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19 September 2018 - speech by Chris Holland, Member of the Communications Consumer Panel and ACOD at the Consumer Forum for Communications' (CFC) workshop on Ofcom's Comparing Service Quality report. 
Also attended by Rick Williams, Member of the Communications Consumer Panel and ACOD 

Chris gave an opening speech at the event, which was well-attended by communications providers, Ofcom and CFC attendees. 

"It was the American statesman, Henry Kissinger, who said: “Each success only buys you an admission ticket to a more difficult problem”.

Our industry – telecoms – has seen much success over recent years. We now have an array of fantastic services, new technologies and the ability for consumers to do all manner of things using a humble telephone connection: we can communicate in new ways; a vast amount of information is at our fingertips; we can book things, buy things, sell things, watch things, consume things…the list is endless, all using communications networks that this industry has made available. So we mustn’t lose sight of all that success, and the achievements of the providers of those services…and, indeed, those who regulate them.

But with all that success, comes some difficult problems – and how to provide a consistently brilliant service to customers is one of them, especially given the reliance that we all have on communication products and services.

So in that context, I’ve been asked to talk for few minutes about some of the main messages from Ofcom’s CSQ report; but will go bit beyond and also cover some thoughts on what consumers might find useful in future.

The Panel welcomes the report and the information that resides within it. It gives an excellent overview of the industry; but it also gives, in some respects, an unsparing insight into some detailed aspects of the consumer experience – e.g. ease of contact; time to answer calls; time to handle queries; keeping promises; and complaint handling.  These suggest that whilst overall satisfaction might be pretty good – if you have a query or problem you are far from well served.

So…let’s look at some main messages from the report.

Mobile: overall satisfaction looks good at 91% - but this also tells us that 9% are something other than satisfied. There are about 92m active mobile subscribers in the UK - so that means 8.3 million people aren’t satisfied. That’s a big enough number to worry about regardless of what the percentage says.

Broadband: looks less good at 80% satisfied – in other words, one in five users are not satisfied. The stats are a little tricky to unpick as they measure premises rather than individual users. But even so, with 26 million fixed broadband connections in 2017 this means that if each of those premises was a person, at a conservative estimate some five million are less than satisfied. That does not represent goodness.

Landlines: again looks good at 90% satisfied, but with just over 33 million fixed lines in existence the other 10% leaves some 3.3 million not satisfied.

And satisfaction with value for money on Landline dropped from 82% in 2016 to 76% in 2017; and for those buying a bundle, satisfaction with value for money was even less, falling from 76% in 2016 to 70% in 2017.  This is not a good trend.

So, at top level the report tells us that across all three sectors of the industry something like 16 million consumers are something other than satisfied.  That represents roughly 30% of the UK adult population.

The message here I think is that providers cannot be complacent about the satisfaction figures. Yes – 80%-90% say they are satisfied, and overall that’s better than four or five years ago I think and providers, the regulator and consumer bodies have all played their respective parts in getting to that position. But even so, broadband satisfaction is seven percentage points worse than in 2016. That is a step backwards – especially when you consider how reliant we all are on broadband. So… providers need to up their games!

What else can consumers learn from this report?

Mobile: that 4% of consumers had reason to complain. The mobile firms might give themselves a pat on the back for that, it’s a low percentage; but it equals about 3.7 million consumers. And only 56% of those who did complain were satisfied with the handling of their complaint.

The same goes for Landlines, where 4% - or about 1.3 million - had reason to complain and about 50% were satisfied.

And perhaps unsurprisingly, 15% of broadband consumers had reason to complain; that’s almost four million, and only 55% were satisfied with the process.

We learn, too, that average call waiting times are anywhere between 58 seconds (for mobile) and 1 minute 40 seconds both for Landline and broadband.

And within the ranges, one provider’s wait time was seven minutes and 50 seconds. I have no other word for that than shameful.

If we drill into the detail a bit further, and we find some illuminating illustrations of how customers perceive the way in which they are treated by their providers : -

 

Satisfaction with…

BB

LL

Mobile

Ease of finding contact details

63%

62%

65%

Ease of getting through to right person

50%

49%

53%

Courtesy/politeness of agent

65%

64%

67%

Doing what said would do

55%

58%

59%

Logging the query

49%

54%

55%

These results on such basic things are simply unacceptable.

