Ofcom cracks whip over customer complaints

The watchdog's new rules aim to make it easier for unhappy phone and broadband customers to raise and resolve disputes with their providers

Millions of unhappy broadband and phone customers have had to wait months for providers to deal with their complaints, Ofcom has reported, as it announced new dispute-handling regulations are on the way.

Last year, around three million people — or 30 percent of all complainants — failed to resolve their problems with operators within 12 weeks, the communications watchdog said on Thursday. In addition, three-quarters of those people did not know that they can use free Ofcom-backed resolution servicesCISAS and Otelo — to try to solve their dispute, it said.

"The majority of consumers who cannot resolve their complaint promptly have considerable difficulty getting their provider to recognise they are trying to make a complaint and in finding out information about the complaints process," Ofcom said in a statement.

Under the new rules, ISPs and phone companies will have to provide clear information about the relevant dispute resolution service on all paper bills, Ofcom said. They will also have to write to people whose problems have not been resolved within eight weeks, informing them of their right to go to a service.

"Making it easier for consumers to find out about the help available to resolve their complaints is a positive step," said Consumer Focus's telecoms expert Nick Hutton in a statement, but noted that more could be done. He suggested that phone and internet providers could be forced to publish their complaints data, so that prospective customers could factor service quality into their choice of provider.

Ofcom is also introducing a single code of practice for operators, which will replace its existing approach of allowing providers to set their own individual guidelines. The new industrywide code, called Ofcom Code, will establish a minimum standard for how providers must handle complaints from consumers.

"The Ofcom Code establishes a regulatory requirement for providers to resolve complaints in a 'fair and timely manner' and also outlines minimum expectations about the accessibility, transparency and effectiveness of providers' complaints handling procedures," the regulator said.

The new code of practise will come into force on 22 January, 2011, while the new requirements for publicising resolution services will kick in on 22 July, 2011.

The Ofcom announcement comes soon after the independent Communications Consumer Panel urged mobile providers to improve their efforts to inform consumers about their rights to cancel mobile contracts in case of poor coverage.

The panel, which advises the regulator, the UK government and others on communications policy, recommended on 14 July that operators and retailers give consumers the right to cancel their mobile contract if coverage does not meet their needs. At the same time, it released a report that found that 56 percent of in-store mobile service buyers did not receive details of coverage cancellation policies when making their purchases.

"[While] price is often the most important factor for consumers, there are others such as having good mobile coverage and receiving promised broadband speeds," Nick Hutton said.