Customer complaints regulation – another fine mess in the making?

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Image credit: Philip Bird LRPS CPAGB | shutterstock.com

One of the best kept secrets for most businesses is the number of customer complaints they get through their customer support centers. For communications service providers, keeping these numbers confidential has become a bit of an art form because customer complaints and unhappy customers are bad press.

Occasionally, a major stuff-up makes national and international news headlines – usually linked to massive roaming charges, billing errors or cataclysmic network failures – but the day-to-day customer gripes tend to go unheard.

Even with today’s tendency for gripers to use social media to air their grievances, the true number is not easy to find, and why should it be?

Well, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) that ‘regulates’ both comms and media thinks that information should be made public.

It will soon be forcing Australia’s largest telecommunications companies to report how many people have complained under a raft of new rules to fix customer woes when moving onto the National Broadband Network.

In addition, telcos with 30,000 customers or more will also have to report how long it takes to resolve the complaints or face stiff penalties, according to new standards just released. But to the disappointment of some consumer advocates, data revealing the best and worst industry performers won’t be made public.

The rule change is hoped to improve customers’ experience moving onto the NBN after sky-rocketing complaint numbers in 2017 with a third of customers experiencing a period without internet or landline services when migrating onto the NBN.

Under the new rules, which began July 1, telcos will need to keep records of the total number of complaints, the average number of days taken to resolve a complaint, the top three complaint types and the number of days within which 80% of complaints were resolved. Prior to these rules, typically only complaints made to the Ombudsman were available.

You might well ask why telcos are bearing the brunt of the regulator’s attention when it is the failings of the NBN that appear to be generating the most complaints. Research conducted by finder.com.au found 34% of Australians on the NBN would revert to their previous internet provider if they had the option because they believe their previous connection was more reliable or faster.

And even if they would like to switch back, there are no options for users to do so, due to the fact that all Australians will have the NBN as their only choice. They have 18 months to migrate to the NBN before all copper and cable networks will be disconnected.

They will be able to choose from any number of resellers on the NBN, but if the network itself is not delivering, there is little the telcos and resellers can do.

Despite the survey findings, NBN spokesman Tony Brown told The Weekend Australian the company acknowledged a minority of users were having sub-par experiences, but said the survey numbers were at odds with NBN Co’s in-house figures. (Surprise, surprise!)

“Our own end-user research has found a substantial uplift in end-user satisfaction since we brought our new pricing plans on board in December,” he told the publication. “We are working hard to lift those satisfaction levels even further and also to improve the NBN experience for the minority of unhappy end-users.”

Is ACMA’s reasoning simply to amass a case against the NBN by asking everyone else to report the complaints they receive? Regardless, it still seems a bit heavy-handed. ACMA chair Nerida O’Loughlin said that the survey, along with information from the industry, showed telcos’ complaints-handling practices needed to improve. “In terms of NBN services, they should not experience the ‘buck-passing’ in the handling of consumer complaints we have seen to date.”

ACMA had initially intended to publish complaints data to help consumers “make informed choices about providers”. Not surprisingly, telcos were fiercely opposed in making the complaints data public – now it is likely only consolidated industry-wide information will be made public in the future, and not telco-specific data that consumer bodies campaigned for. That, they say, would have allowed prospective customers to compare one telco against another based on how many complaints they had and how quickly they solved any issues.

In the immortal words of Oliver Hardy, all Australians must be saying to those in power, “This is a fine mess you’ve gotten us into.” For countries planning their own NBN rollout, they would be well advised to look closely at the Singapore NBN model as the preferred one, and the Australian model as a case study in what to avoid doing!

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