TIO urges telcos to improve financial hardship policies
The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) has urged Australian telcos to more consistently apply the policies they have in place for customers dealing with financial hardship.
The TIO’s latest systemic investigation report found that just over 8000 financial hardship complaints were received by the office between July 2018 and March 2021.
The volume of complaints has fallen significantly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, falling to the lowest rate since July 2018, the report states. This reflects the additional measures telcos put in place to reflect many consumers’ challenging circumstances during the crisis.
But the report found that there is still room for improvement. While most telcos have robust policies for dealing with financial hardship, they are not always applied consistently. Most complaints received during the period covered by the report were from consumers who felt their provider did not take enough action to help them overcome their vulnerability.
The report makes a series of recommendations for telcos to implement to further reduce complaints, including educating frontline staff on available measures.
The report also recommends implementing the ability to proactively offer hardship assistance at the first sign of financial distress, and regularly engaging with consumers during their financial recovery to promote better outcomes. Meanwhile staff and billing systems should be set up to easily record payment plans, and these plans should be explained to consumers and then confirmed in writing.
Telecommunications Ombudsman Judi Jones said telcos interviewed for the report expressed challenges when dealing with customers in financial hardship.
Even when a consumer is aware they are in hardship, they may feel shame or stigma about their financial position, delaying them from seeking help, she said.
“Empathy can make the conversation easier. One provider said it trained staff to build rapport and trust with vulnerable consumers. Once this trust is in place, the provider can then ask questions and begin offering further guidance and support,” 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.”
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