Judge slams Eir for ‘disgraceful’ threat to customer care workers

0

A judge has described as “disgraceful” how telecom giant Eir threatened staff with disciplinary action if they handled customer complaints according to its own code of conduct and in compliance with Irish law.

At Dublin District Court on Monday, Judge Anthony Halpin convicted and fined the company €7,500 after it was prosecuted by the Commission for Communications Regulation (ComReg) over its former customer complaints procedures.

Eir, which said it had remedied the problem, also paid €10,000 in costs and pleaded guilty to 12 offences for breaching the Universal Service Regulations for two years commencing in mid-2021.

The court heard that a mother who was unable to make 999 calls when her daughter needed “urgent” medical attention was wrongly told there was nothing wrong with her service. Her dad also ended up in hospital after a missed delivery of his breathing machine.

Barrister Shelley Horan, for ComReg, said Eir did not adhere to the legal requirements and made “deliberate decisions” not to handle complaints in an acceptable manner.

ComReg compliance analyst Michelle O’Donnell told the hearing that customer care staff were warned not to give out the right customer complaint numbers or website address unless callers used specific “trigger words”.

Ms O’Donnell said several Eir customers informed ComReg that they could not make complaints. In some cases, they went unacknowledged and unresolved for weeks or months.

Table of Contents

Failures

The analyst outlined the offences, which included failing to comply with and implement a code of practice to settle unresolved disputes, failing to provide a first point of contact for complaints or a means of recording complaints, failing to acknowledge a complaint and give a unique identifier for reference, and failing to respond to the problem within 10 working days.

After 10 days, the firm was required to provide a specific number, email address and link to the online published code of practice to assist the customer.

However, Eir agents were not permitted to give customers the complaints number or code of practice; otherwise, according to their training manual, they would face “disciplinary action”.

She explained the manual stated that calls would be transferred to the complaint line only if the customer used “trigger words”, such as “code of practice”, or mentioned the industry regulator ComReg.

In one of the cases, after four attempts, a customer got the correct number when ComReg assisted, and he was able to proceed with his complaint.

Not using the trigger words typically meant the customers were promised “callbacks” from a team leader or supervisor, which never happened in several instances.

The witness quoted the manual: “Under no circumstances are the complaints number or the complaints webpage address to be provided to the customer, and an agent found doing this would be subject to disciplinary action.”

Questioned further by counsel, Ms O’Donnell said Eir was not in line with the legislation because the customers should have been able to make “first point of contact” complaints.

ComReg found that, in the cases before the court, Eir did not provide an acknowledgement within two working days, including a reference number, and did not comply with its requirement to resolve the problem within the maximum time frame of 10 working days, or provide an email address to escalate the complaint.

Customers had to contact Eir numerous times, but the “promised callbacks” were not received, the court heard.

All the complaints before the court were resolved after ComReg intervened.

Eir remained adamant there was nothing wrong.

In one instance, the court heard that in December 2022, a customer’s mobile service dropped, and she did not receive calls. A local engineer informed her it was a mast issue.

Over six months, the woman called Eir 13 times, sent five emails and eight messages via social media without the issue being sorted.

On every occasion, she requested a reference number but was repeatedly told she did not need one and that there was nothing wrong with the mast, and “Eircom remained adamant there was nothing wrong”.

But the court heard on one occasion, having no service meant the customer in question was unable to make a 999 call for her daughter and had to drive her to an Emergency Department for urgent medical attention.

She also missed a delivery of her father’s CPAP breathing machine, and he ended up in the hospital.

On June 26th, 2023, after ComReg intervened, the phone company admitted there was a mast issue. She was advised to move to a different provider and given an €80 voucher.

The judge noted Eir had prior prosecutions from 2013 and 2015 in cases brought by the Data Protection Commission.

One resulted in a €3,000 fine, and the other led to the company having the Probation of Offenders Act applied after donating €35,000 to charity.

Judge Halpin noted the rest of the convictions and said the company was entitled to the benefit of the Spent Fines Act. He said he was not looking at convictions from more than five years ago.

The offence carries a maximum €5,000 fine per offence. Eir, offering a €20,000 payment to charity, pleaded for a chance to avoid a fresh conviction.

Rectified

Hugh McDowell BL, for the telecom company, said the firm has since rectified the problem, and he was instructed to apologise to customers.

However, Judge Halpin demanded, “What about your apologies to Eircom employees?”

He added: “Because, from what I can see here, if an employee here, motivated to ensure his duties are carried out lawfully, breached a condition of his or her contract and faced disciplinary action, surely that cannot be just.”

He said he could not believe what he had seen.

“That is disgraceful to threaten employees with disciplinary action because they are carrying their duties out in compliance with Irish law,” the judge said, adding the staff deserve an apology.

In mitigation, counsel said that since early 2023, Eir changed its process as part of a multi-million euro transformation programme after being taken over by NJJ Telecom Europe.

The court heard the company has sped up customer complaints, was compliant with the legal requirements, and complaints to ComReg had dropped to the lowest ever level.

Judge Halpin noted the changes made, the charity donation, and that the guilty pleas avoided a three-day trial.

However, he said he could not accept that the issue arose primarily because of the training manual, adding that he could only conclude that Eir’s legal department did not vet the manual.

The judge recorded convictions and imposed €7,500 in fines.

link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *