The TIO enabled a conversation between telco providers and consumer advocates to review best practice guidelines for complaints made by consumers in financial hardship.
Responding to Customers in Financial Hardship is a set of guidelines for telcos to use when dealing with complaints from consumers in financial hardship. Their purpose is to help those customers stay connected to essential communications services at times when it may be difficult for them to meet financial obligations.
Telcos and consumer groups developed the guidelines in March 2014 as result of a forum facilitated by the TIO. They build on provisions in the Telecommunications Consumer Protections (TCP) Code. Both groups committed to review the guidelines in 2016.
Telcos and consumers met at the TIO in March to review the document and provided positive feedback about the guidelines. Some providers told the meeting that they use the document as part of staff training and as a complaint handling tool. Consumer advocates found the guidelines useful for training financial counsellors and as a conversation starter that has improved their capacity to advocate with telcos on behalf of vulnerable consumers. Both groups acknowledged the contribution of the TIO in enabling the conversation that led to the guidelines.
Providers and consumers identified some areas where the guidelines could be improved, including:
Addressing long term hardship
While the hardship guidelines have helped guide complaint handling, attendees agreed that they could be strengthened to acknowledge that some consumers can be in situations of chronic disadvantage. This may prevent them from being able to meet their payments on an ongoing basis, and they may need other service options.
A telco bill that a consumer cannot pay is unlikely to be the primary cause of financial hardship for consumers, but telcos and consumer advocates agreed that including provisions to avoid a telco debt from contributing to hardship would further improve the guidelines.
A key inclusion into reviewed financial hardship guidelines would cover strategies for telcos to be able to identify hardship earlier. In the experience of complaint handlers and financial counsellors, consumers in financial hardship may be reluctant to ask for help or admit to being in financial hardship.
The TIO will incorporate the feedback that emerged during the session into a new draft of the guidelines that will be circulated among stakeholders for further feedback prior to a new release.
Family violence, hardship and the TIO
The report by the Royal Commission into Family Violence called on Ombudsman services (including the TIO) to promote awareness among family violence victims and support services. It also recommended Ombudsman services increase training for their staff to understand the implications of family violence, including financial hardship.
The TIO is considering how to best implement the Royal Commission’s recommendations and will work with other Ombudsman services to formulate a coordinated, efficient and well-targeted response.