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Australian telco ombudsman reports five-year low in complaints

The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman handled 18 percent fewer consumer complaints over the 2012-13 financial year.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

Despite increased awareness of the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO), consumers are filing less complaints with the TIO than in the past five years.

In the TIO's annual report (PDF) released on Wednesday, the TIO said it received a total of 158,652 new complaints during the 2012-13 financial year, a fall of 18.1 percent on last year's figure of 193,702 complaints.

Complaints about mobile service issues continued to lead the way, accounting for 57 percent of complaints, but seeing a 25.6 percent decrease on last year's 122,834 mobile-related complaints. Problems with mobile coverage resulted in 28.2 percent of the complaints about mobile services, and was the top issue for complaints overall.

One issue to see growth was internet-related complaints, which grew by 1.9 percent to 31,431. Complaints about landlines were down by 9.3 percent to 33,940, with billing, customer service, and overall fault complaints all recording a reduction in numbers.

"This is the second successive year we have seen telco complaints decrease, and complaints to the TIO are at their lowest since 2008-09," Ombudsman Simon Cohen said. "A clear commitment from telcos to do better by their customers, an improved industry code, and a focus on compliance are paying dividends."

It wasn't all rosy for the telcos, though, with the ombudsman pointing out that more than half of the complaints included customer service issues. The majority of these were quickly resolved by being passed to senior complaints handlers.

"The high number of simple complaints resolved by TIO referral demonstrates ongoing opportunities for telcos to improve how they deal with customer complaints," the ombudsman said.

Broken down by state: Victoria led the way, with 7.8 complaints per 1,000 residents; South Australia, New South Wales, and the Australian Capital Territory followed next, with 7.4, 7.1, and 6.4 complaints per 1,000 residents, respectively; Queensland produced 6 complaints per 1,000 residents; and bringing up the rear were the relatively quiet Western Australia, with 5.1, Tasmania, on 4.3, and the Northern Territory, with 3.6 complaints per 1,000 residents.

During the year, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) phased in the Telecommunications Consumer Protections (TCP) Code, which requires telcos to have clearer advertising, spend-management tools, and improved complaints handling. Introduced in phases, the new complaint and advertising rules arrived on day one, standard summaries of pricing and product information took effect in March this year, and spend management landed in September 2013.

Optus welcomed the fall in complaints, saying that it had seen a 54 percent drop in complaints when comparing June 2013 to June 2012, the telco says it now has around two complaints per 10,000 services.

"Not only have we seen an industry-leading decline in TIO complaints over the past year, but we’ve also seen a strong decline in complaints to Optus, proving that our initiatives are having a positive effect on customers,” said Optus Customer managing director, Vicki Brady.

The telco said that it had seen coverage complaints fall by 50 percent, contract term complaints fell by 37 percent, and bill complaints declined by 25 percent over the year until June 30.

Teresa Corbin, CEO of the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN), said that while the numbers showed the TCP Code is having the desired effect, it is concerning that many simple complaints were not resolved until the TIO was brought in.

"Complaint figures are starting to go from the stratosphere back down to Earth but there is still significant room for improvement," Corbin said. "It is concerning that more than half of the new consumer disputes included a customer service complaint about issues such as broken promises or wrong advice.

"Even though complaints are coming down, it is clear providers are still having issues with basic customer service."

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