This tells us what? Perhaps, that if you have a query or problem you need help with, your provider doesn’t actually care that much. They don’t make it easy enough for you to contact them; they are polite only about two thirds of the time; there’s about a 50:50 chance of your query being logged; and just a slightly higher chance of them doing what they said they’d do.

Does that speak of an industry that is a paragon of virtue, with consumers at its heart?

Is it any surprise, then, that we also learn that if consumers are determined enough to take a complaint through to ADR, the majority of outcomes are in their favour – about 80% whether it’s mobile, LL or BB.

I make no apology for shining a light on these aspects of customer service – they are important to consumers, and indeed the Panel’s own research bears this out. Five years ago we did a piece of research called “Going Round in Circles” – which highlighted various failings in the customer service journey; we’ve just revisited that, and concluded that customers are “Still Going Round in Circles”. Depressingly, very little seems to have changed.

So, I think the CSQ tells us that there’s a lot of satisfaction with the market overall; that BB QOS is of concern; but that there’s a lot still to be done in terms of customer service itself.

I’ve talked about some things that consumers could learn from this report. But do they?

There are I think some questions about how accessible and useful this information is to consumers.

Do people know about the more detailed aspects of this report? Can the access it easily? What about customers in vulnerable circumstances?  How does it help consumers make informed choices? Do we know how many consumers even look at the report? There has been progress – but more can be done.

Now I wouldn’t expect CPs to publicise their own poor performance – no commercial organisation would.  But I think there is a need for the regulator to play a more prominent role in doing so – both to inform consumers, and to incentivise providers to up their game. And I think Ofcom, and consumer bodies generally could do more to promote the key bits of information.

Price is always important in any market…but is a low price worth it if you get a poor standard of customer service? Even if you pay a low price, shouldn’t you still have a right expect a decent level of customer service?

So what might consumers find more useful?

  • Less top level stuff – as a consumer do I really care that much if 90% of people are satisfied overall with their mobile service? No.
  • More prominence for meaningful stuff – e.g. do I care if my provider, or potential provider, gives more cause for complaint than any other? Yes.
  • Do I care if my provider keeps me waiting nearly eight minutes before answering my call? Yes.
  • Do I care if my provider doesn’t bother to log my queries, or doesn’t do what it said it would do? Yes.

Taken in combination, I would argue that these things are important and could help with switching decisions, or at least empower consumers to demand more from their CPs.  But that information needs to be more widely known.

In summary then: -

There’s a great level of overall satisfaction in the mobile and Landline arenas. I would argue great, but not excellent – providers are not yet knocking the ball out of the park

Broadband is a cause for concern. There’s less satisfaction than there was a year ago, and frankly 80% just doesn’t cut it. Providers are barely even hitting the ball, let alone knocking it for six.

Some of the detailed results are shameful. There is no reason why providers’ contact details shouldn’t be easily found, or contact itself shouldn’t be dead easy. There is no reason why agents should be discourteous or impolite. There is no reason why queries shouldn’t be logged.

And, lastly, I think it is for all stakeholders to explore how best to ensure that consumers are fully informed on the things that matter most, in a way that doesn’t overwhelm them, but that helps them get the best possible level of service.

Thank you for listening – and we all have our admission tickets to some difficult problems!"

 

Chris Holland

Member, Communications Consumer Panel and ACOD
19 September 2018

 

 

 

Other speeches and presentations given by Members of the Panel:

2 November 2016: Communications Consumer Panel - presentation by Chris Holland at ESAN event pdf

28 January 2014: Protecting and promoting the citizen, consumer and small business interest in communications - presentation by Jo Connell at Consumer Experience event pdf

5 June 2013: Digital Engagement - speech by Chris Holland at House of Commons, launch of Carnegie UK Trust report on Digital Inclusion in Glasgow pdf

15 April 2013: Mobile quality of experience - speech by Chris Holland pdf

8 January 2013: Digital Engagement and Panel draft workplan - presentation by Jo Connell at Consumer Experience event pdf