vodafonelogoI’ve been a bit vociferous on Twitter recently about my displeasure with customer service I have received from Vodafone Germany recently, and have decided to explain more fully what happened.


I travel to Germany frequently, and since European roaming charges are so ridiculous, I bought a ‘pay as you go’ SIM from Vodafone Germany. In Germany, unlike the UK where most providers are happy to give you a SIM card to get you on their network, in Germany you have to pay. Vodafone Germany call this a ‘Call Ya’ card, and after some initial hassle getting the ‘right’ options set up, I have endd up on a deal where every month, if I have more than €10 on my card, Vodafone Germany take €9.99, and give me internet for the month subject to acceptable use policies. If there isn’t €10 on my card, they take it as soon as I top up.

On 29th July, in early morning, around 00:15, I topped up my phone with €25, expecting Vodafone Germany to take €10 for the internet plan, leaving me with €15 in my account, since it was almost down to zero. I was at an overnight stop halfway through driving back from Germany to the UK, and wanted to make sure that I had some credit if I needed it in an emergency as I drove through Europe.

I left my overnight stop, and during the drive to the ferry port in France, I received one very short call whilst in Belgium, which I cut short to avoid excessive roaming charges. Aside from that, I made no calls and and sent/received maybe 2 or 3 text messages. I did get one from Vodafone Germany telling me my credit was low and that I should top up, but I thought that was a spurious message since I’d topped up the night before. Once on the ferry, at about 14:30, I swapped the SIM in my phone to my UK one, and thought no more of it.

Then I logged into my Vodafone Germany account whilst investigating whether it would be sensible to get a contract rather than continuing to use PAYG since I wanted to buy a new phone. I was amazed to see I had virtually no credit left in my CallYa account. I knew immediately that it wasn’t correct, but I couldn’t see *why* the money had been taken since, as seems standard practice, most mobile phone companies do not provide any kind of itemised billing for PAYG customers. You just have to watch your credit reduce and trust they are billing you correctly. In this case, I knew something was wrong and resolved to call them when I got back to Germany to sort it out.

As it happened, I didn’t get a chance to call them right away when I returned to Germany as I had my UK SIM in my phone for work. At the end of the week, I was able to switch back to my German SIM, and since I had a wedding to go, I topped my phone up again with another €25 euros, with the intent I would call about the first problem after the wedding. Big Mistake. I topped up at around after 18:05 on Friday 10th August, and having made sure my smartphone was not set to sync data, almost the entire €25 credit was gone by 12:00 midday the next day . I had made no calls again, sent 1 or 2 texts, and knew that although data was enabled on my phone, syncing was not, and I hadn’t actively been using data that I was aware of.

Since the Vodafone Germany call center was open on Sunday, I decided to call them. I was impressed with the initial experience because I got an automated system in English. Clearly someone had thought about this and had connected my ‘Use English’ preference I set on the ‘Mein CallYa’ mobile webpage to the automated voice response system. I even got the option to talk to an English speaking agent. Good stuff.

Then it all went wrong. I got an automated response informing me all the English speaking agents were busy, and the line dropped. A short time later I tried again, and this time I seemed to be put in a queue. I’m not sure what I did differently to get in the queue, but it seemed like progress until I got a curt ‘Goodbye’ from the automated system and the line dropped again. I called straight back only to be told I didn’t have enough credit on my phone to talk to customer services about them taking all the credit on my phone.

So, backup plan. I called them from a land line  and ended up speaking to someone in German, which proved to be a complete nightmare. My German is not great, but the gist of the conversation went as follows:

HIM: “Your money was taken because you used the internet”
ME: “But I have an option which gives me internet for €10 per month”
HIM: “Yes, but you have a smart phone  and you used the internet”
ME: “But I have an option which gives me internet for €10 per month, why have you taken €50 over the course of 22 hours”
HIM: “Yes, but you have a smart phone  and you used the internet”
and so on.

I was getting more and more frustrated, partly with my German skills, and partly because the guy on the end of the phone didn’t actually seem to want to understand. I decided to admit partial defeat and handed the phone to native German speaker.

It turns out, it wasn’t just my German that was bad. The person I was speaking to was in Vodafone Germany’s Cairo Call Center, and his German was almost impossible to understand even if you are a native speaker. He started suggesting things which couldn’t possibly be accurate, for example, something about me using the internet on 3rd August. On 3rd August my German SIM was tucked up in a little protective plastic baggy and was nowhere near any phone, let alone accessing the internet.  He was either looking at the wrong account, didn’t know what he was doing, or most likely, both.

