Customers of the State’s biggest telecoms operator were that worn down by its dire service standards, some seemed almost nostalgic for its semi-State past as Telecom Éireann.
A few were so angry they sounded ready to take to the streets. Eventually they took to the airwaves instead with their collective litany of grievances: brutal service delivery standards, a “customer service” department so dysfunctional as to be oxymoronic – virtually impossible to reach, broken promises, weak excuses.
The company had that many disgruntled customers, broadcaster Ray D’Arcy set up a special segment on his radio show to deal with them all. The company’s head of customer service went on air promising to deal with them all individually.
The following week the chief executive wrote to all of the company’s staff: “We know that the current customer experience is not good enough and we have acknowledged that a significant amount of work has to be done to ensure customer satisfaction.”
Comreg, the communications regulator, agreed. It aimed its best regulatory frown at the company and then issued a sympathetic but utterly toothless public statement that it was “concerned about the situation”. Sound familiar?
It ought to. Customer anger over Eir’s Orwellian approach to service, aired through the media and now felt acutely in political circles, has in recent weeks reached such a crescendo that it threatens to overwhelm its reputation and turn its brand toxic. But it is also old news.
The chief executive quoted above who wrote to the company's staff was not the embattled incumbent, Carolan Lennon, in 2020. It was Rex Comb, who ran its forerunner, Eircom, under the ownership of Babcock & Brown, in 2007. The telco has since had three different owners (Singapore Technology Telemedia, a lenders' consortium, and now Xavier Neil and Iliad) and five chief executives (Cathal Magee, Paul Donovan, Herb Hribar, Richard Moat, and now Lennon).
The musicians change, but the tune stays the same: an ear-piercing primal scream of anguish from Eir’s angry customers. So why does its customer service continue to be so bad as to be almost unbelievable?
Whenever it covers Eir, Conor Pope’s Pricewatch consumer column in this newspaper is so obscene that it ought to have a trigger warning. Six in 10 of the customer complaints that are currently received by Comreg relate to Eir, most of them owing to the fact that its customer service department can barely be reached at all.
Politicians – from Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl to Minister for Communications Eamon Ryan and chairman of the Oireachtas communications networks committee Kieran O'Donnell – have been lining up to kick it.
Comreg, which appeared before the committee on Wednesday, has come in for almost as much criticism as Eir. O’Donnell this week called it “toothless”. With no powers to impose administrative sanctions or fines on the company, it is a fair description of the regulator’s impotence in this situation.
But if a watchdog has no teeth, you would expect it to at least have a frightening bark. Otherwise, it is just a lapdog and of no use to anyone. Has Comreg barked enough about the perennial problems at Eir?
It has certainly growled about it over the years. If Comreg is toothless, then government is its dentist. It used to be possible for Comreg to seek fines of up to €5 million or 10 per cent of turnover against telecoms companies for breaches of regulations, but politicians changed those laws in 2011, reducing the limit to €500,000. Comreg whimpered about it at the time, but in those years of austerity, most State agencies kept their heads down as much as they could.
Comreg really began to complain about its inability to directly levy fines on companies such as Eir in 2016, pointing out that it did not possess sanction powers that were freely available to telco regulators in Germany, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and the UK.
It also said the fines it could seek were inadequate.
It did so again in 2017 and also in 2018, when the complaints over its lack of powers and resources to rein in regulated entities grew louder, alongside the rising chorus of complaints about Eir.
"We are worried about what we need to do our job, and we are telling [the government] what we need," said Comreg's then chairman Jeremy Godfrey as he complained about a hollowing-out of staffing levels.
Then came the upheaval caused by Eir’s decision to scrap its customer care contract with Indian outsourced firm HCL Technologies. Scarcely possible as it was to believe, that decision appears to have made the problem even worse. Then along came the pandemic, magnifying all of Eir’s faults. Its pretence, since HCL’s removal, that it was addressing the situation was exposed.
The scale of the problems at Eir is such that it is now a political issue. Its past performance suggests the company is either unwilling or incapable of fixing things. Therefore there will have to be a political solution.
The Government has little choice but to give Comreg the teeth it needs to chomp down on Eir executives, and the power to directly levy fines big enough to make shareholders sit up and take notice.
The upcoming introduction of the European Electronic Communications Code, which strengthens consumer rights in the face of recalcitrance from telcos, should provide the Government with the perfect excuse it needs to beef up Comreg’s powers.
It must give the regulator the incisors it desires, otherwise the problem of Eir’s customer service will come back to bite TDs where it hurts.