Ofcom issues guidance to help avoid vulnerable customers being mistreated
The lockdown period has highlighted how critical broadband and other forms of communication such as our mobile phones are for people. Unfortunately for a lot of people the impact has been a big drop in their income through redundancy or being placed on furlough, this has greatly increased the number of people who need to be considered vulnerable customers for broadband providers, along with mobile phone services and the PAY TV platforms.
To help improve the very disjointed efforts that some providers who do try to help when people contact them Ofcom has issued a set of guidance for the protection of vulnerable customers.
The Ofcom guidance represents what it considers is best practice, but it does remain guidance so there is still going to be a wide range of responses from companies even if following the guidance. The full press release with a link to the more detailed documents is on the Ofcom website.
A short summary of what service providers can do to help make things easier for vulnerable customers:
- Have a plan for treating vulnerable customers fairly
- Identify and communicate with vulnerable customers and be sure to offer multiple ways to interact with customers e.g. online forms, phone, post, email, web chat or video and text relay.
- Keep information about vulnerable customers' needs. Obviously storing this data securely and making sure that people are not having to constantly repeat their situation by tracking contact points.
- Staff should be trained appropriately.
- Firms need to monitor and evaluate how their plans are working, and identify where things are not working well so action can be taken.
For those who have seen a change in the circumstances making paying bills on time Ofcom sets out some examples of what it considers providers should do.
Best practice examples suggesting how customers should be treated
People who are behind on their bills
We would expect providers to:
- prevent customers from being disconnected wherever possible, allowing the customer time to get help and support, without the threat of enforcement actionduring that period;
- offer payment holidays or deferrals, or freeze additional fees and charges;
- discuss a realistic, reasonable and flexible repayment plan;
- offer tariff advice, whether switching to a cheaper tariff or social tariff;
- refer customers to debt organisations or charities that can provide free advice and support; and
- use a range of communications channels to get in touch with the customer
In the past this the switching to a cheaper tariff was a simple enough procedure, but one problem is often the cheapest tariff is old fashioned ADSL/ADSL2+ which can leave a household with speeds well below what they are used to and struggling to do all that needs to be done online these days. This is particularly the case where zoom based job interviews are much more common.
It is not clear to us how common this practise is, but we have seen this crop up now and then and that is providers redirecting people to a web page warning them they have not paid. With the amount of app based Internet access made by people these days blocking internet access with no obvious way to flag that this has happened in phone apps will cause confusion and it is possible that the people seeing the message may not be the bill payer and have no fast or easy way of contacting them. While providers will probably say this is not disconnection, the effect mentally for people struggling with their finances may be severe, so we would like to see this practice stopped.
For those reading this with relatives they support a number of providers have the ability to nominate a third party as able to control an account, and for liasing with providers when broadband is broken this can be easier and less stressful for the ultimate user of a connection.
Another concern we have is that some providers may use the promise of faster and more reliable FTTP to push customers onto more expensive tariffs. There is a big difference between the speed freaks amongst us signing up to a Gigabit service two seconds after it becomes available, and a single person who watches very little streamed content being sold a 100 Mbps service when a cheaper service running at speeds of 36 Mbps or 50 Mbps is available across the same physical platform.