We gave up on that call.

I found a different number to try, and this time was 5th time lucky. Not only did my native speaker get through to a local German call center, but just by luck the agent we spoke to spoke very good English. I took the phone back, and explained what had happened. Very quickly she determined that my monthly internet option was cancelled on 26th June. Why or how she couldn’t say. I certainly didn’t cancel it, and I have no indications in my e-mail or SMS history that show it as cancelled. So when I topped up on 29th July, the monthly option I was expecting to kick in didn’t and I started being charged €0.45 every time my phone tried to access the internet, which it did, a lot. I know on that day my phone was data enabled and sync enabled – so I can understand that it would be possible, although I know I wasn’t actively using the data.

Apparently the same thing happened after my top up on 10th August, which suggests that my disabling data sync on my Android phone didn’t achieve much, and that at least one  app was still accessing the net automatically under the covers. That’s quite possible and now I know I might do some digging to find out which app was not behaving well.

So at least I now know what happened to my credit. We can also see clearly how Vodafone Germany’s poor customer service led to an exceedingly frustrated and angry customer:

  1. No notification of the cancellation of the monthly internet option meant I was blissfully unaware of what was about to happen until it was way too late.
  2. As I was searching back to see if I had been notified of the monthly option cancellation, I have discovered that I received messages about my single account from no less than four different Vodafone Germany numbers. For example on 12th August I got two separate SMS messages from Vodafone Germany, relating to the same thing, from two separate numbers. In modern threaded SMS application (i.e. iPhone and Android phones), using so many different numbers makes it hard to follow what’s going on.
  3. No itemised billing, not even as a chargeable option , means I couldn’t see what my credit was being used for. No other consumer facing industry, that I’m aware of, takes money from you without explaining what the money was taken for. There is no way to prove that what you have been charged for is correct, since you have no idea what you have been charged for. You have to fully trust that the mobile phone company is going to get it right, all the time.
  4. Having detected a major problem with my account, my only option was to call Vodafone Germany to try to resolve that problem. They charge for that call. Yes, they charge you money (via call charges) to fix problems even if they created the problem. I couldn’t even use my Vodafone Germany phone to call Vodafone Germany about a problem I was having with Vodafone Germany. Putting more obstacles in my way at the very time I need help is utterly appalling customer service.
  5. Having decamped to a land-line phone, I then have to call five times  (being charged each time) before I get through to a competent help desk agent who had any desire to help. The first 3 times I didn’t even manage to get through to a person before the call was forcibly terminated by Vodafone Germany.
  6. When I did manage to get through to a help desk agent the first time, their German was so poor that even a native speaker had trouble understanding what was being said. Based on what was said, the chap was either looking at the wrong customer data or just making things up.
  7. When I finally got through to someone who could help, and could be understood, it was great. Except it made me wonder why it took so long, and was so frustrating to get to that point.
  8. As this saga went on, I tweeted. Over the course of five days I tweeted to @vodafone_de five separate times and received no response. No response until this morning when, fed up with seeing the @vodafone_de account splurge advertising messages about new LTE masts, I made some comment that they were happy to tweet advertising but not respond to a customer. The response I got was “go look for help elsewhere”. So, as far as Vodafone Germany is concerned, social media is not for engaging customers, but simply another way to advertise.

In fairness, the agent I dealt with last dealt with my frustration superbly. She listened, then investigated, then explained, was sympathetic to my situation, and then suggested a resolution which was acceptable to me, which involved some credit being applied to my account, and the monthly internet option being re-instated. The credit wasn’t for the full amount, but given the situation it was a reasonable compromise by all involved – a sensible and reasonable resolution to a customer service problem.

If only that resolution had been reached at point 4 above, I might not even be writing this, but it wasn’t and my frustration grew and grew.  The thing is, I’m considering getting a contract, which looking around will probably be €20 per month minimum, probably over a period of two years. That’s at potential €480 I could be spending with a mobile phone company in the near future. What are the odds on me thinking that Vodafone Germany would be a good choice after my recent experience?

Good customer service can result in brand loyalty, increased spend from existing customers, powerful and free word of mouth advertising and recommendations, and can help increase revenue. Bad customer service does nothing but damage the brand reputation, damage brand loyalty, increase customer churn, and generate negative reviews and word of mouth, and in that way damage the revenue stream.

There is no excuse, or justification, for providing a bad customer service experience for your customers.