Is Vodafone UK Deliberately Overcharging the Dead?

Imagine somebody close to you has just died. Now imagine fighting with the telecoms company that provided services to that person because they refuse to believe he or she is dead. Instead of closing the account, the telco continues to issue bills and then engages debt collection agencies when those bills are not paid. Pressure is put on grieving relatives to pay for services that nobody has used. If the bills are not paid then the credit ratings of living people are damaged. This is a situation that most of us can empathize with because we all have bad experiences of dealing with big businesses, especially when we need them to do something out of the ordinary. But some recent personal stories from British journalists suggest there is a telco with less empathy and more broken processes than any of us would consider tolerable if we found ourselves in the same situation.

George Monbiot (pictured) is not the kind of writer I normally care to read. He is a borderline conspiracy theorist who is so convinced that dark money is pushing the planet towards climate doom that this somehow justifies blocking roads so ordinary people cannot get to work, or school, or the hospital. I have some history of dealing with Monbiot and his crazed followers. Britain has chronic problems with building enough houses to meet everyone’s needs, and this disproportionately harms poorer people who rent their homes and so receive no benefit from rising house prices. I once made the mistake of using Twitter to criticize some protestors who insisted it was ‘undemocratic’ to build a lot of badly-needed houses on nice expensive land next to their nice expensive homes, thus obscuring their view of the English countryside. Monbiot turned his army of Twitter followers upon me because ecological zealots in million-pound houses think saving the world requires them to write pompous tweets about the danger posed to democracy if one person expresses an opinion different to theirs. So by now you appreciate Monbiot is a loon but he is the kind of loon who is adored by thousands of other loons who are convinced that capitalism is the enemy of individuals, like them, who struggle to survive on incomes that are twice the national average whilst living in houses worth four times the national average.

These dogmatists on the outer reaches of the green movement are already convinced that big businesses were created by Satan for the sole purpose of turning Earth into Hell. No matter how much budget is allocated to zero-carbon virtue-signaling by telcos like Vodafone, it is a really bad idea to piss these fanatics off. But that is what Vodafone did by upsetting High Priest Monbiot himself. Per Monbiot’s op-ed in the Guardian:

A long time ago my father set up two Vodafone contracts, one for himself and one for my mother. He stopped using his phone a few years ago, and we cancelled his contract. But my mum used hers almost until the end of her life. After she died, we followed the only available route, and rang the company. Or tried, dozens of times, before giving up after 40 or 50 minutes waiting for someone to answer.

When my dad’s carer managed at last to speak to a human being, the person who answered was astonishingly rude and unhelpful. He passed us around the system, but no one seemed willing to cancel the contract. We assumed we had caught someone on a bad day, but every encounter, on the rare occasions when someone picked up the phone, followed the same pattern: breathtaking aggression and hostility, followed by stonewalling.

They kept demanding to speak to my father, and refused to hear answers from anyone else, even after we pointed out that my sister and I have lasting power of attorney. The only way we could meet this demand was to dictate the answers to him, which he repeated to the call handler. This caused him great stress and anxiety. Among other questions, they asked him the exact date on which the account commenced. They might as well have asked how many grains of sand there are in the Sahara. When he was unable to answer (none of us knew), they refused to cancel the account.

Monbiot is somebody I hope to never meet in real life. Nothing in this story justifies the conclusion that the incompetence and inertia of these rank-and-file Vodafone employees is due to a conspiracy to boost the company’s profits. However, Monbiot is entitled to be upset and I can understand why he accuses Vodafone of profiting from the dead, commenting at one point that their handling of his mother’s passing was “not a mistake but a policy”. Monbiot has the skill and motivation to present Vodafone in a damning light.

This went on until May. Vodafone continued to charge my dad for a contract that should have ended the day my mum died. Eventually my sister told a call handler she intended to stop the direct debit. He replied: “Do what you like, but you’ll be in breach of contract.” She stopped it anyway, ​and posted a letter to Vodafone HQ (there was no other means of contacting the company) informing it. Without warning, Vodafone passed the matter to a debt collection agency, which started pursuing my dad for the £33 bill it deemed my mum to have incurred since she died. The agents rang my dad’s landline repeatedly, every time insisting on speaking to him. His carer refused. Had my dad not been shielded, these calls would have inflicted immense distress.

Do you remember the part where Monbiot used social media to sic his rabid followers upon me? That was not just an idle digression. Now read the next paragraph with the understanding that an attention-seeking endlessly-protesting social-slash-mainstream-media-personality like Monbiot knows exactly what he is doing each and every time he says he was forced to use social media to get something he wants.

A fortnight ago, more than four months after my mother’s death, I belatedly snapped, and described our experience in a Twitter thread. My intention was to shame Vodafone into action. I got more than I bargained for.

