By the numbers: taking advantage of the TIO?

By the numbers: taking advantage of the TIO?

Summary: There's no doubt that the telco industry needs to lift its game, but is the TIO seeing more complaints simply because more people know about the ombudsman?

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There's no doubt that the telco industry needs to lift its game, but is the TIO seeing more complaints simply because more people know about the ombudsman?

This month, the TIO's annual report highlighted a 17 per cent rise in complaints to the ombudsman. "Normally, a chairman would be delighted to report on growth in an annual review. But growth in complaints to the TIO is not something to celebrate," said Andrew Dyer, the TIO's council chair.

But might the complaints be the result of a greater awareness of the TIO? According to Google Trends, that nifty little tool that lets you track search terms, searches for the word "ombudsman" have increased by 50 per cent over the last five years, and the rise in news references has risen even more.

(Credit: Phil Dobbie, compiled from TIO data)

Compare that to searches for "sex", for example, which have fallen a good 20 per cent over the same time period, and you can see that we're all too busy hanging on the phone complaining about our telco to be interested in that sort of thing anymore.

The argument that more people are complaining to the TIO because more of us know about it is supported by the decline in higher-level complaints. Whilst new inquiries rose a whopping 9 per cent last year, investigations beyond the first level fell by 14 per cent. In other words, more people were complaining, but more than ever they were being resolved at the first stage. This would seem to indicate that telcos are using the channel almost as a default frontline complaint-handling service.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this situation is with how out of kilter Australia is with the rest of the world. Ofcom in the UK claims to receive (PDF) about 350 telecom complaints per day — 128,000 a year. That's one third less than here (197,682), for a population three times ours.

The divide is even greater when we look to the US: in Q4 of 2010, the FCC received 43,600 complaints. Spread over a year that means a country with 13 times our population receives 10 per cent fewer telco complaints.

It's clear that there's an issue. The imbalance could be because, with Australia's smaller population, telcos are finding it uneconomic to create bigger frontline call centres and more efficient to pay the TIO to filter out the serious complaints. If that's the case, the solution is simple: the TIO should push up fees until it becomes cheaper for telcos to hire more call centre staff. The answer could be a sliding scale, where the more complaints a company has, the more they pay. That would make for an interesting line on the CFO's P&L spreadsheet. I suspect that the TIO complaint numbers would quickly sort themselves out.

Download the TIO annual report here (PDF).

Topics: IT Priorities, Telcos

About

Phil Dobbie has a wealth of radio and business experience. He started his career in commercial radio in the UK and, since coming to Australia in 1991, has held senior marketing and management roles with Telstra, OzEmail, the British Tourist Authority and other telecommunications, media, travel and advertising businesses.

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14 comments
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  • Perhaps the TIO should be fining Telcos for helping them handle their complaints?
    Perhaps Telcos shouldl acquaint themsleves with Australian Law - and run their businesses accordingly.
    Maybe then, complaints would fall. A rather simple solution to what is a major problem!
    peterga
    • TIO does actually charge the telcos for the complaints - even worse, they send the complaint back to the telco to manage with the customer - even worse than that, they even take complaints where the telco was not even engaged to provide a phone for a customer!!!
      evil2lyn
  • Finally...

    The problem is it is cheaper for a telco to simply waive a customers bill or give them a credit whether they deserve it or not than to work it through with the TIO.

    Because the TIO derives the vast majority of it's revenue from fining the telcos and there is no facility for them to fine the customer the telco will always be wrong and the customer right.

    Perhaps if complainants were required to pay a small fee for lodging a complaint and the complaint was assessed on merit the number of complaints would fall, sadly this will never happen when the organisation is allowed to set it's own rules so the more well known they become the more first level complaints will rise.
    Darkpsyd-4080a
  • who can I submit a complaint about the TIO to?
    evil2lyn
    • Nice one. :)
      anonymous
    • The TIOO
      phildobbie
  • If Mr Dobbie can get back to us with the percentage of those new inquiries (which "rose a whopping 9 per cent") were issues where the service provider was found to be at fault, THEN it might be reasonable to suggest the service providers need to take some action.

    Were these enquiries mostly attributed to a single provider or just a few providers or a single technology? You are blaming a whole industry so do I assume these were evenly spread?

    "In other words, more people were complaining, but more than ever they were being resolved at the first stage. This would seem to indicate that telcos are using the channel almost as a default frontline complaint-handling service."

    How can you come to that conclusion when you don't indicate how many of those new inquiries were legitimate or valid complaints where the provider was at fault? Maybe the number of complaints that carry on to the next level are the only ones worth considering? How many of THOSE were found to be the fault of the service provider?

    I can't come to any conclusions without those figures, can you?

    I await the result of your investigation. ;-)
    Noni Mouse
    • You'll have a long wait Noni Mouse. It was pure speculation and a point for discussion. But it seems when you say "maybe the number of complaints that carry on to the next level are the only ones worth considering?" that you are supporting my premise that more people are complaining to the TIO because more people know about it. I'd welcome any other theories about why the figures here are so much higher than the UK and the US.

