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Thu 16 Jul 2009 11:00 AM

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A tale of two operators

This week two of the Middle East’s telecom operators, the UAE’s Etisalat and Vodafone Qatar, demonstrated completely different approaches to customer service

This week two of the Middle East’s telecom operators, the UAE’s Etisalat and Vodafone Qatar, demonstrated completely different approaches to customer service.

In Qatar last week, new entrant Vodafone unveiled its tariffs, and they were not met with the fanfare that the network would have hoped for. Qataris who posted on the website “Qatar Living” were disappointed by them; they said Vodafone had promised competition and they claimed that the tariffs were not distinct enough from former monopoly Qtel’s prices, while others said that some aspects of the price plans were too opaque. On top of that, some of the network’s first 1,000 customers who used the service during the four month beta phase complained about the service they had received.

A member of the Vodafone PR team jumped into the online debate to defend Vodafone Qatar’s tariffs. It didn’t go down well at first, and a handful of commentators claimed that the PR representative was misleading customers with inappropriate comparisons to rival Qtel, and one crazed commentator even went so far as to accuse the Vodafone spokesperson of acting “like a rabid dog”.

Vodafone CEO Grahame Maher waded in to the online fray. He posted some lengthy responses to customers’ grievances and he included his own email address, urging customers to contact him if they felt hard done by. He told those in the forum that the tariffs were still evolving, and he promised to adjust the wording of Vodafone’s price plans to make them easier to understand. And he offered to refund the four monthly payments made by the first 1,000 test customers. The comments on the forum dried up, and Maher says that so far he has not received any emails from disgruntled customers.

While all of this was taking place in Qatar, the UAE’s incumbent operator Etisalat sent text messages to its BlackBerry customers urging them to download what it described as a “performance enhancement patch”. Unfortunately the effect on devices was the complete opposite, and many users complained that after downloading the software their devices suffered from greatly reduced battery life.

With a storm of consumer unrest brewing, Etisalat issued a brief statement to apologise for the effect on customers’ batteries and to say that the patch had been pulled while it was being investigated. But then things got considerably worse for the operator when a curious Etisalat customer posted the Java-based software patch on a BlackBerry user forum where it was dissected by some software experts, all of whom declared it to be spyware developed by US surveillance firm SS8. Despite many questions put to Etisalat asking them about the claims, a three day period of silence followed.

Etisalat eventually released a statement that claimed the patch was intended to fix a problem with BlackBerry devices moving between 2G and 3G cell sites. The claim has been dismissed by every telecom expert that CommsMEA has spoken to, and it appears to have done little to appease unhappy customers who continue to vent spleen on micro blogging site Twitter and through comments posted on news sites covering the issue.

When I spoke with him on Tuesday, Vodafone Qatar’s Maher said that it should be the “standard operating principle of any customer-focused organisation” to refund customers that are not happy with the service they have been provided with.

“Because there has been a monopoly, the view was that if you don’t like what you are using you can either pay or you can get cut off because there is no choice, and you can argue about it later on. That’s what everyone is used to with a monopoly, be it power, electricity, or monopoly telcos,” he said.

Maher was talking specifically about Qatar, but his comments could easily be applied to Etisalat. Where Maher and the team at Vodafone Qatar addressed customers’ concerns head on, Etisalat has tried to ignore its customers, and in the process has buried its head in the sand.

In duopolies such as Qatar and the UAE it seems as though the basics of tariffs, network coverage and handsets offered by the competing networks are broadly similar. Where that is the case the way a network treats its customers may be the only thing to truly separate them. Perhaps the management at Etisalat hope that if they ignore it, the problem of the patch will go away. They must now be hoping the same doesn’t happen to their BlackBerry customers.

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