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Local comedian battles with Vodacom over Twitter

Deep Fried Man is a well-known local comedian. He tells his story about how he used Twitter to get some customer satisfaction.

This is the story of my battle to use social media to solve the problems I had with my internet contract. You could call it a David and Goliath story. Except in this version, Goliath is just mildly bruised rather than slain, and David escapes (largely) unscathed to fight another day. It was, at least, a partial victory.

It all started when I got a broadband contract with Vodacom. Two gigs, plus two “Night Owl gigs” between midnight and five am, for R150 a month, with a free modem. A good deal. The first problem was that the internet barely worked. At times it was painfully slow and almost completely dysfunctional. To vent, I started tweeting sarcastically about Vodacom (Mainly from my BlackBerry. My coverage wasn’t good enough for me to tweet on my Mac). After a while I started to earn a reputation for my one-man campaign against Vodacom.

Then things got really heavy. Over and above my monthly fee, over R2 000 was deducted from my account. This was bizarre, as I had monitored my usage carefully — every time I logged in, a pop up message told me exactly how much I had used and how much I had left. I phoned Vodacom and logged an investigation. Logging an investigation with Vodacom felt a bit like getting a public apology from Julius Malema.

When Vodacom eventually sent me, about a month and a half later, the results of its investigation, it said that I simply had used that much internet. I still have no idea how. Its “proof” of my usage came in the form of a PDF that may as well have been in Arabic or binary. It was a bunch of random numbers, and I am pretty sure that a PHD in Applied Mathematics is required to understand it.

I would feel a bit better about having somehow overspent this much if I had, for example, spent hours downloading all the Police Academy films or vintage French erotica. But all I ever did was use email, go onto Facebook and Twitter, and very occasionally watch something on YouTube. The only possible logical explanation I have for how I managed to go more than R2 000 over my limit is that there is a serious discrepancy between how much data you are told you are using and how much you are actually using.

Vodacom does, it turns out, say that the figures it gives you to monitor your usage are “just an estimate”. So you get a message telling you that you have 500 megs left, when really you are already paying for extra data, and at more than R2 a meg. I cannot tell you the exact amount that it charges you per meg once your two gigs has expired even after searching at length for this info online. Vodacom make this info as hard to attain as possible.

You can place a cap so that you can only go R50 over, another thing the mobile-carrier forgets to mention until it’s too late, but apparently, according to someone who had a similar story about his Vodacom broadband contract, even with this cap in place there are ways to go significantly over. Clearly it is not acceptable to sell contracts that allow your users to amass such huge bills without any warning, even after they have painstakingly monitored their usage (I am told that you can get an SMS sent when you are over your cap, but I was not aware of this service until after the whole affair was over, and was not informed of this in any of my support calls to Vodacom). So I tweeted like I had never tweeted before. Not sarcastically any more, out of pure anger. Twitter became my way to vent.

Then the unthinkable happened. I was contacted by Richard Boorman, Vodacom’s Executive Head of Corporate Communications, who said he’d help me out. This isn’t so surprising considering the fact that some of my tweets had a very far reach. At the time, I had about 3 000 followers, but even more so, some of my comedian friends, who have more than double that, retweeted some of my tweets, and so this reach was amplified. Out of frustration, I also targeted my tweets at CEO Pieter Uys. And this is the brilliance of Twitter. Anyone on there can “talk to the boss”.

Before I carry on I want to stress that Richard Boorman is one of the good guys. When he called me I felt, for the first time since the start of this whole debacle that I was speaking to a human being, rather than an instruction manual as read by an underpaid call-centre worker, badly translated from legalese. Generally, Vodacom is jacked when it comes to social media, and it is not only quite witty on Twitter but also quick to respond to problems. I always felt bad about tweeting negatively because some of its social media is handled by Cerebra. I used to work there, and so the people dealing with many of my angry tweets are actually people I know and respect. But social media was the only outlet against Vodacom’s service that I had. I wasn’t even doing it because I thought anyone from Vodacom’s side would actually do anything about my problems. I was just venting.

In the end, though, my tweets did help. The eventual solution was not an entirely satisfactory one, but it was better than nothing. Half the money that Vodacom deducted from my account was returned, and my contract was severed immediately, without having to pay the usual charges and jump through the usual hoops.

I accepted these concessions, but found them a bit confusing. If Vodacom was admitting that there was a problem, then why did the company only give me a part-refund? Moreover, why is it acceptable give those that have the power to give them bad publicity on Twitter special privileges, over and above those whose complaints are only broadcast to close friends and family, rather than thousands of people?

At this point I should probably mention that my girlfriend has the same broadband contract, and had the exact same thing happen to her. Thousands of rands that she wasn’t even aware she owed were debited from her account. But my girlfriend isn’t as much of a loud-mouth as me, and isn’t a Twitter obsessive, and so she has no recourse. Unless I start tweeting about her case the same way I did about mine…

The moral of the story is that you can use social media to get results. Vodacom is, ultimately, not a social media company but a cellular network. Tweeting angrily might solve problems for those who have enough followers on Twitter for their complaints to reach the right people, but sorting out your problems for the majority of people who get locked into contracts of any kind remains an uphill battle.

I would be happier if my tweets actually had an impact on the way the company in question conducted itself, rather than just providing a respite for me as an individual. But I’ll take what I can get.

