Telecoms regulator Ofcom has called for phone, broadband and pay-TV companies to treat all customers fairly, particularly highlighting the needs of people facing financial, health or emotional problems.
Ofcom has now created best practice guidance for the telecoms industry, particularly indicating that providers should never threaten to disconnect those struggling to pay their bills.
Acknowledging that the coronavirus pandemic has increased the potential for customers’ circumstances to change suddenly, Ofcom has laid out a set of measures for providers to use to help vulnerable customers, including payment holidays, deferrals and repayment plans.
Ofcom says the guidance will help ensure vulnerable people are treated fairly and sympathetically by their providers.
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Treating vulnerable customers fairly
Ofcom has said providers should actively identify vulnerable customers, checking whether they have accessibility or customer service needs at the earliest opportunity. Frontline staff should accurately record and update customers’ needs (in line with data protection legislation) and share this with others, to avoid customers having to repeat themselves if passed to another department.
Frontline staff should also be trained on how to treat vulnerable customers in a supportive and empathetic way, while recognising that some may be reluctant to discuss their personal circumstances, or find it difficult to do so.
The regulator also warned that the Covid-19 pandemic and associated response has increased the potential for customers’ circumstances to change suddenly, meaning it’s possible for more to become vulnerable for a variety of reasons including physical and mental health problems, debt and bereavement.
Providers should proactively publish clearer policies for vulnerable customers and be contactable via a variety of methods, not just phone.
Help for those behind on their bills
The regulator’s new guidance is particularly clear that people behind on their bills should be protected from disconnection wherever possible and allowed to seek support without the threat of enforcement.
Suggested measures to help those struggling with payments include:
- Payment holidays or deferrals
- Freezing additional fees and charges
- Reasonable and flexible repayment plans
- Tariff advice, including switching to cheaper tariffs
- Referral to debt organisations
- Referral to charities that can provider advice and support
Support for victims of crime
Ofcom has also called for victims of crime to be offered support, identifying specific measures to assist victims of scams and violent crime. This follows reports that victims of rape and sexual violence have had to continue paying their phone bills despite their phones being removed by police for examination.
The guidance says providers must:
- Ensure victims don’t pay for mobile phone services they have been unable to use if their phone is taken away by the police as evidence
- Offer empathy and compassion, taking time to ensure the customer has the right information, which might include a crime reference number
- Avoid pressuring victims to provide any more information than necessary, to avoid them reliving experiences
- Offer new numbers, temporary Sim cards or handsets where appropriate.
Ofcom has said that the guidance is not exhaustive and will be reviewed over time. It will continue to work with providers and monitor companies’ performance in line with its Fairness for Customers Commitments programme.
Rocio Concha, Director of Advocacy at Which?, said:
‘A decent broadband connection is vital for everyday life, especially as many have been forced to rely on it for school, work and banking during the pandemic, so it is good to see the regulator has set out measures to help ensure vulnerable customers are treated fairly and given the support they need by providers to stay connected.
‘A good broadband provider will not only deliver decent connection but also good value for money and customer service when needed. Anyone with concerns about paying their bills should contact their provider immediately.’