Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Don't believe what you read - this is just the Internet

I abhor the Slovak UPC. In my book they are the most customer-unfriendly provider among the telecom/internet/cable operators I've had to deal with. They provide miserable customer service and have been doing so for the many years I've been their client. I remain a customer (and have in fact even signed up for a new two-year contract) because I presently have no choice (UPC is the only broadband provider with speed over 1.5 Mbit in my part of Bratislava).

It's not that problems arise - that happens with all sorts of service providers. It is that UPC is a mean, malicious company that likes to resolve problems by the book where its book calls for screwing you over where they can. Their behaviour draws on their local near-monopoly position - they change their prices all the time but only announce them a month in advance where it takes a month to withdraw from old contract.

I have a looong list of complaints that have been dealt with incompetently. I have been given conflicting information by different people on the same day and have been talked down to by mighty customer service reps.

Here is my latest: I wanted to transfer my old landline phone number to UPC (yes, I keep a landline for reasons I have explained before). I was told by someone from UPC (I don't know if it was by telephone or in person at their customer service centre or by the technician who installed our cable modem) that I can transfer the old number. They said UPC does not charge anything, only the old hegemon Slovak Telecom (now going by the name T-Com, I think) does. Fair enough. I checked on the internet today - the UPC's official price list for the UPC Telephone service contained no charge for transferring a number from another provider.

Today I called about the switch. Suddenly it costs SKK 1500 + VAT (about EUR 55) to transfer the number on UPC's end. Yeah, really? Why is it not in their price list? Well, because it's only on the internet. The whole 'internet' is in internet provider UPC's mind only for informative purposes, anything they publish on the internet is not binding and does not have to contain all details - you find out if you click the Legal Information link on their site. They are happy to provide more detailed (read 'correct') info in person or by telephone.

Well, I think UPC sucks, big time. I think any customer-service oriented company should stand by the prices it publishes on its internet website, especially if the company is an internet services provider. Therefore, if you are in Slovakia and have a choice, I genuinely recommend that you look at the alternatives. Of course, this internet post is only for informative purposes and does not have to contain all details - talk to me in person or by phone if you need more information.

Monday, 25 February 2008

Slovak Consumer Culture in 2008 - Not Quite There Yet

I get my car serviced not in Bratislava where I live but almost an hour away in Dunajska Streda. The man who sold me the car strongly recommended I drive there because the dealership is a lot smaller than the one in Bratislava, has a family atmosphere and treats the Alfa Romeos with the loving care they deserve.

I've been to Dunajska Streda's Dunauto to get my car serviced twice and was more than satisfied both times. There was a family atmosphere and everyone I dealt with was extremely polite and professional. During my second visit for a quick winter check up a friend came along. The service technician drove us into the city in my car so that we can have lunch and came back to collect us later, of course at no additional charge. He recommended a restaurant as well.

The problem with Dunajska Streda is the distance. Especially when I have to leave the car there, it will cost me four hours of driving plus the cost of a rental car plus gas. And time is tight these days.

So I was pleased to hear Bratislava's only Alfa dealer Auto Impex received new competition in October. Auto Valusek, a large dealer in all sorts of cars, entered into Alfas and opened a new dealership. They advertised on billboards.

My Alfa is now overdue for the 80,000 km checkup and not having to invest that half day to go to Dunajska Streda would be nice. So I called to ask whether they offered any incentives for new clients to switch from their existing service providers. It's 2008 and Slovak consumer culture is maturing but staff at the dealership still found my question rather surprising. You mean a discount so that you switch to a completely new dealership from the one you have been always going to? "I am not aware of such an 'akcia'"... Oh well I guess it's back to Dunajska Streda for the family atmosphere :)

Saturday, 16 February 2008

I love competition - watching Slovak ING and mBank fight it out in savings accounts

Although we have quite a few banks in Slovakia (12 retail banks according to a list on the National Bank's website) I believe competition in some segments is quite weak. Even the best among them can sometimes cause its clients quite a bit of frustration. (also see my column in SME about banks not being nice).

It was therefore with high expectations that I and many people I know watched the entry of mBank, an internet bank based in Poland that entered the Slovak market late in 2007 based on EU legislation allowing banks to offer services in other EU member states without needing to obtain a national licence.

In a (Slovak retail banking) world with fees for the wildest things (such as receiving money in your account or closing the account) mBank introduced a current account and savings account without any fees.

I opted for their savings account eMax - it's an account without any fees or major limitations even allowing a debit card. It launched last year with a very competitive 3.4% gross interest. I don't actually have the account because mBank procedure worked through a courier which never actually reached me with the account contract (called on a weekend and then once during the week and never called again).

Luckily for me mBank's offer obviously attracted a lot of clients away from ING Konto, ING's product very similar in scope (unlimited savings account, which however only allows sending money to your designated transaction account at another bank). ING once offered very attractive interest rate but in late 2007 they were running at a not-so-appealing 2.7% (less our 19% flat tax, of course).

So mBank launched and a few months later suddenly the long stuck ING Konto rate moved to -- you guessed it - 3.5% (compared to mBank's 3.4%).

That was a while ago and it was a relief for me - it meant I did not have to go chasing after the courier to actually sign that mBank contract.

Today I was driving through the New Bridge and saw a new mBank billboard: they have now raised eMax's interest to 3.7%. Obviously not worth it for me to chase after the additional 0.2% (works out as 0.162% net after taxes or 162 crowns p.a. on a 100,000) but nonetheless: I love competition...