Still Going round in Circles: Complaints handling in telecoms Bookmark and Share Button

This new research examines communications providers' handling of complaints to see what progress has been made since the Panel's last research in this area 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.

The Panel commissioned Futuresight to undertake in-depth, 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 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.

Going Round in Circles?

In 2013, the Panel published its report ‘Going round in circles? The consumer experience of dealing with problems with communications services which found that some consumers’ experiences were so poor that they would suffer in silence or 'get by' on a sub-standard service. For some who did contact their provider, the issue was exacerbated by a negative contact experience and providers often failed to acknowledge the significant effort required or the time and/or money lost to seek resolution. For many consumers, the escalation of the problem was often ineffective, and communications providers (CPs) were poor at signposting consumers to the appropriate Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) scheme.

We pushed both Ofcom and CPs to improve their performance in this area and it remains something that we monitor closely. Ofcom opened an Enforcement Programme into complaints handling in 2013 and now actively monitors CPs’ compliance with complaints handling rules, including access to ADR and customer service more generally. Ofcom subsequently investigated and fined three communications providers for not complying with complaints handling rules including a £1 million fine for EE, £925K for Vodafone and £250K for H3G (Three).

Still suffering in silence

 In our research, consumers suffered more from partial or total loss of their landline or broadband fixed line services compared to pay TV or mobile service issues.

The research found that some consumers had continued to struggle with ongoing problems without pursuing them further with their provider, often due to their previous experience with the company.

Procedural barriers put in place by the provider can also present a challenge for consumers, with disabled people and people in vulnerable circumstances disproportionately affected. The research also found that scripted answers, jargon, unclear questions and language and cultural variances could further complicate matters. Waiting on hold for a significant time in queues can also deter consumers from making contact, meaning they continue to suffer in silence. However all these areas are within the control of the CP.

For those consumers who did persevere in 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.

Many participants in a vulnerable, or potentially vulnerable situation demonstrated a lack of confidence in relation to the technology and the terminology involved. This was compounded by 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.

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. In our view, people whose accessibility or communications needs differ from the mainstream should receive the support they need on an equivalent basis. 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.

Consumers had a low propensity to make formal complaints and there was limited knowledge of ADR schemes or other third parties. When asked, participants found the eight-week period unfit for purpose; this was 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.

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.

Recommendations

Based on Futuresight's research, the Panel makes 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 practise 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.