By Christopher Akor
For some time now, I have been receiving various unsolicited text messages (SMS) from MTN Nigeria urging me to play some games in which I may win fantastic prizes or subscribe to some products or services it or its clients offer. I have long wondered why a company licenced to provide telecommunication services would turn out overnight to become perhaps one of the largest lottery company in Nigeria without the necessary regulatory authorities calling it to order. It needs no gainsaying that the practice is an invasion of subscriber’s privacy.
Although I have complained privately about this unwholesome practice of MTN, I have never gone public with my complaint. In any case, I instantly delete those unwanted messages and, as a rule, have never subscribed to any of the products or services advertised. But as the text messages kept pouring in, I got really worried and wished I could find a way of telling MTN to spare me the incessant harassment.
An opportunity presented itself on June 9, when I received a particularly offensive text from the number (33112) asking me to provide a phone number of my loved one so they could send him/her a beautiful love message on my behalf. The service costs N30. Now, I thought MTN has crossed the boundary of decency and respect for my privacy. I certainly do not need MTN or anyone to interfere in my personal life not to talk of sending love message to someone on my behalf. Luckily, and almost for the first time since I started receiving those SMSs, a proviso was included: “text STOP to 33112 if you want to stop receiving these messages.”Aha, it’s time I end, once for all, this needless harassment in the name of advertising products, I thought aloud as I immediately typed stop to send to the number! But I paused to check my account balance first. I have learnt overtime never to trust MTN when it comes to money. I needed to be sure they were not playing pranks on me. True to my suspicion, I checked my account balance again immediately after sending the message and discovered that N30.00 had been deducted from my account. I was subsequently sent a ludicrous text that I will be removed from their campaign database within 24 hours.
How did I get included in their campaign database in the first instance? Why would they deduct money from my account for rendering no service(s)? Even if is argued that I sent a text message, the cost of a text message is certainly not N30. Or was it a trap set for unsuspecting customers like me who will rightly feel disturbed by the constant harassment and wish to have it stopped? Needless to say, they never fulfilled their promise and continued sending me similar texts but this time using a different number – 33114.
What was I to do about this barefaced extortion? I called the MTN customer care desk to seek for clarification and demand for a refund of my money but as is usual in Nigeria, the lines were busy. I went online, filled the customer complaint form and submitted it but got no reply. Feeling cheated, exploited and shabbily treated, I decided to bring my case to the court of public opinion and call on the regulatory body – the NCC – to call MTN to order, mandate it to re-credit my account with the amount deducted in the first place, and order MTN to stop the invasion of my privacy forthwith.
Now MTN Nigeria has every reason to see me as a disgruntled but inconsequential subscriber. It certainly could do without my miserable N8, 000 – N10, 000 monthly spending on its network. I am not alone in this lamentation. Many of my friends and colleagues have similarly complained about the exploitative and high-handed character of the company. In fact some of them have suffered worse treatment than I have and not a few of them have vowed never to have anything to do with MTN again. I have remained loyal customers hoping that MTN will become wiser and focus more on delighting its customers as competition in the industry heats up. But I was gravely mistaken! The more profit MTN makes, the more it wants to make and always, at the expense of its disgruntled customers. But it is not too difficult to see why they could continue to abuse their customers and get away with it.
MTN Nigeria, with over 40 million active subscriber base and close to 50% market share, is Nigeria’s most profitable and efficient telecommunications company. MTN Nigeria is clearly the jewel of the MTN Group representing 43% of group EBITDA (in 2009) and nearly a quarter of the total subscribers. Its 2010 figures shows that MTN Nigeria made total revenues of N749 billion in 2010, 29% of the Group’s total revenues in 2010, while EBITDA for MTN Nigeria was N473 billion, 41% of the Group’s total EBITDA. Up until now, MTN Nigeria had generated the cash for MTN to further expand into other regions of the world.
MTN Nigeria’s road to success had been well planned and carefully managed from inception. Since it and other telecom companies were licenced in 2001 to provide mobile telecommunication services in Nigeria, it has made and continue to make massive investments in telephone infrastructure across the country, outspending all other telecommunication companies in that regard. It had also had the fortune of being managed by quite visionary and enterprising individuals that formulate and implement unassailable strategies for provision of quality service and for profit maximization in Nigeria. That is why MTN Nigeria has continued to grow its business and particularly, its subscriber base despite the fact that its tariffs are the most expensive in the industry.
MTN has seen no reason to reduce call tariffs since its business and profit margins have continued to grow almost unchallenged despite the semblance of competition in the market. Today, MTN to MTN calls are still being charged at 50k/sec (N30.00 per minute) while other networks charge 25k/sec (N15 per minute) or less on calls to other networks and as low as 15k/sec on on-net calls. MTN still gleefully charges 58k/sec for off-net calls. As a PR strategy, MTN recently embarked on a massive campaign to advertise tariff reduction to 20k/sec (N12). But a close observation reveals that this reduction is only for calls to a small group of five (5) family and friends numbers. In fact, as an MTN subscriber for upwards of 8 years, I can authoritatively say that it has not reduced price for a very long time now. All it does is to reconfigure and recycle tariffs across various product plans while basically charging the same or even slightly higher tariff. For example, the MTN family and friends (f&f) package has been available for over 6 years now at 25k/sec. What MTN lost by reducing it to 20k/sec and increasing the f&f numbers to five, it has gained by imposing a N50.00 naira tariff for changing one’s f&f number(s). The only real price reduction by MTN was on the Magic Number where a subscriber pays N250 monthly to talk free with another subscriber on the MTN network. Sadly, MTN could not sustain the initiative and has since scrapped the product.
But as MTN continues to rake in huge profits from its businesses while at the same time treating its hapless customers with little courtesy or consideration, it may do well to remember that the party will not last forever. Thankfully, the Indian giant, Bharti Airtel, has relieved the inefficient Zain of its African market and is proceeding with real zeal and gusto to massively invest in telecom infrastructure and coverage and improve its quality of service. As the market continues to grow and efficiency in network quality and service provision gains ground, the fight for subscribers will become real and intense. Then, subscription to a network would no longer be purely on coverage or quality of network anymore, but on the creation of real value, low price offerings, ability to really delight the customer and above all, the customer’s willingness to pay. Then, Nigerians will remember the exploitation and shabby treatment they had suffered in the hands of MTN and begin to pay it back in kind.
For now, since I do not have enormous resources to challenge MTN in court, I have resolved to stop recharging my line and switch over to another network if MTN fails to re-credit my account with the money it illegally deducted from me. I do not see why I should continue to willingly patronise a company that exploits me so insensitively. This is even more so now that real and cheaper quality alternatives exit with little or no switching costs except for the inconvenience of changing my phone number. Now I wish the NCC hurries up the Mobile Number Portability scheme.
Christopher Akor lives in Lagos.