A call for change at our service-challenged telcos
If you have a mobile phone, internet service or fixed line and you live in Australia; chances are you’ve experienced had some sort of issue with your service at one time or another. No big deal, right?
You call the customer service helpline of your provider and begin to explain the problem. You might be told you are speaking to the wrong department and get transferred … multiple times. You might be kept on hold. You might be promised a call back. You might, if you’ve spoken to the right department, be promised a solution, which may or may not happen. If not, you’ll have to call back, and possibly even start again.
It’s no great secret that customer service across the telco industry is lacking. Last year was a record year for complaints – almost 200,000 of us had to resort to taking our problem to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman. By comparison, the banks – another industry Australians love to complain about – generate around 24,000 complaints a year to the financial ombudsman.
That’s the bad news. The good news is the call for change may soon be answered.
The ongoing communication breakdown between telcos and their customers has been well documented by the telco industry regulator, the Australian Communications & Media Authority (ACMA). Two years ago they commenced the biggest inquiry this industry has ever seen, called Reconnecting the Customer. It conducted public hearings around the country and commissioned extensive research to find out what policy types refer to as the “root cause” of the problem.
The root cause is of course complicated. Mobiles have become ubiquitous, with almost half of us owning a smartphone. The internet arrived. Smart phones were invented. There’s no doubt that over the past 15 years telecommunications has changed the way we live.
The industry will tell us that it is technology’s breakneck speed that is responsible for the problems customers have with “bill shock”; that we don’t understand the difference between a kilobyte and a megabyte and it’s our fault when we open our mobile phone bill and the $79 “capped” plan has morphed into a $400 whopper.
But it’s not all our fault. The problem is the industry operates under a set of rules called the Telecommunications Consumer Protection (TCP) Code. If the industry breaches the TCP Code, the ACMA has the power to “direct” the industry to comply with it. There are no commercially significant sanctions – such as fines or naming and shaming – currently within the ACMA’s power to bring telcos into line.
With over 1000 telecommunications providers doing business and no effective deterrent for bad behaviour, there is little incentive for telcos to try to compete on customer service. The focus is on selling – and the confusopoly that passes for advertising for the industry means that people don’t always understand what it is they’re signing up for.
The ACMA knows it. In September, its Chair Chris Chapman gave the telcos a five-month deadline to submit a revised TCP Code that addressed the five recommendations stemming from its inquiry.
They included changing how the telcos advertise their products, introducing the ability for customers to monitor and track their usage and improving how complaints are handled.
It was the industry’s last chance to avoid direct, and most importantly, enforceable regulation. The ACMA has warned the industry that if it did not fix the problems it would do it for them.
The industry submitted its revised Code to the ACMA on Tuesday [7 Feb]. The ACMA now has the unenviable task of going through the 180-odd pages to see if the industry has made it over the line. Our organisation – the peak body representing telco customers – knows this Code inside out, having worked with the industry to try to improve it over an 18-month period.
We don’t believe the industry can use this Code to escape regulation this time. The Code – while it is better than the last one – doesn’t go far enough in meeting the ACMA’s demands. Customers have had enough and the ACMA has made clear that record numbers of complaints year on year cannot continue.
So now, we wait. We wait to see if the regulator can transform the industry from one that thinks it is simply selling devices to an industry that understands it is supplying people with essential services. After 15 years of the industry writing its own rules, it can’t come soon enough for customers.
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