Update: Media reports suggest that Vodafone Essar has withdrawn the legal notice that it served to Dhaval Valia. It has issued a statement saying that the legal notice has been withdrawn in good faith, and that it welcomed critical feedback and suggestions from both direct and social media customers.

Earlier (June 1 2011): Mobile service provider Vodafone Essar has sent a legal notice to Dhaval Valia, one of its customers, alleging that he made defamatory statements against the company on Facebook, troubled senior officers, including a female officer through texts and calls, and posted names and contact details of two senior officers, reports Livemint. In the notice, Vodafone has asked Valia to stop calling Vodafone officials, and making defamatory statements. He has been asked to remove his Facebook posts in 48 hours, warning him that the failure to comply will lead to Vodafone initiating civil and criminal proceedings, the cost of which would have to be borne by Valia.

The cause for this dispute was, allegedly, Vodafone’s inability to offer 3G services in the area where Valia resides, since Valia ported to Vodafone from Loop Mobile for this very reason. Also, it appears that Vodafone billed him for 3G data, and later waived off the charges on his repeated requests. Although, Vodafone advertises 3G services aggressively, its coverage of many cities including Delhi and Mumbai, is not complete. Till a few days back, 3G was only available in South, Central and Gurgaon regions of NCR/Delhi. However, if a customer activates a 3G plan and uses data in areas where 3G coverage is not available, he is charged as per 3G tariffs, which are more expensive than 2.5G/Edge.

In response to the notice, Valia now plans to initiate a consumer case against Vodafone, demanding Rs 1.5 lakh as compensation for “mental agony”, according to the report.

Our Take

– Quality Of Service: this is clearly not the only case of customers in India facing issues with telecom operators, or just a stray incident of “telco-rage”. Delivery of telecom services has its issues, whether it is provisioning, cancellation, availability or false billing, and customers are often left fuming with no one to vent their frustration at, except the customer care executive, who doesn’t always help matters. On the whole, the customer care offered by most Indian telcos are below par. This is evident from The National Consumer Helpline’s press release, which mentions that in the month of April, 19% of the complaints made to the helpline were telecom related complaints.

Customer service executives are not briefed about new services, access to a representative, being blocked after 2-3 calls, and all that when these calls are being charged. Also, activation of VAS products without the customers’ consent is a major problem.

– Provisioning without adequate availability: If Vodafone had provisioned only half the cell sites in the city of Mumbai with 3G (as alleged by Valia), is it right for the company to provision the service without adequate availability? If it was, as the company has told Mint, within the regulations, then we think the regulations need to be looked at again by the TRAI.

Apart from this, there are other issues for Vodafone to consider:

– Private Or Public: The report indicated that Valia’s Facebook wall was not visible to Vodafone, so the information was communicated to a private group of individuals. Vodafone is sending him a notice to remove what might be deemed to be a private conversation.

– Ambiguity Towards Social Networks: The company’s move makes its position on communication through social networking platforms, a little ambiguous. On one hand it has set up a dedicated Twitter handle to tackle complaints and resolves them through its nodal offices, and on the other side its threatening to sue customers for defaming the company on Facebook.

– Who All Will You Go After? We wonder why Vodafone just restricted itself to Facebook, when there are a hundred consumer complaints sites out there, such as consumercomplaints.in, consumercourt.in, complaintsforum.in and many more, in addition to forums and blogs, where users post similar or worse comments. Also, unlike Facebook, where wall posts are mostly private and restricted to the person’s friends, Twitter is much more vocal, and hundreds of people rant about bad service experiences, with a hundred more retweeting them to spread the word. Also, there are a number of parody accounts which poke fun at them. So how far will the company go to block them out?

– When Bad Things Go Viral: This could have a negative impact on Vodafone’s high port-in ratio, post MNP and on the company’s ‘customer friendly’ image that it tried to build through its ‘Happy to help’ ad campaign. Frankly, potential customers looking to port in to Vodafone, on reading this, might think twice.

Note: While the details of what exactly led Vodafone to send a legal notice are not known, it is alleged that Valia made calls to senior Vodafone executives, and wasn’t particularly polite to “customer care” executives; that’s something which we don’t condone.