Temperature-check 2018: Still Going Round in Circles?

19 December 2018

In 2013, the Panel published its report ‘Going round in circles? The consumer experience of dealing with problems with communications services (PDF 481KB, opens in a new window) which uncovered the poor customer service experience suffered by some telecoms consumers. We pushed both Ofcom and CPs to improve performance in this area and it remains something that we monitor closely, with insights from this research forming part of that monitoring.

Since then, there’s been a number of interventions but we wanted to see what progress has been made and where improvements are still needed. We were particularly interested to understand how people were using ADR and to assess if complaint handling processes were accessible to all consumers, particularly people in vulnerable circumstances. This research on problem and complaints handling (PDF 1.68MB, opens in a new window) included qualitative interviews with 74 consumers. We particularly wanted to understand the experiences of people in more vulnerable circumstances, as well as disabled people, older people and those running micro businesses.

We've made a series of recommendations arising from the research (PDF 171KB, opens in a new window) so that the opportunities offered by existing and emerging communications services are inclusive and fair, and so that the market succeeds in meeting the needs of us all.

Key findings

Reliance on services

While some consumers didn’t immediately consider their communications services to be an essential service, others highlighted that a loss of service could be life-threatening or that it provided a vital link to the outside world:

“I need my landline. I couldn’t do without that. My alarm system is tied to the phone. It’s connected to the smoke alarms. That’s a big worry.” Cynthia, 74, landline, resolved, Glasgow, mobility and dexterity impairment

“It had to be fixed. I was losing orders.” Robert, 37, broadband, resolved, Manchester, business owner

“I don’t get to see or hear from anyone very much these days. I couldn’t live without my TV. It’s like a lifeline.” Jonny, 79, pay-TV, resolved, very low income, Manchester

Perception of CPs’ customer services culture and treatment of consumers

Some consumers had continued to struggle with ongoing problems with their communications services, without pursuing them further with their provider, often due to their previous experience with the company.

“You dread having to call.” Greg, 64, broadband, ongoing, Swansea

“It engulfs you with frustration, stress, anger. It’s so time-consuming. It affects your whole everyday life. My daughter’s college work. She now has to go to her sister’s to do work. I have lost money. My work has suffered. I can’t contact people so easily. The only place I can get a mobile signal is hanging outside my bedroom window.” Jenny, 56, dual play, ongoing, Bristol, works from home

"[The websites] are really bad. Hard to find things. They aren't designed with disabled people in mind. I will make a call instead, but then, I prefer calling anyway. It’s easier to talk to someone to get answers." John, 37, mobile, London, visual impairment

One significant issue mentioned in the research was the cost of engineer visits; consumers can be put off from pursuing resolution if they fear having to cover the cost of an engineer.

“It made me feel stupid when they said, 'can you phone back when there is somebody else there'. I was quite capable of understanding what he was asking me to do. What I was trying to say to him was that I was that I wasn't physically able to do it. I felt that he could have been more understanding." Mabel, 65, broadband, dexterity impairment, Glasgow

In the Panel’s view, consumers should receive the support they need on an equivalent basis, regardless of additional communications or support needs. That means, for example, that if someone is unable to reach behind devices to unplug them and the alternative is for an engineer to assist, they should be offered an engineer call-out at no cost.

Terminology – the need for plain, jargon-free language

Many participants mentioned a perceived unwillingness on the part of call centre agents to speak in plain English, go beyond their script, or actively listen to the consumer.

“I call it a box. The man on the phone called it a router. I had no idea what he was referring to.” Caroline, 57, broadband, vulnerable, Manchester

"I felt that they weren't listening. It was like they had a spreadsheet in front them to deal with each issue. And unless that issue was in front of them, they didn't know how to resolve it." Donald, 64, pay-TV, very low income, Glasgow

“They set it up so that a manager would call me once a week, to give me an update. He wouldn’t give me his contact details, which I thought was odd, but him calling me definitely helped things along.” David, 28, broadband, resolved, South Wales

“I felt like I was belittled. Like you’re dumb, because they keep on asking the same questions. It’s always the same and you’ve already tried that even before you’ve made the phone call. It’s common sense that you would unplug it and try it again. So, you feel very stupid and very irritated . . . it’s their attitude. You’re a just a number.” Angela, 37, broadband, ongoing, Bristol, very low income

“All the calls and hours of my time, plus a day off work when the engineer didn’t turn up. And, also paying for a service that I wasn’t getting. I thought, that’s not right.” Joanna, 59, broadband, resolved, Swansea

Procedural barriers

For those consumers who did keep trying to contact their provider, there were two main issues: getting through at all and getting their problem escalated within the CP’s internal structure.

