New standards proposed as regulator gets tough on telco complaints

26th Jul 2010

A code of practice that sets out minimum standards for handling customer complaints against telcos will come into force courtesy of regulator Ofcom from 22 January next year.

The code is intended to ensure consistent standards of customer care are met and will give the watchdog powers to take action against providers that breach it. Telephone, broadband and mobile operators will be required to ensure that complaint resolution is fair and timely and that their procedures are transparent and accessible so that consumers can easily establish how to take action.

Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards told the Guardian: "We want to make sure that when something goes wrong, consumers are able to find out easily how to make a complaint and can be assured that their provider will be able to handle their complaint effectively."

As of 22 July 2011, telcos will also need to include information about dispute resolution services on all paper bills. They will likewise be obliged to write to customers whose gripes have not been addressed within eight weeks to let them know that they have the right to escalate the situation to one of two dispute resolution services – the Communications and Internet Services Adjudication Scheme (Cisas) and the Office of the Telecommunications Ombudsman (Otelo).

The Otelo and Cisas web sites indicate which providers are counted among their members, but last year Ofcom research indicated that 77% of consumers who failed to have complaints resolved within 12 weeks even knew of their existence. Some 91% of disputes were subsequently settled after using such services, however, compared with a much lower rate of 51% if such help was not engaged.

Ceri Stanaway, phone and broadband expert at consumer rights organisation Which?, said that complainants found they were all too often repeatedly ignored or fobbed off by their providers, which suggested that it was high time more was done to make phone and broadband customers aware of their right to escalate complaints.

"Perhaps the requirement to actively promote dispute resolution or risk enforcement action will prompt providers to tackle consumer complaints at an earlier stage. Ofcom’s new rules are certainly a step in the right direction, though the fact that there are two dispute resolution services still has potential to cause consumer confusion," he added.

The situation also risked seeing the two services competing for provider membership by being the most lenient. As a result, Which’s preferred model would be to have one clearly named ‘Telecoms Ombudsman’, Stanaway said.


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