“LET them eat cake; let them scream all they want and they will finally accept it and move on;” this seems to be vodacomVodacom’s attitude in the face of widespread criticism after it announced that it would increase its tariffs on voice and data contracts, starting in May.

READ: Vodacom increases contract prices

Subscribers who are still in the middle of their standard two-year contracts are fuming, scrambling about to look for loopholes in the fine print of their contracts, and the National Consumer Commission has been roped in to try and find any technicalities that will help it stop Vodacom in its tracks.

READ: Commission investigates Vodacom, Cell C over price hikes

On the other hand Cell C, which had announced back in December 2014 that it would also increase its tariffs, has also confirmed its intention to implement this hike. In a tightly regulated industry with just a handful of suppliers protected by legislation there are few places for consumers to run to, and the mobile operators know this.

But in this melee, only the operators seem to have done their homework prior to making the announcement; after all, they’re the ones who drew up the terms and conditions in the contracts. Everyone else is only now waking up to the importance of reading the fine print in their contracts.

As the saying goes, companies give through the big print and take back through the fine print. The question is if they’re doing this legally, can they also do it humanely and ethically?

The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa – which regulates the telecoms sector – stands firmly behind the mobile operators. This stance is almost in direct contrast to the careful position taken by the Consumer Commission. The latter has to walk a tightrope on this one. In justifying its decision, Vodacom stated that the terms of its subscriber contracts allow it to vary its charges from time to time.

Other than a show of pity for its customers in the light of a plethora of other recent price increases, something that seems to be in very short supply at Vodacom, nothing else will stand in the mobile operator’s way on this one.

Now, one wonders, where do consumer and public sentiment stand in all of this? Will customers migrate in droves to whatever is left of the competition, or will they find themselves crying a collective “et tu, MTN?” if the other major operator decides to join Cell C and Vodacom in ganging up against hapless consumers?

And will South Africans do what they do best – only in the safety of mob action – and tell the operators that enough is enough, or have they been caught where they’re most vulnerable and will simply end up eating humble pie, as predicted by Vodacom?

To look at this from a different perspective, there is plenty of evidence that many South Africans seldom bother to read the fine print in their contracts prior to signing. Dozens of musicians and other artists as well as sportsmen and -women have lost billions of rands to unscrupulous recording and publishing houses, agents and other faceless middlemen over the years.

Chance to win hearts and minds

Perhaps this is a wake-up call for all of us to take responsibility for such matters and stop being victims of our own negligence.

Having said this, and if Vodacom and other telecoms providers really care about their corporate reputation, they have an opportunity to communicate their intentions better. Contracts, especially their fine print, should be explained properly to consumers, and consideration should be given to broader economic issues in determining win-win approaches to implementing tariff hikes.

A possible olive branch for Vodacom’s irate customers could be a promise to hike tariffs for new contracts only at the end of existing ones. Given that contract renewals happen every day, like birthdays, Vodacom would have very little to lose if it showed that it cares.

To protect and enhance corporate reputation, companies sometimes need to overlook legal safeguards and terms and conditions – without breaking the law – to reach out and touch their customers and other stakeholders where it really matters.

It’s through the soft, human issues that lasting places can be won in the hearts and minds of stakeholders, and future value realised.

If Vodacom is reading this – it’s not too late to do the right thing!