Some consumers give up after making an initial contact because of being repeatedly passed to different agents or departments. There is a broader issue of providers not recording notes about the problem the consumer is describing.

“You have to wait in a queue. They take all your details, and then you’re passed to another agent, pushed from pillar to post. And the whole thing starts again. It feels like it’s never ending. No record is kept. So, if I call again, it’s as if I’ve never called them before. Really frustrating.” Anthony, 65, pay-TV, resolved, Glasgow

“You’re just a number to them. If I didn’t like it, there was someone else to take my place.” Glenys, 56, dual play, resolved, Bristol

“It took me a bit of pushing, but in the end, I spoke to someone in the technical department and they were really helpful.” Tim, 32, mobile, resolved, South Wales

Barriers to ADR

There was limited knowledge or understanding of ADR schemes. When asked, participants thought the eight-week period far too long to wait before filing a complaint. In the view of most ADR users in the sample, signposting to the appropriate ADR scheme was lacking: both websites and call centre agents lacked the right information. In addition, there was little evidence in the sample that providers automatically issue eight-week letters to participants, informing them of their right to submit a case to ADR.

(Regarding referral to ADR) "Eight weeks? I'm not going to wait for that long." Matt, 38, sole-trader, mobile, Manchester

"I have no idea where else to go." David, 43, broadband, Manchester

International comparisons are useful. The need for a deadlock letter is peculiar to the UK situation when compared to France, Germany, USA, and Australia. Nor do any of these countries have two ADR schemes for communications services, as the UK does. The experience of those surveyed for this report suggests that there is a long way to go for ADR schemes in terms of quick accessibility to independent help in resolving a complaint. We recommend – at the very least – that the referral period from communications providers’ complaints processes to the relevant ADR scheme, is reduced from eight weeks to a maximum of 28 days.

Recommendations

Based on the findings of the research, the Panel made the following recommendations:

Set higher standards of care for all consumers in the communications sector and increase transparency in what they can expect from CPs

  • Providers should publish a consumer charter so that consumers know what they can expect from their providers and ensure that the complaints process and contact details are one-click from their home page.

Improve communications providers contacts with consumers; difficult conversations impact consumers who are already vulnerable

  •  CPs should enable their call centre agents to have better conversations with all consumers. Contact centre agents should be familiarised with people’s way of expressing their technical difficulties, trained to listen actively and to use jargon-free language;
  • CPs should have specialist agents with the skills to handle the various needs and requests from vulnerable consumers and micro businesses in UK and overseas contact centres;
  • CPs should share good practice to help raise levels of service across the industry;
  • CPs should offer appropriate means of contact for all consumers, thereby removing barriers to complaining;
  • CPs should provide effective support to contact centre employees who deal with frustrated consumers.

More support is needed by people in vulnerable circumstances and micro businesses when a problem occurs

  •  CPs should better signpost their priority service registers, making all consumers aware of the registers;
  • CPs’ call-out prices for an engineer should be clear and easy to find, including guidance on situations where a call-out fee may be charged;
  • Call-out costs should be free for consumers who are physically unable to assist in routine diagnostic checks;
  • CPs should feature specific support and advice for micro business consumers in a user-friendly format;
  • Ofcom, the Panel, and providers should facilitate the sharing of good practice in supporting consumers in vulnerable circumstances and micro businesses.

Increase the awareness and efficacy of ADR schemes in the telecoms sectors

  •  CPs should improve the prominence of their ADR scheme online and in written communications to consumers, for example, considering dual-branding of complaint letters;
  • CPs should train their contact centre agents about ADR schemes to help them inform consumers;
  • Ofcom should research the correlations between ADR awareness/prominence and overall satisfaction of customer service;
  • Ofcom should reduce the referral period to an ADR scheme, from eight weeks to a maximum of 28 days, with the capacity for shorter bespoke timescales in special circumstances. 

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