      The other argument, mentioned in the comments here, is that the TIO rolls over too easily, so word has got out that if you want to get out of a contract just contact the TIO. But it still gets back to the TIO being a victim of its own success.
      phildobbie
      • "I'd welcome any other theories about why the figures here are so much higher than the UK and the US."

        It's probably because Ofcom and the FCC aren't alternative dispute resolution bodies, they're regulators. Their figures should be compared with the ACMA's, not with the TIO's.
        joebloggs123-a06be
      • "You'll have a long wait Noni Mouse. It was pure speculation and a point for discussion."

        So, despite not knowing how many of these "complaints" were actually valid (could have been 1%, or less maybe - who knows?), you are still happy to suggest "the solution is simple: the TIO should push up fees"? Really? How about not reporting these "enquiries" as complaint statistics against the service provider/s at all, until there is some proven fault on the telco's part? That would drop the numbers, wouldn't it?.

        "I'd welcome any other theories about why the figures here are so much higher than the UK and the US."

        It is quite simple when you look at what those countries define as "complaints" and how such a complaint makes it into their statistics.

        http://www.ofcom.org.uk/static/archive/oftel/consumer/advice/faqs/otelofaq.htm

        "Before you can use our service, the company you are complaining about must first be given the opportunity to sort out the dispute. Companies have eight weeks to do this."

        This is not the case in Australia. The consumer is asked if they have raised the matter with their provider - no proof that it has been dealt with by the provider is required (nor is there any proof required of the content of the complaint).

        "When a complaint is justified, the member company will honour the (UK) Ombudsman's decision and comply with any requests for action."

        So the complaint is actually looked at by the UK Ombudsman to see if it is "justified" before it becomes a statistic. This is not the case in Australia.

        • The consumer has to try to resolve your dispute with the company first (same for CISAS - the "other" telco ADR scheme)
        • Unless the company agrees that the dispute cannot be resolved, you have to wait for eight weeks before applying to Otelo (same for CISAS)
        • Your complaint might not be investigated or upheld

        "If the Ombudsman decides a complaint was not justified after all, the member company won't be required to do anything." AND this means no complaint statistic.

        This is not the case in Australia and THIS is why the "figures here are so much higher than the UK and the US".

        "... the TIO being a victim of its own success."

        And that depends on how you define "success". I would have thought reducing the number of "complaints" consumers have about the telco industry would have been the TIO's aim - in which case the TIO has failed miserably. If "justifying its own existence" is the object, then it is succeeding admirably (by lowering the bar as far as the statistics are concerned).

        Just sayin'
        Noni Mouse
        • So it sounds like you're saying an eight week period between levelling a complaint with a service provider and TIO accepting a complaint. Sounds like a plan. Provided each carrier has a clear and identifiable complaint process. Do they?
          phildobbie
          • I don't know - I just get sick of these stats being thrown around like they have some meaning. You mention "how out of kilter Australia is with the rest of the world", and I have given you the answer.

            Your follow-up story starts here:
            http://www.dbcde.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0018/133902/University_of_Technology_Sydney.pdf
            Noni Mouse
  • I work for a major telco and believe that complaints have risen purely because the general public are more aware of the TIO

    What really irks me is the constant abuse of the system - people go to the TIO to complain about coverage, we let them out of their contract and then they go and upgrade to the latest phone.

    More and more people are using the TIO to simply get new handsets while they are still contracted.

    Or theres the 'deny all use' complaints - You clearly used your phone a lot, you admit it, but you won't pay for it - so off to the TIO.

    There is little to no personal responsibilty in this industry, and if customers cannot get what they want, no matter how unreasonable, then off to the TIO.

    Franky, I wish the TIO would validate complaints, and allow a complaint deemed to be unreasonable, to be rejected and not charged for.
    anothertelcoworker
  • I think the suggestion that telcos are using the TIO as their front line service is a very good one. I have known about the TIO for many years and had never considered contacting them up until recently when I have had to submit complaints about two different telcos for two entirely different issues. One was a billing issue where several payments were not applied to the account, and for some reason the first line customer service couldn't do basic maths (for which the impossible-to-reach customer service reps were very apologetic), and the second where the same fault was repeatedly occurring on a phone line but the telco refused to do anything but waste time and then do a temporary repair job every time until the TIO got involved.

    In both instances the telco has clearly been at fault, but because they have no reasonable escalation path within their own customer service to anyone legitimately willing to actually try and solve the problems, then the TIO has had to intervene to a resolution that should have happened the first time the issues were raised. In terms of the TIO's numbers, both of these complaints would be considered resolved following the initial inquiry, but that doesn't mean there wasn't a legitimate issue that needed to be solved, it just meant the telcos refused to acknowledge it until there was some kind of penalty looming behind it.

    It would have been my preference for the telcos to look in to and resolve their own issues in both instances rather than involve the TIO, but they simply don't care.
    DamienJ