Why cellphones top the Complaints List

Why cellphones top the Consumer Complaints List

Can you guess what product topped the Consumer Goods & Services Ombud’s list of most complained about product category?

Cellphone - Consumerwatch
Getty Images, Consumerwatch

If you guessed cellphones, you’d be right. (Cars gripes are handled by the Motor Industry Ombud.)

Ombud Neville Melville revealed the cellphone statistic among others when releasing his annual report (March 2015 to February 2016) in Johannesburg yesterday, a year which saw his office open 3495 new cases.

Of the five companies which were the subject of more than 100 complaints to the Ombud’s office, MTN led the pack, with 613 complaints - mostly because of its disastrous strike of last year - followed by furniture retailer the JD Group‚ then Vodacom‚ Shoprite and furniture store Lewis.

The CGSO started off as an industry regulator but last May it was accredited by the Minister of Trade & Industry as a recognised industry dispute resolution body. So it doesn’t take over the role of the National Consumer Commission in enforcing the Consumer Protection Act, it’s just an alternative avenue for consumers to seek free redress when they feel they’ve been wronged by a company.

The role of the CGSO 

The Ombud’s rulings are not binding on companies and the office can’t impose sanctions on businesses which fail to abide by them; all the CGSO can do is refer those “unco-operative” cases to the National Consumer Commission for action to be taken against them. 

Melville says “it is unknown what becomes of those cases”, adding later in his report that “in some of these cases the complainants have reported some challenges with having their cases dealt with by the NCC”.

The truth is that the Commission focuses on the big issues - food safety, for example, not so much on individual cases. 

That’s why so many people try the NCC first, and then, when they get no joy, they approach the Consumer Goods Ombud.

But Melville wants to compel companies to urge their customers to complain to the CGSO first:

“A disproportionately large percentage of our cases come to us through the NCC which means that it prolongs the whole process and is a waste of time and resources. We are going to push for businesses to advertise that a consumer can come to us, that is after they have approached the supplier with their complaint and got no joy."

There’s another problem - many businesses are defying the CGSO by failing to register with the office, and some refuse to co-operate when the office investigates a complaint against them, or refuse comply with its ruling.

In his annual report, Melville said 189 companies had registered with the office and paid their fees, mostly large groups, but “there may be thousands of other eligible businesses”  which have not.

The CGSO relies entirely on the fees paid by registered companies to rulings in order to operate. 

And here’s the thing - it has to deal with complaints against a business even if it has chosen not to register with it, which puts the office under what Melville calls “extreme pressure” and has led to a backlog in cases. 
While cases get resolved in just under two months, on average, at the end of February almost 250 cases were still open, three months on.

Who tops the CGSO's list?

Getting back to the most complained about company - MTN, the Ombud pointed out that while MTN is still registered with the CGSO, the other networks pulled out last July, skewing the complaints figures, because, since last July, any Vodacom subscriber contacting the Ombud’s office with a complaint has been steered towards the NCC. 

Melville told me that the networks claim they fall under ICASA not the CGSO. So consumers with cellphone problems are largely falling between the cracks at the moment, and  the matter has been referred to the NCC.

“The NCC has been talking with the network operators, and we have alerted ICASA to the problem. No-one knows where the jurisdiction lies, so we need clarity.”

As for the MTN strike, for many weeks last year, the emails MTN subscribers sent to their network went unanswered, as did their tweets. The network  pretty much stopped communicating with their customers, which was a PR nightmare, because nothing infuriates consumers more than being ignored. Hence the network tops the CGSO’s complaints list.

The CGSO’s service is free to consumers and, as with the other Ombud’s schemes, the office isn’t biased either towards companies or consumers. In most cases - 62% - handled in the last financial year, the CGSO was able to get some redress for the consumer. 

But you must be prepared to wait an average of two months for an outcome.

* Complaints about consumer goods or services can be lodged via the CGSO’s website.

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