Richard Boorman, Vodacom spokesperson, responds:

Running social media for Vodacom is an emotional rollercoaster. I have an awesome team to work with who are utterly dedicated, and on the good days we positively fly on the good vibes from our customers. With 28-million customers who understandably expect nothing but a seamless experience from Vodacom, there are inevitably bad days as well.

Nobody wants to do a bad job, and nobody wants an upset customer, and there are days when it feels like no matter how hard we try, it isn’t good enough. We’re not robots, and I’m not giving anything away when I say I don’t think any of us have developed a thick enough skin to not let things get to us on those days.

My point in saying this is to highlight the fact that each of the people on the social media team genuinely cares when they see customers who are struggling, and it doesn’t matter who that customer is or how many followers they have. The power of social media isn’t that it will get a different result for customers (pretty much each problem and each solution is unique), it actually lies in the instant feedback this medium affords.

When we see a theme building around a particular complaint on social media, we’re uniquely placed to raise the issue in real-time and work with the business to find a solution. Sometimes the solution isn’t instant, and on those days we have to grit our teeth and keep grinning as the unhappy tweets continue to roll in. On the upside, we know that a fix is underway and that tomorrow should be a better day.

Author | Deep Fried Man

Deep Fried Man
Daniel Friedman known on stage as Deep Fried Man, is a South African comedian, musician and writer, based in Johannesburg. Formerly part of the alternative folk scene in Johannesburg, he made the transition to comedy at the beginning of 2010. He was voted Best Newcomer at the first annual... More
  • I’m sure there’s a CPA case in here somewhere. I’ve had a similar experience to this with Cell C.. though they told me their system was unable to put a cap in place once I’d hit my limit, resulting in the aforementioned R2 a MB out bundle charge. Surely the default option in this case should to stop the connectivity once the allotted data usage is reached? 
    In my opinion, charging for data on a contract without a cap is no different to issuing a credit card without a limit. The onus should be on the provider to ensure that customer is protected from unexpected charges. 

  • Deep Fried Man

    @twitter-17468379:disqus that’s spot on. Vodacom are not the only perpetrators of this, all cellular networks seem to act similarly, and it shouldn’t be legal to let out of bundle charges kick in with no warning. I’m on Heita now and if I reach my 10 gig cap it simply stops connecting, rather than charging me, and this should be standard. I’ve heard people, on both Vodacom and Cell C, complaining about this same thing, and some of them ran bills of up to 6k, which makes my 2k bill look insignificant. I wonder if it happens on MTN too….

  • Trev

    I had a simliar situation where they cancelled my contract due to pure network coverage. I didn’t even ask. I just tweeted that their signal sucked where I lived. It got complicated after they wouldn’t want to refund me for the phone I had to give back. Long story short that a contract is a two way street, they have keep up their end of the bargin, ie. Supply you with a service. Just as you have to pay your bills. The difference is they have a army of call-centre agents waiting to hassle you for their money, but we have no way to get our service. Good for you Deep Fried Man. I’m glad you fighting the good fight, my claim from over a year ago, which I was told was forwarded to the MD’s office, still get me hassled by their “Attorneys” VVM. 

    Again well done, Vodacom I have the feeling this is the tip of the iceburg. 

  • Kerry

    DFM, I wish I had been made aware of you before this morning. I have just (this week) capitulated after an 8-month battle with Vodacom and now have to pay the R16000 (yes that’s R16k) that they say I owe. I have tried everything but I’m not a Twitter user and, as you say, it probably wouldn’t help if I were since I wouldn’t have thousands of followers. I do, however, have a friend who is a consumer journalist and is going to do her best to publicise my story far and wide. But it’s too late for me. Vodacom hasn’t given ANY concessions and part of the R16k is R945 for early cancellation because they say I terminated the contract (I didn’t; they did).

    I am desperate to see this issue publicised more widely because when I asked around my friends, nearly all of them had either had the same experience (although to the tune of less than R16k) or they knew someone who had. How is this possible?

    Vodacom’s Richard Boorman says, “When we see a theme building around a particular complaint on social
    media, we’re uniquely placed to raise the issue in real-time and work
    with the business to find a solution. Sometimes the solution isn’t
    instant, and on those days we have to grit our teeth and keep grinning
    as the unhappy tweets continue to roll in. On the upside, we know that a
    fix is underway and that tomorrow should be a better day.” So then, Richard, why hasn’t Vodacom noticed yet that probably hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of cell/3G contract customers are outraged by this issue? Surely there must have been tweets about it from people other than DFM? And what about the call centres who must handle complaints like this in their thousands every week? WHEN IS SOMEONE AT VODASCAM GOING TO ACTUALLY LISTEN AND *DO* SOMETHING?

  • Kerry

    Oh, and yes – it does happen on MTN too.

  • Danetteb4

    I have two 2 G contracts with Vodacom and place a R50 limit on both two months ago – 29 Sept after receving a big bill. Well instead of getting better it has got worse and the bills bigger – regardless of my cap! And now they refuse to acknowledge this and give me the money back. I have 9 contracts with Vodacom and have been with them for over 15 years. I am going to cancel each contract as it comes up and will never use them again. They are stealing from their customers.

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