By Ben Tavener, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The number of complaints made by consumers about the quality of services they receive in Brazil has risen sharply over the past year, according to recent figures from the government’s national consumer watchdog, Senacon (Secretaria Nacional do Consumidor, National Consumer Secretariat). Experts say this is partly due to increased expectations in Brazil’s booming, relatively wealthier middle class.
According to Senacon, disgruntled customers lodged 535,000 complaints in 2011, up 12.4 percent on 2010, and there have already been 341,000 complaints in the first six months of this year.
Senacon’s new chief, Juliana Pereira da Silva, says the rise in complaints is simply down to the fact that Brazil has not managed to prepare itself adequately for a booming “new middle class,” which is rapidly gaining considerable purchasing power.
“People have been selling more than they can keep up with. It is illegal and damages the basic principle of consumer relations,” she was quoted by BBC Brasil as saying.
According to economists, by 2014 around sixty percent of Brazilians will fall into the middle-class “C” income bracket (with a monthly family income of R$1,750 – US$860 – or more), up from about 35 percent ten years ago.
The watchdog, which regulates its local “Procon” branches, says it has received most complaints about the telephone, broadband and financial services industries. Complaints against these sectors have increased the most in recent years, and so far this year, they alone account for 87 percent of complaints.
Ms. Pereira lamented the quality of service provided by telephone companies, but said that complaints against them, and financial institutions, were also partly because of the frequency with which consumers come into contact with their services.
The reasons behind the rise in complaints appear to take a number of forms, one of which is that consumers are now generally more aware of their legal rights, although Senacon believes the public must be educated further to see real improvements in the quality of consumer services.
Yet there is no doubt there has been a genuine shortage of quality service for many consumers, which regulators say has been exacerbated by companies channeling investments into boosting sales, with customer care left wanting.
The government has taken some steps to buck the trend: Brazilian mobile operators TIM, Oi and Claro were recently temporarily banned from selling SIM cards in a number of states after the industry regulator, Anatel, received huge numbers of complaints.
Consumer protection agencies were pleased by the decision, but are still waiting to see whether such stringent action will also be taken with other industries.
Oi customer Thiago Gomes, from Natal, says he recently complained about the service he was receiving, and unlike previous experiences, he was surprised to see the company solve the problem within minutes: “I think being able to complain about poor service or a substandard product is more than just a right, it’s a duty,” he told The Rio Times.
However Gomes may be in a minority believing that complaining alone can change the status quo, even though regulators have proved willing to make examples of under-performing companies. Others have voiced skepticism, particular on social media, that anything is likely to change, at least in the short term.
Commentators say significant investment and further public education, as well as a few more public punishments, will probably be needed before the situation improves, and that recent events should be taken as a stimulus to spur change.
At least on paper, Brazil is seen as having fairly robust consumer laws, and if a customer is dissatisfied by the response given to a complaint by a vendor, they can raise this with their local Procon branch.