Ofcom calls for telco customer hardship support
March 17, 2022
By Colin Mann
People suffering financial hardship should receive better support from phone and broadband providers under proposals published by comms regulator Ofcom.
According to its recent research, around 1.1 million households (5 per cent) are struggling to afford their broadband. That rises to around one in 10 among the lowest-income households.
With affordability problems only likely to worsen this year because of the cost-of-living squeeze, Ofcom intends to update its Treating Vulnerable Customers Fairly guide explicitly to include further practical steps that it expects providers to take to better support their customers.
Under the proposals to update the guide, providers will be expected to adopt the following best practice:
- emphasise the help and support available to people struggling to pay. This includes offering and promoting special discounted packages to financially vulnerable customers, known as ‘social tariffs’. Recent Ofcom research shows that millions of families could save an average of £144 (€172) each year on their broadband bill. Providers should also proactively signpost other means of available support, such as payment deferrals or payment plans.
- get in touch with customers in different ways. To increase the chances of reaching customers in debt to offer support, firms should use a range of communications channels, such as letter, email, phone and text, and rotate between them.
- work more closely with debt charities and signpost free advice. Communications with customers in arrears should include clear information about the free debt advice available. They should also make it as easy as possible for free debt advice organisations to represent their clients.
- avoid imposing service restrictions to force payment. Restricting or disconnecting the services of someone who is particularly reliant on them – to push them into paying outstanding bills – should be avoided or limited. And steps should be taken to understand a customer’s individual circumstances before instructing debt collection services. Any agencies used should have strong policies for treating vulnerable customer fairly.
“Phone and broadband are vital to our lives, but many households’ budgets are being seriously squeezed,” stated Lindsey Fussell, Ofcom’s Network and Communications Group Director. “So it’s crucial that people who are struggling to afford their bills get the support they need.”
“We’ve set out clear expectations on the steps providers should take, and we’ll be keeping a close eye on firms to make sure they’re treating customers fairly.”
Ofcom is inviting views on its proposed guidance by May 12th, and intends to publish its final decision in the autumn of 2022.