The telecommunications industry has “turned a corner” with complaints dropping in recent months as a result of new regulations and a renewed focus on customer experience, Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman Judi Jones says.
The TIO is an industry-owned and funded organisation with an independent chair, led by the ombudsman. It provides a dispute resolution service for consumers and small businesses, and can decide the resolution of a complaint up to $50,000, and recommend a penalty up to $100,000.
The TIO received 167,831 complaints in the 2017-18 financial year, an increase of 6 per cent from the previous year, according to the ombudsman’s annual report. But the last quarter of the year saw a drop of nearly 18 per cent in complaints, marking a turning point for the sector, Ms Jones said.
“To use a footy analogy, it was really a game of two halves. There was an increase from last year but this year, particularly in the latter half of it, it looks like things have turned a corner and the rate of complaints are dropping, so that’s great,” Ms Jones told InnovationAus.com.
“We do sometimes see complaints fall in a month, but it’s unusual to fall for three months in a row, and it’s against the seasonal trend at a time when the NBN rollout was increasing,” she said.
“I’m not saying we’re out of the woods now but there’s a bit of light through the trees. People need to keep up what they’re doing so we continue to improve.”
The recent decrease in complaints is thanks in part to the competition watchdog’s recent work on speed plans and enforceable undertakings, the government’s roundtable with NBN Co and other retailers and a new focus on customer experience in the industry, Ms Jones said.
“There are a lot of reasons for telcos to do better, and for the industry as a whole to do better, and it is beginning to pay off. There’ll never be a smoking gun reason but there’s been a lot going on, and it is beginning to work,” she said.
The decrease in the number of complaints has continued into the first quarter of this financial year, she said, and is likely to continue on that trajectory.
“It’s very hard for us to predict because we are reactive, we don’t lead the market. We don’t go out looking for complaints and to stir trouble. We certainly hope that it will continue,” she said.
Of the complaints received, nearly 30 per cent were about mobile phone services, while 27.8 per cent were centred on internet services – nearly 47,000 complaints. The majority of complaints were centred on delays in establishing a service, no service, drop-outs in service or delayed actions in terms of customer service.
About half of all complaints received by the TIO were about a connection, changing provider or a service quality issue.
In relation to the NBN, the TIO received nearly 15,000 complaints about services delivered over the network in terms of a connection or changing provider, about 58 per cent of all complaints in this category. Nearly half of all complaints were about service quality over the NBN.
“What we did see with services over the NBN was that the rate of complaints for connection and service quality fell in the second part of the year which was really good.”
The majority of complaints came from New South Wales and Victoria, while Queensland had the highest growth, with a 13 per cent rise in complaints, following by Western Australia with 10.7 per cent.
Unsurprisingly, Australia’s biggest telco Telstra had the highest number of complaints with just under half of all received, followed by Optus with 24 per cent and Vodafone with 6 percent.
There was a near-8 per cent rise in complaints about Telstra, with 21,400 of these about services delivered over the NBN.
This year saw the TIO adopt a new way to categories complaints, with five broad categories: landline phone service, mobile phone service, internet service, multiple service and property.
It then broke these categories into six complaint issues: establishing a phone or internet service, delivery of phone or internet service, payment for a phone or internet service, customer service, property damage, cabling and infrastructure and land access matters.
“We looked at the way that consumers use their telco service, and found that separating it into three broad categories was no longer appropriate because we often get bundled services now.
“Then within those categories we reorganised our issues to follow the consumer lifecycle. That is a much more logical flow which means that our data is easier to understand and to analyse, and more consistently recorded,” Ms Jones said.
The report comes at a turbulent time for the TIO, with the federal government conducting an inquiry into its role and considering cutting it entirely.
In July this year the government released a consultation paper on its planned changes to the telco ombudsman, with a proposal to reduce its remit and launch a new, independent complaints review body, with complaints data transferred to the ACMA.
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