Eircom customer service manuals warned staff not to obey law, court told

Claims emerge in court case taken against company by communications regulator ComReg

A training manual provided to eir employees by parent company Eircom warned them that they would face disciplinary proceedings if they obeyed Irish laws covering customer complaints.

The same manual also outlined a series of “trigger words” that would allow people calling the company with complaints to have their concerns dealt with in an expeditious fashion. If those words were not used, the concerns raised by customers frequently went nowhere.

In a case taken against the company by the communications watchdog ComReg before Dublin District Court, the telecommunications company pleaded guilty to 10 breaches of the law related to its failures to acknowledge customer complaints, to provide a complaint response within 10 working days, and to provide an email address to progress a complaint after 10 working days. These are requirements of regulations governing the telecoms sector.

The court heard that updates made by Eircom to its code of practice for complaints handling in January 2021 resulted in restrictions to its customers’ ability to log a formal complaint with the firm

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Specifically, customers could not make a complaint via 1901, which was its published customer care number, and could only log a complaint if they called the dedicated complaints number or used an online complaint form.

In many cases, customers who contacted the company on multiple occasions either by phone, letter or using an online complaint form, were unable to log a formal complaint.

Barrister Shelley Horan, acting for ComReg, outlined a sample of customers whose complaints were not dealt with by Eircom in accordance with the regulator’s Code of Practice. They were only resolved after ComReg’s intervention.

Giving evidence before Judge Anthony Halpin, ComReg compliance analyst Michelle O’Donnell said the regulator had received complaints from a number of the telecoms company’s customers saying they had been unable to lodge a formal complaint with the company.

In response ComReg sought the training manual issued to customer service staff.

In one section, boxed off in red and underlined in bold, staff were told that “under no circumstances are the complaints number or complaints webpage address to be provided to any customer”.

The manual goes on to warn that “any agent found to be doing this will be subject to a disciplinary under call avoidance”.

Another section of the manual outlined the “trigger words” callers could use. They included: “I want to log a formal/official complaint; I want a case reference number; I want a reference for ComReg; ComReg advised me to get a reference” and “I have a ComReg reference”. Callers using these phrases were treated as making formal complaints and handled relatively quickly.

By contrast, those who used phrases such as: “get me your manager; I want a supervisor; I’m not happy; I want to escalate; I want to complain”; and “I want a manager callback” found their complaints were often not dealt with for extended periods of time.

Hugh McDowell BL, for Eircom, pleaded guilty to the charges before the court and said the company wanted to apologise to its customers and to ComReg adding that it had offered to make a charitable donation amounting to €20,000.

He stressed that practices at the telecoms company had changed and said it was now in full compliance with the regulations.

However, Judge Halpin said he could not accept the charitable donation given the seriousness of the case.

“I don’t think I can do it primarily because of what I see in the training manual,” Judge Halpin said. “I know that this has changed and it is no longer the process.”

He said he could “only assume the training manual was not vetted by the legal department because that would jump out at you under Irish labour law”.

Judge Halpin labelled the company was “a disgrace” and called on it to apologise to any staff, who had been threatened with disciplinary action if they did not adhere to the policy.

Fining the company €750 for each of 10 counts before the court, he described the warning to employees as an “aggravating factor” in the case.

In a statement issued after the hearing eir said that it “fully complies with ComReg complaints procedures and has a dedicated, specialist team in place tasked with ensuring all complaints follow the ComReg process accurately and expeditiously. Care agents are trained to escalate ComReg complaints to this team. We acknowledge that the language previously used in training material could have been clearer in this regard.”

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