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Complaints Handling, Alternative Dispute Resolution and Quality of Service

The Issue...

The Panel is concerned that complaints are not registered as complaints unless they are escalated, which means that many are not resolved properly. This is likely to have a particular impact on vulnerable consumers, who may not have the skills or confidence to pursue their complaints, or may not know that they can escalate a complaint. Vulnerable consumers may suffer financially as a result; they may end up abandoning meritorious complaints, with the result that they make payments which are not justified or get an unwarranted bad payment record. The Panel notes that some communications providers have been making efforts to improve complaints-handling by, for example, contacting customers who have called customer services to find out if they were satisfied with how their enquiries were handled.

There are currently two Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) telecoms schemes in the UK. They have been approved by Ofcom to help resolve disagreements between customers and their telephone company or internet service provider. One is Otelo, the Office of the Telecommunications Ombudsman, and the other is CISAS, the Communications and Internet Services Adjudication Scheme. 

Our Objective...

To influence Ofcom to take steps towards ensuring complaints handling procedures are transparent and accessible so that making and resolving a complaint with your communications provider becomes easier for consumers. 

Our Current Position...

The Panel believes that escalation of complaints should not have to be prompted by consumers. Providers should tell consumers about their ability to escalate complaints at an early stage. The objective of providers should be to ensure that escalation of a complaint is linked to the harm that a consumer has suffered rather than a consumer's ability to pursue the complaint proactively.

The Panel hopes that the Ofcom code will help to raise the standard of complaints handling across the communications sector and welcomes Ofcom's definition of a complaint, which includes issues that are not escalated.

The Panel believes that Ofcom should also examine in more depth the barriers consumer face to making a complaint.  At the moment, providers do not appear to be incentivised to view complaints as customer feedback and as a result they do not always resolve them effectively. So Ofcom should consider how providers could be encouraged to seek feedback from their customers and recognise that complaints provide an opportunity to improve. 

The Panel wants Ofcom to raise standards of complaints-handling by publishing data on how providers perform, to give providers an incentive to improve their complaints-handling performance, including:

  • information from providers about the satisfaction of their customers;
  • information collected by Ofcom's contact centre about complaints that have been poorly handled;
  • information about complaints referred to ADR, both the number referred and the number upheld, and taking into account size of provider; and
  • information about providers' performance against the code of practice as measured by independent audit.

The Panel has also recommended that Ofcom consider publishing market research data over time such as including standard customer service metrics in the annual Consumer Experience Report rather than commissioning stand alone research.  It also encouraged Ofcom to take a decision on whether to publish ADR scheme complaints as soon as possible, and announce the decision at the relevant time to provide companies with an appropriate lead time to publication.

It is vital that publication of complaints data happens alongside action to enable consumers to register and escalate complaints more easily. Otherwise, an unintended consequence of publishing complaints data might be that providers would make it harder for consumers to register complaints in order to reduce the number of official complaints made against them. Therefore, in identifying the right data to publish to ensure this perverse incentive is not created, the Panel encourage Ofcom to draw on work on publishing complaints data that is being carried out in other sectors and in other countries. 

In relation to Ofcom's review of the two ADR schemes the Panel wants Ofcom to consider any detrimental effects on consumers of having two ADR schemes; to consider any economic effects of two schemes undertaking the same role; and to analyse the quality of outcomes for consumers from each of the two bodies to ensure equality of justice. 

Our Impact...

  • Ofcom has separated the issues of ADR and complaints handing and is actively pursuing improvements for consumers in both areas.
  • Ofcom has published the Code of Practice which will come into force during 2011 and which we hope will lead to improved outcomes for consumers.
  • Ofcom has developed a definition of a complaint which includes issues that are not escalated.
  • Ofcom is considering publishing OAT data on complaints and is exploring options for the publication of other complaints data, including ADR data. 

Future Action to be Taken...

The Panel intended to continue to monitor Ofcom's work in this area closely and provide further advice at the next appropriate point.  It will monitor whether Ofcom publishes complaints and ADR data and whether it ensures an independent audit measures information about providers' performance against the code of practice, and that this information is published.


Ofcom's consultation document, 22 July 2010

Response to Ofcom's review of Consumer Complaints Procedures, March 2010 (PDF 127KB, opens in a new window)

Panel press release to accompany response to Ofcom, March 2010 (PDF 43KB, opens in a new window)

Advice to Ofcom: Quality of Service Consultation, Oct 2008 (PDF 63KB, opens in a new window)

Response from Ofcom on ADR, July 2008 (PDF 11KB, opens in a new window)

Advice note on complaints handling and ADR, February 2008 (PDF 19KB, opens in a new window)

Ofcom email on ADR Statement, inc comments on the Panel's consultation response, December 2005 (PDF 13KB, opens in a new window)  

Response to Ofcom's Review of Alternative Dispute Resolution Schemes, 10 Oct 2005 (PDF 35KB, opens in a new window)

Consumer Panel members comments on the 1st draft of Ofcom's ADR consultation, July 2005 (PDF 20KB, opens in a new window)

Ofcom response to Panel members' comments, July 2005 (PDF 19KB, opens in a new window)

Consumer Panel memo on Ofcom Review of Alternative Dispute Resolution Schemes: Draft Project Plan and Terms of Reference, February 2005 (PDF 49KB, opens in a new window)

>> Our actions, Outputs and Stakeholder Engagement...

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