Responding to Customers in Financial Hardship: Principles and Practices for Telecommunications Service Providers (PDF - see below for different format) sets out principles and practices that telecommunications and internet service providers may use when dealing with consumers in financial hardship.
The guide was developed by leading telecommunications service providers, financial counsellors and consumer advocates, with the assistance of the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman. Its purpose is to allow customers in financial hardship to stay connected to essential telecommunications while helping them pay their bills.
"Debt and disconnection may mean that a person cannot keep in touch with family and friends, check up on ill or elderly relatives and even pursue their occupations," Ombudsman Simon Cohen said.
"Helping consumers who are facing hardship to stay connected and meet their financial commitments is the right thing to do, and strikes a chord with an Australian community committed to a fair go." Mr Cohen said. "In the long term, it is also good business practice because most consumers do want to pay their bills, and will reward the support and understanding from their provider in tough times with loyalty."
The document builds on provisions in the Telecommunications Consumer Protections (TCP) Code. It recommends providers to take a broad perspective to consumer financial hardship, acknowledging that the causes, length and severity of hardship can vary.
"The document is designed to help all stakeholders better appreciate the tools and practices they can draw on to create positive, sustainable outcomes for telco customers who are in tough financial situations," said Communications Alliance CEO John Stanton.
The principles and practices document has tips on identifying when customers are in hardship and outlines options that have proved to be effective in assisting consumers. It emphasises the importance of well trained staff and the need for telco business leaders to oversee how their organisation is responding to customers in financial hardship.
"The principles and practices document is a major leap forward, setting out examples of best practice," said Financial Counselling Australia Executive Director Fiona Guthrie. "It changes the conversation between telcos and customers in financial hardship for the better."
The document draws on the experience of banks, energy and water companies in dealing with consumers in hardship, and the personal stories from consumers who had themselves experienced financial hardship.
"In holding forums that informed the development of the document, we wanted everyone to be aware of what some of the companies in Australia that are acknowledged as having good hardship programs were doing to help consumers," Mr Cohen said. "We also invited a range of consumers who had experienced financial hardship, which really highlighted the importance of consumers staying connected through hard times."
The initial discussion was prompted by a rise in complaints to the TIO about payment arrangements and service disconnections in 2011. An industry and consumer forum will be convened in 2015 to review the impact of the guideline.