I very much doubt the truth of the last sentence. Monbiot got exactly what he was hoping for. He now has a new crusade that complements others he vigorously pursues and which help him to sustain the market for his writing. In contrast, Vodafone received a lot more than they bargained for when somebody in management decided to make it difficult for call center staff to handle bereavements sympathetically.

Immediately, the responses started pouring in: first dozens, then hundreds of people sharing similar and sometimes even worse experiences when trying to cancel accounts with Vodafone, especially the accounts of people who had died or whose capacity had diminished. They reported, while in the depths of grief, the same nastiness and lack of sympathy. They reported an insistence on questioning vulnerable and confused elderly people. They described months, in some cases years, of failure to cancel such contracts. One woman who contacted me said she was still paying £78 a month to Vodafone for the phone of her daughter, who was murdered more than a year ago, despite sending them the death certificate and newspaper clippings.

George Orwell once wrote of Salvador Dali that “one ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dali is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being”. A similar observation can be made about Monbiot: he is a counterproductive menace whose status depends on feeding the egos and fears of a segment of society that enjoys above-average wealth and influence but he can rightly identify systematic failures by big businesses like Vodafone and he has the social clout to mobilize others who share his point of view.

A remarkable number of people reported that call handlers insisted on speaking to the deceased account holder “because only the account holder can cancel the account”.

If this is true then it demonstrates that Vodafone UK – a business which has won awards for its customer service – has an approach to handling bereavement that even an imbecile could see is flawed. Everybody dies. A dead person cannot cancel their phone service. So the correct answer to a call from somebody trying to cancel a dead person’s account cannot be that ‘only the account holder can cancel the account’.

Engulfed by a Twitter storm, Vodafone UK responded in a way that suggests they have one rule for celebrities and another for the rest of us. They almost immediately ended the contract with Monbiot’s deceased mother and publicly apologized to Monbiot.

Some people might think this was a smart move by Vodafone. But once again I must side with Monbiot’s interpretation of this response, which was echoed by numerous other responses to Vodafone’s tweet.

Nor did I want an apology only for my own family, but for all the people who had been treated this way. Above all, I wanted action.

In this instance Vodafone is dealing with a much more fearsome opponent than Ofcom, the UK comms regulator, or most of the journalists who report on happenings in the British telecoms market. When it comes to protecting consumers, Ofcom is more like a lazy bully than a dependable friend. They will happily pound a soft target to generate easy plaudits, but they rapidly lose interest when corrective action cannot be reduced to a few platitudes. Ofcom knows the press shares their interest in only seeking quick wins when it comes to stories about consumers being treated badly. If Ofcom issues a press release saying they have taken tough action then it will be uncritically repeated by the press and if Ofcom does not issue a press release then the press reports nothing. This is so engrained into the way phone users are protected in the UK that the main reason Vodafone won those aforementioned awards for customer service is because they made an enormous mess of billing their customers. If that seems like a non sequitur, that is because the full sequence of events was:

  • Vodafone was guilty of the most botched billing transformation of any UK telco this century.
  • Customers do not like to be overcharged so they complained in large numbers.
  • Ofcom conducted an ‘investigation’ that was so incompetent they concluded there was no need to take action over the enormous number of billing errors.
  • Irrespective of Ofcom’s bizarre finding, the flood of customer complaints continued on and on and on and on and on, setting records for the billing complaints over 11 consecutive quarters before returning to normal.
  • Realizing that even the laziest business journalists were eventually going to pull together a story that would criticize the regulator’s lack of meaningful action, Ofcom conspired to save face. They distracted attention from the flawed and premature conclusion of their billing investigation by later fining Vodafone for failing to have sufficient customer services staff to field all the consequent complaints.
  • Vodafone played along with Ofcom’s way of spinning the story and manipulated the media by emphasizing changes in the customer service function. This obfuscated the more intractable issue of a business that relies on technology showing it cannot be trusted to update its technology.
  • Vodafone signaled the completion of their rehabilitation strategy by winning some awards for their customer service, just like other big businesses that always manage to win awards when they most desire to win awards.

My point is simple: big businesses can get away with treating many customers appallingly over a prolonged period of time if neither regulators nor the media do anything to hold them to account. Vodafone has prior form when it comes to finessing individuals with the power to hurt them whilst repeatedly disregarding information received from ordinary customers. They will now do the same with Monbiot, who has been invited to a face-to-face meeting with the company’s CEO. During that meeting they will discuss Monbiot’s demands. Monbiot welcomed the opportunity to instruct Vodafone on how to run their business.

I would be happy to help Vodafone turn its performance around. But, if the company fails to make the necessary changes, I will not stand by and watch.

