Don't cut me off! The customer service experiences of communications consumers living in low income households in the UK

The Panel's role is to influence policy on issues affecting communications consumers, particularly those who may be more vulnerable when engaging with communications markets. Individuals with very low incomes are particularly vulnerable to sudden changes in circumstances, e.g. job loss/redundancy, loss of a chief wage or changes to benefits. We touched on the circumstances of low-income consumers in our publication of Still Going Round in Circles: Complaints handling in telecoms in July 2018, recognising that financial vulnerability can cause telecoms consumers to be negatively impacted.

To gain a deeper insight into these issues, we commissioned PwC Research to undertake a qualitative study in 2019, interviewing consumers across the UK who were classified as potentially financially vulnerable, living on a low income, and who classified themselves as either ‘just about managing’ or ‘genuinely struggling’ to pay their bills. The sample was split in terms of age, living arrangements (alone, with partner or with children) and working status (working full or part-time or reliant on benefits). The sample was also weighted to ensure that we heard from people using mobile, landline, broadband and/or pay TV.

In our cover report, published in English and Welsh below, we provide a set of recommendations, grouped under a 'PERFECT' model as established by PwC Research within its research report.

Our recommendations can be found below:

Proactivity           

  • Free phone number or a call-back option. Make consumers aware of these options, so that if they encounter payment problems, calls to their provider do not drive them into further financial vulnerability; call backs should be at a time convenient to the consumer.
  • Promote protective measures that put consumers in control. Offer and actively promote spending caps and usage alerts; raise awareness of measures available to restrict children’s usage.
  • Regular review of usage needs. Encourage consumers to review their needs regularly, by providing usage data to suggest more appropriate tariffs.                                                                            

Empathy & Respect

  • Better training and more empowerment for customer service agents
  • Agents should be able to deal with payment management situations and offer greater empathy towards the specific circumstances of the individuals they are listening to - including an understanding of the needs of consumers with mental health problems and/or low literacy levels. Where scripts are used, these should contain clear advice on how agents should support customers with difficult circumstances or additional needs and allow time for discussion.
  • Offer a helping hand. Providers should consider the individual circumstances of their customers - for example, providing leeway for those who have had a good payment record, by allowing ‘payment holidays’ when possible.
  • Support customers with longer terms financial problems to use third party services. Help those with longer-term payment difficulties to connect with third parties who can assist them, allowing them to stay connected without accruing further debt while seeking that help. Where this is already standard policy, ensure that this is put into action by quality monitoring and feedback to customer service agents.

Flexibility

  • Provide realistic repayment plans
  • Help customers to spread their costs realistically, rather than carrying the same level of debt to the following month. Allow customers to switch plans mid-contract if needed, without penalty.
  • Promote tariff flexibility. Give consumers options in terms of reducing communications services costs.
  • Allow flexibility in tariffs to reduce costs where allowances are not being used or the customer needs to reduce costs
  • Rectify provider payment errors promptly. Where a provider makes an error, they should repay the money to the consumer automatically where possible and within seven calendar days – and should inform the customer of the error and the repayment date.

Ease

  • Provide freephone services to consumers, including services that are free to call from mobiles
  • Ensure that contract arrangements are clearly explained and discussed, to ensure consumers choose the most suitable deal for their needs
  • Provide a clear explanation of technical aspects of services, to help consumers understand the value of their service
  • Greater clarity from providers on additional charges for services. Low income households should not be penalised for choosing to receive paper bills or for choosing not to pay by direct debit, as for some people these options make it easier for them to manage their accounts.  If additional charges are incurred for these services, it is important for providers to clearly state this.

Clarity and Transparency

  • Be clear about the price consumers will pay
  • Make consumers aware of services that might cost more than they are expecting. Some policies, such as charging for a multimedia message when a consumer uses an emoji in a text message; offering promotional pricing that is only available for a defined part of the contract period and contractual price rises information that are in legal terminology can lead to difficulties for consumers if the consumer does not understand the associated cost. It is vital that consumers on low incomes understand the costs they are accruing and can budget effectively. This information should be easily accessible by all consumers
  • Promote payment and debt management policies more clearly and answer questions.
    Use plain language, videos and infographics to assist in explaining contract arrangements, payment options and debt management. This information should be easily accessible by all consumers
  • Train customer service agents to explain tariffs, contracts, options and processes in plain language
  • Agents need to be able to talk about contract arrangements, payment options and debt management policies with customers in plain language without jargon – providers should use consumer-friendly language in training materials.

Accessible to all

  • Clear communication about next steps should be in the consumer’s preferred communication method; apps which contain billing data and other important information such as changes to tariffs, should be accessible to all;
  • Providers to have and promote policies to protect consumers from being cut off
  • Providers should - wherever possible prevent consumers from being cut off - they should consider offering flexible payment plans and payment holidays and a cap on the accruing of further debt while the customer is seeking help and advice

Don't cut me off!

Don't cut me off (version without graphics)

Peidiwch am datgyslltu!

Independent research report (PwC Research 2019): Low income households

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