Arlington, VA., May 4, 2004 -- Cell phones remain high on the list of the most complained about industries in the United States for the second consecutive year, according to 2003 data released today by the Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB).
While the number of cell phone complaints processed by U.S. BBBs decreased from 21,534 complaints in 2002 to 18,323 in 2003, only one other type of business, automobile dealers, generated more complaints (23,729).
Cell phone carrier complaints experienced their greatest surge two years ago, when complaints jumped 263 percent between 2001 and 2002. In 2001, cell phones ranked 16th highest of all industries in terms of number of complaints, with 5,928 complaints processed. By 2002, the industry had moved to the top of the most-complained-about business; in 2003, it dropped only slightly to number two.
The nation's Better Business Bureaus have tracked complaint data against various industries for decades. The 2003 data includes complaint numbers and rankings for more than 1,000 types of businesses.
BBBs first began collecting complaint data on cell phone/mobile telephone providers in 1997.
BBB Complaint Data for Cellular Telephone Equipment/Supplies/Services
||Number of Complaints
||Ranking of Industry
*Settled complaints are defined as disputes in which the response from the company addressed the customer's issues adequately and/or the BBB received confirmed or implied proof that the complaint was resolved.
"BBB complaint data concerning cell phones is in part attributable to the growth in popularity of a new technology. The rapid increase in customers and the complexity of the marketing and the technology probably combined to cause a surge in volume of complaints the past few years. However, we thought the pattern was unusual, even for a new industry, and warranted a more in-depth evaluation," said Ken Hunter, president and CEO of the CBBB.
CBBB Analysis of Cell Phone Complaints
Following release of 2002 complaint statistics, the CBBB conducted a review of BBB wireless industry complaints, in an attempt to determine why complaints concerning cell phone equipment and services had risen so rapidly. Over 20,000 individual complaints - filed over a period of 18 months - were reviewed, and the most recent -- approximately 5,000 of those complaints-from all 50 states and every major cell phone carrier -- were analyzed in greater detail to understand the root causes of customer dissatisfaction.
CBBB's analysis found that geographically, the number of complaints against wireless carriers were roughly proportionate to state populations. Overall, the greatest sources of complaints against wireless carriers fell into three categories: complaints about billing; complaints about the quality of customer service; and, complaints about misrepresentation or miscommunication by sales or customer service personnel.
Some customers' complaints involved "root causes" (underlying problems with the cell phone service, equipment, or billing). The second type of complaint concerned the response(s) of the wireless carrier to these root-cause issues. Nearly all wireless-customer complaints to the BBB were complex and included multiple problems from each of these two categories.
"The BBB complaint review found that it was not uncommon for small misunderstandings, related to service, equipment or billing, to balloon into much larger customer service issues, enraging the customers and, in many cases, overwhelming the original issue," Hunter explained.
In the three major complaint areas (billing, service and miscommunication), CBBB's analysis revealed the following:
Billing problems appeared in nearly two-thirds of all complaints. These included:
- complaints about bill set-up and access, including difficulty in getting bills online or getting call-detail breakouts;
- complaints about inaccuracy of bills, a large number of which involved calls that were allegedly made while the phone was switched off; and,
- complaints about the failure of the bill to reflect changes, such as a credit or rate plan change, which had been agreed to in discussions with customer care agents.
- Inadequate customer service
The next-largest category of complaints related to the carrier's success in responding to complaints about billing, service or miscommunication issues. The most significant channel for such complaints was the carrier's customer service call center. Customers were relatively satisfied with their ability to get access to the customer service call center by telephone (there were relatively few complaints to the BBB about excessive hold times or difficulty in finding the call center phone number); however, customers were highly dissatisfied with the lack of a substantive response from the call center.
There were several types of complaints within this category:
- The most common was the carrier's repeated failure to fix a problem that had been pointed out in earlier calls;
- Next highest in volume were complaints that carriers provided inconsistent advice or instructions from one call to the next (often the inconsistent information came from a retail store and the call center); and
- Other frequently complained of service issues included various ways the call center "agent" could not or would not help; agents' refusals to escalate calls to their supervisors; rude agents or supervisors; inadequate offers by agents to resolve problems; and the inability of agents to provide the help requested, due to systems limitations or other factors.
- The third major category of complaints involved situations where the customer believed the carrier acted deceptively or otherwise misrepresented the terms of the contract. Included in this category are all cases of miscommunication without regard to whether there was any intent by the carrier to mislead. Nearly half of the communications breakdowns stemmed from conflicting information provided by different agents in the call center.
- A third of the communications involved miscommunications by store sales agents.
- A small number of discrepancies involved variances between the store and call center, or related to the terms of an advertisement.
In 2004, the BBB system will implement a more industry-specific complaint process in an effort to better monitor wireless industry complaint trends and evaluate their impact on customer satisfaction.
"Our goal is to provide both the industry and consumers with better insights and guidance on how to preempt and resolve common customer complaints," CBBB's president said. "We're hopeful that we can assist the cell phone industry in continuing to turn the tide on complaint volume."