x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

On the Money: Consumer-rights battles can be won, but war never ends

I¿ve had an interesting couple of weeks standing up for my consumer rights. I¿ve even had some small, surprising, victories.

A pattern has emerged in my life and I'm not so sure if it's a good or a bad thing. I call it my "Stand Up For Yourself" stage, a personality trait that I didn't know I had until only recently.

That's not to say I'm meek. It's because I'm Australian and we usually show our displeasure in grim silence and then take our business elsewhere. That's me; the stoical Australian who votes with her feet. Or at least I used to be.

Perhaps it's because I've been away so long and have lost touch with that Australian trait. Or perhaps I've hit a certain age and reached my breaking point. After all, everybody has one, even if it took me a little longer than most to find mine.

The new Stand Up For Yourself me certainly has been a revelation. And I've had an interesting couple of weeks standing up for my consumer rights. I've even had some small, surprising, victories.

The first, of course, was with HSBC and its obsolete fee debacle, which I've written about at length. That one was probably the most satisfying so far, more so because I'm receiving feedback from people who are telling me that they've contacted HSBC after reading about my experience. They are sorting out the fee issue with the bank and are likely to be reimbursed. That's the good part about this new me.

The other was receiving air miles from Etihad Airways as compensation for a bad flight to London last month. I'm not usually a complainer - in fact, my letter of complaint to Etihad was the first one I'd ever written. OK, so I didn't actually write the letter; but I did try. In the end, because it made me so uncomfortable, I got my brother to do it for me. He's been away from Australia even longer than me, which means he's evolved into a prolific complainer thanks to 20 years in London. He's now considered the family expert when it comes to the complaint letter.

I did tidy it up and fix the grammar; that's where my field of expertise lies. And he did give me a good tip for the future: never get emotional when you write a letter to complain about a company's customer service. "Just tell it straight," he says. "And don't scream and jump up and down, you'll get nowhere."

What was good to see was that Etihad acted immediately. It investigated and took my concerns seriously. And kept me up to date via a couple of e-mails. Then I received a very nice letter of apology from the airline's guest affairs department, which had also awarded me 20,000 air miles as compensation for that pretty awful flight. I wasn't expecting the air miles, but they are a very welcome fillip to my Etihad guest membership.

And it was an excellent example of good customer service, something consumers don't see much of in the UAE.

I was hoping that was the end of my Stand Up For Yourself stage. Two complaints; two victories. Both within a month of each other. I was on a roll and was happy to stop there.

But as the saying goes, everything happens in threes. And this week, I found myself on yet another quest to stand up for my consumer rights. But here is the part that I don't like about my new persona. I got too confident.

This time it was Etisalat. I know, I know. I should just stop here because a lot of people have their own Etisalat story. Or two. Or three. And we all know that they end in tears. Of frustration. I've got a couple of Etisalat stories, too, but they happened in the old days, when I was a stoical Australian.

The only problem was, I couldn't vote with my feet at the time because there are only two telecommunications companies in the country. And I still can't. Vote with my feet, that is.

Anyway, Etisalat sent me an intriguing text message this week. "Dear customer, you have cancelled BlackBerry Domestic Lite successfully," it said.

Sorry? I'd what? A quick phone call to 101, Etisalat's customer-care line, which took forever to actually connect to a real person, and I discovered what happened.

I have a prepaid BlackBerry account and for the past 11 months, I've been paying Dh90 a month for it. In return, I get to register 10 e-mail accounts (don't ask) with it and I've never gone over my download limit. I was indignant, breaking my brother's first rule in registering a complaint. Even though I'd topped up my account just a few days before with enough money to cover this month's bill, by the time Etisalat went to collect on it, it was about Dh3 short.

Which means Etisalat was the one who cancelled my "BlackBerry Domestic Lite" successfully. So successfully, in fact, that I can't get it back because the company no longer offers that particular BlackBerry package.

Now, my option is to pay Dh99 a month for one e-mail address and a download limit that will see me paying slabs of money to Etisalat every month because I've exceeded my limit.

The next package up is Dh149 and is basically the same as what I'd been paying Dh90 for. No wonder Etisalat cancelled my old package; it wasn't helping to boost the bottom line.

There was no backing down from the customer-service agent. That was my choice and if I didn't like it, then too bad.

I told her I'd switch to du. And I'm sure I heard her smile.

I spent the next few hours without any access to e-mails, BBM or the internet on my smartphone. Just the basics: calls and texts.

It was torture. So I cracked and signed up for the Dh149 package - Dh59 more than what I was paying for my old package. But then I did the maths. HSBC had reimbursed me Dh1,600. It just falls short of the Dh1,788 yearly cost I'm now paying for my so-called new BlackBerry package.

And if I book our next flights on air miles, the savings on that should see me through for a good couple of years. So two out of three ain't bad. I just have to remember to choose my battles wisely.