue. The Supreme Court has given them 10 years to pay up. Citizens stand helplessly by, completely at the mercy of companies that show scant respect for customers’ rights (or the regulatory authority’s mandate).
Why do I need a mobile when I am housebound and have a landline? Because for many transactions (including bank operations and booking cooking gas) one has to provide a mobile number. You don’t exist if you don’t have a mobile. This is crazy.
I did think of migrating to another service-provider, but got an email from Airtel asking me not to do so (apparently my form requesting migration had been referred by BSNL to the Airtel office.) They want business, right? But business without ethics, so that they can fleece the customers.
Last year, when I asked for a validity extension of Rs45 (hiked from Rs23) I was charged Rs49. Why? Where does that extra Rs4 go? My query has not fetched any explanation till today.
I sued Airtel some years ago (when I was mobile enough to attend court) and was awarded compensation for harassment. The magistrate even remarked in open court that Airtel should be “ashamed to harass a senior journalist and elderly person.”
The chastisement apparently did not bother Airtel. I wrote to the boss, Sunil Mittal at the suggestion of a former senior telecom official (now a consumer activist). My message bounced, marked 'undeliverable!'
In an ancient fable, a cow could tug at a rope installed at the gates of the king’s palace for people to bring their grievances to the notice of the ruler. We are a democracy, and supposed to be “better than monarchy”, right?
Public apathy and helplessness condones unethical business practices. Where a single, isolated complaint may get overlooked by unethical businesses, perhaps we should think of strength in numbers—India had 1.1514 billion mobile connections at the last count, almost one for every man, woman and child—and must insist on proper, meaningful grievance redressal for customers with complaints.
(Dr Sakuntala Narasimhan is a Bengaluru-based senior journalist, writer, musician and consumer activist. She is a renowned senior vocalist in both traditions of Indian classical music - Hindustani and Carnatic, an A-graded artiste of All India Radio in both traditions. She is also a musicologist and author, and has written a book on the Rampur gharana.)