The lack of clear information about the product being sold and price consumers will pay is at the heart of the current crisis of confidence between telecommunications customers and providers, according to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO).
Speaking at the Australian Media and Communication Authority's (ACMA) Reconnecting the Customer public hearing in Melbourne, TIO, Simon Cohen, said the issue of poor customer service in the telecommunications sector was rife.
“Almost everyone I meet has a story and not a good one, not only about the telco problem or issue, but wrestling with the service provider to sort it out,” he said. “People accept they will have problems, but what they won’t accept is that they cannot get them solved.
“My view, and the view of my office, is that at the heart of many of these problems is the information consumers are offered at the outset; information about the service they will receive and the price they will pay.
“Through misunderstanding, mis-communication or misrepresentation, there is a lack of connect between what is being sold and what the consumer thinks they are receiving.”
According to Cohen, this issue was the basis of almost half of all contract complaints, and a “substantial number” of billing-related complaints, received by the office.
“There is a very real potential for consumers, and suppliers, to get caught in a vicious circle: The consumer does not receive what they thought they were buying; they cannot pay their bill; and the provide removes into a credit management approach will may include restricting access or services, and commencing collection activities,” Cohen said.
The issue of customer complains within the telecommunications sector is a long one and worsening problem with the ACMA noting in July that complaints had grown some 72 per cent in the year to 30 June, 2009, while “complaints-handling issues” grew by a record 130 per cent.
In the 12 months prior to that — the 07/08 financial year — customer service complaints grew 94.2 per cent; complaints-handling issues figures were not provided for that period.
The issue has prompted the Australian Telecommunications User Group (ATUG) to claim that the issue is so bad that it could hinder take-up of services on the National Broadband Network (NBN). The Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) has also warned that consumer protection rules be overhauled in the telecommunications sector. Looking at a means to resolve ongoing issues between consumers and telcos, Cohen said a combination of measures — such as improved industry codes and — rather than a single method, was needed.
“Our suggestion includes that [industry codes] be in plain English and that they provide clear standards for repairs and connections across all service types, not only fixed landline services.
“We also support a clearer and demonstrated commitment to code standards; that they are known by service providers and they are baked into customer service systems. We support measuring service providers performance against these codes.”
Further, service providers needed to take direct action to put customer service at the centre of how the organisation worked, Cohen said.
“This includes not only a commercial commitment to better customer service, but a genuine belief that looking after your customers is a decent and proper thing to do,” he said.
Cohen, formerly the Victorian Public Transport Ombudsman, was appointed to the TIO role in April this year.