The Australian Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) has completed a systemic investigation into how local telcos are dealing with customers facing financial hardship, and while saying most have "robust" policies, they are not applied consistently.
Looking at 8,000 financial hardship complaints from between July 2018 to March 2021, the TIO said telcos needed to have proactive, accessible, and timely hardship assistance; arrangements that accounted for the customer's circumstances; have payment plans written down and applied properly; and regularly engage with customers.
"Even when a consumer is aware they are in hardship, they may feel shame or stigma about their financial position. This stigma can very easily delay a consumer from seeking help," Ombudsman Judi Jones said.
"Being proactive in identifying hardship and being flexible with payment plans can be the early course correction that can help minimise harm for consumers and increase the likelihood of telcos being paid.
"The impact on individuals facing vulnerability can be significant."
The report was welcomed by the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN), which backed the idea of frontline telco staff being able to offer plan reductions, waivers, and extended payment plans at earlier stages instead of the customer needing to self-identify as being in hardship.
"People's experiences of financial hardship can be quite varied, with some experiencing a short term need for support while others will need a more sustained assistance package. That's why it's important that the telco industry doesn't take a one-size-fits-all approach to financial hardship matters," ACCAN deputy CEO Andrew Williams said.
"It's disappointing that most complaints captured in the TIO's report say that their provider did not take enough action to help them overcome their vulnerability."
Communications Alliance, the industry body for telcos, seized on the 41% reduction in financial hardship complaints over the past three years.
"Telcos have worked hard to improve their financial hardship assistance, as witnessed by the decrease in complaint rates over the last 3 years. However, we can still do better," Comms Alliance CEO John Stanton said.
"Customers should be able to easily access assistance that works for them."
Stanton added that customers should ensure when they reach an agreement with a telco, that they get it in writing.
"While we welcome the TIO's insights, we would like to see more coordination between the TIO and the ACMA on this and other topics, to ensure resources are being used efficiently and avoid duplication," he said.
"Consistency between the ACMA and the TIO is also important to provide a clear set of standards and processes for customers."