There is something deeply wrong if a big telecoms business needs to take advice from somebody no more qualified to give that advice than you, me, or any of the customers who were also mistreated. Monbiot is arguably the worst person to give advice, because his deep prejudices about the evils of the private sector make it unlikely he will be pragmatic about how to accomplish realistic and measurable objectives. And if Vodafone fails to meet Monbiot’s demands, what happens then? They will have emboldened somebody who is much less likely to lose interest than the clock-watching paper-pushing regulators and journalists they normally have to deal with. Monbiot is a zealot, and he profits by creating controversy about the way businesses are run. He has every motive to keep exploiting Vodafone’s failures, even if they were substantially fixed.

We can be confident that Vodafone is a business with unacceptable failings because criticisms have also surfaced in the pro-business press. Sam Leith, writing for the right-of-center Spectator, reported:

[Monbiot’s] experience clearly resonated with a number of his readers, judging by the responses he got detailing similar cruelties; many saying that they were told that only the deceased person was authorised to cancel their own account.

It did with me too, as it happens: my recently widowed mother went through a low-key version of the same process. She cancelled my father’s contract online on the Vodafone website – and was dismayed not long afterwards to receive another bill. When she phoned them up to complain, she was told that they had no record of the cancellation and so she’d have to pay the extra bill anyway. Rolling her eyes, she wrote off the £40 rather than argue the toss. Nice little earner for Vodafone: the equivalent of drawing ‘Bank Error In Your Favour’ in Monopoly. I wonder how often such little technical glitches take place.

Whilst Monbiot pins his demands to the web much like Martin Luther pinned demands to a church door, Leith offers a more sensible analysis of what is going wrong in the corporate world.

And what strikes me about all this is that both these corporations clearly, in one respect, are entirely capable of putting well-functioning policies and procedures into place. They can react swiftly and decisively to pass a problem to someone in a position to resolve it. They can move, in fact, like shit off the proverbial shovel in the right circumstances. The moment a blue-tick starts to shame them on social media, the issue goes rocketing up the chain of command…

…That says something about the priorities of these companies: they are vastly, vastly, more interested in defensive PR than they are in customer service.

If a business needs a public relations fiasco to motivate necessary fixes to processes then there is something more fundamentally wrong with the business than those particular processes. Competent and humane managers do not need to wait for a Twitter storm to show them customers are being treated badly. They will know already. And if they are neither competent nor humane, then why are they working in a job that revolves around providing a service to the public? Managers who fail to push for the resolution of flawed processes like Vodafone’s approach to handling bereavement should not just be encouraged and empowered to escalate the need for action. They should be fired if they fail to do so, not as scapegoats for senior management, but to make it clear that senior managers also risk being fired if they ignore problems brought to their attention. That is the only systematic way to close this absurd gap between CEOs who claim to care deeply whilst lowly front-line staff are forced to robotically dismiss any query or complaint that falls outside of the extremely narrow series of actions they are trusted to take.

What follows from the previous paragraph is a conclusion that I know a lot of revenue assurance professionals will want to dismiss, but which the better ones will embrace as an opportunity. The routine overcharging of dead customers is a failing of revenue assurance too. It is hopelessly inefficient to separate responsibilities for overcharging from those for undercharging, and it is also inefficient to try to solve all problems relating to charging by only looking at data and never by examining processes. The crux of the particular failure documented by Monbiot is that when a customer dies the telco has no data to tell them their customer has died, except for when somebody else seeks to provide that information. I know the work-shy goons who oversee billing accuracy in the UK simply do not care about issues like these, always telling themselves they are making a valuable contribution whilst insisting issues like these must be somebody else’s problem. But even if Britain’s half-assed billing auditors are incompetent and inhumane that does not excuse revenue assurance functions for setting artificial limits on the scope of their responsibility.

Every customer contract has a start, and every contract has an end. Sometimes they will end with the customer’s death. Revenue assurance should be fully involved in designing processes that deliver accurate and timely charging at the beginning of the contract, and should likewise seek to ensure an accurate and timely conclusion when the contract is over. So whilst there is a non-trivial risk that the process for bereaved customers could be subverted by a bad actor, it is beholden on risk professionals to provide fine tuning to the balance of risk between the service for a live customer being terminated prematurely and the charges for a former customer continuing after the business has received notification of the customer’s death. That means revenue assurance has a stake in determining the standard of evidence required to end the supply of a service for a customer that is apparently deceased. And this process-led decision can be complemented by sensible data-driven checks that would avoid some of the worst failures reported by Monbiot. For example, if Vodafone was not satisfied that a death certificate and newspaper clippings are proof that a customer was murdered, they could at least have verified there were no outbound calls from that customer’s phone over the past year, and hence drawn a reasonable inference about whether that customer was still using the service.

Or we could sit back and wait for George Monbiot to tell us how telcos should be run. If you would rather take his advice than mine we must already be past the point when your telco is worth helping.

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is the Editor of Commsrisk. Look here for more about the history of Commsrisk and the role played by Eric.

Eric is also the Chief Executive of the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG), a global association of professionals working in risk management and business assurance for communications providers.

Previously Eric was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and he has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and other telcos. He was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.