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UPDATE Ofcom Tweak ADR Schemes to Improve UK ISP Complaints Handling

Monday, November 27th, 2017 (12:25 pm) - Score 1,289

The telecoms regulator has today made several changes to improve the performance of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) providers, which are third-party ombudsman schemes that help consumers to resolve complaints with UK phone, broadband and mobile providers etc.

At present it’s a requirement that all ISPs must be members of an ADR scheme (i.e. CISAS or Ombudsman Services). The schemes are free for consumers to access and designed to supplement (not replace) an ISPs own internal complaints procedure(s), although they are usually only used after a dispute has gone unresolved for 8 weeks (see our ISP Complaints and Advice section).

Generally speaking Ofcom’s review found that the ADR system does a good job for consumers and they were “satisfied” that both schemes still met the required performance criteria. However some ISPs, particularly smaller providers, remain unhappy with the ADR system because they can be forced to pay hundreds of pounds in fees, often even when a customer’s dispute is rejected by the ombudsman (example).

Smaller ISPs naturally lack the same protection through economics of scale as the bigger boys, although they do often make up for this by focusing more on service quality and that tends to limit the number of ADRs they receive. Nevertheless so-called “vexatious” consumer complaints can still be a problem area.

In that sense it’s difficult to know whether any of Ofcom’s proposed changes to the schemes (these mostly represent minor tweaks) will have much of an impact upon the above problem or improve the experience for consumers. However, the regulator and ADRs do intend to take part in further work, which will for example look at whether decisions to accept or reject cases are appropriate and examine the awarded compensation amounts etc.

Ofcom’s 2017 ADR Changes

4.6 The Schemes have agreed to undertake additional work to:

• Review Mott’s findings with us to see if there are any lessons to be learnt and to see if greater consistency can be achieved in terms of case outcomes. In doing so, we will revisit the Decision Guidelines and consider whether the Schemes’ expectations of the evidence consumers are able to provide are reasonable;

• Review Mott’s findings in relation to the compensation amounts awarded and the Schemes’ approach to apologies, and whether differences in their application forms or processes could be leading to those discrepancies;

• Publish more ADR complaints data where the data is robust, comparable and will be of benefit to consumers; and

• Take part in a further study regarding whether decisions to accept or reject cases are appropriate.

4.7 To help ensure that consumers continue to receive timely decisions on their cases:

• Both schemes will put additional processes in place to handle spikes in complaint volumes to ensure a high level of customer service is maintained despite high case volumes; and

• OS will report an additional performance measure on the number of cases completed 90 days after receipt of a complete case file (reflecting the requirements set out in the ADR Regulations).

4.8 To improve transparency and their accountability to consumers and CPs who use their service, the Schemes will:

• Adopt a new performance reporting process whereby they must alert Ofcom formally to a consistent failure to meet their KPIs and explain the measures they are taking to rectify that failure. Depending on the circumstances, Ofcom could then trigger an interim review;

• Publish statements on their websites explaining how they meet the approval criteria derived from the Act;

• Make changes to their websites to improve the ease of navigation and make clear the standards of service users can expect, and the steps they can take when those standards are not met;

• Review the customer satisfaction data they collect and publish in 2018. We will monitor the customer satisfaction results achieved by both schemes and the results will inform any future decisions to improve performance;

• Consider what additional financial information they can publish to enhance transparency regarding their case fees and expenditure;

• Make clear that CPs can log process complaints with the IA/IR;

• Publish an annual report summarising the IA’s/IR’s findings over the previous year, and if they do not adopt the IA’s/IR’s recommendations in a specific case, explain to both the complainant and the IA/IR why.

4.9 In addition to these measures the Schemes’ performance against their formal KPIs will be published on the Ofcom website on a quarterly basis.

4.10 We will continue to monitor the Schemes’ performance and their progress against making the changes they have committed to in the coming months.

4.11 We note that we can re-open the issue of approval at any time should recommendations not be implemented in a timely manner and evidence emerge of a Scheme falling short of our approval criteria.

Anybody who has had to deal with consumer complaints knows just how difficult and time consuming it can be to get to the bottom of a particular issue, which tends to apply just as much to consumers’ as it does to ADR providers (this is well illustrated by the Mott MacDonald review that accompanies today’s report). In that sense ADR firms have a frighteningly difficult and time consuming job to do.

On top of that it’s important to remember that the ADR process exists because some companies simply don’t play fair with their customers and a few get it wrong more often than others. On the whole they are a good thing but that’s not to say that the system wouldn’t benefit from some improvement.

Broadband provision in particular is a technically complex beast with many points of potential failure, including inside the customers own home (identifying who is to blame isn’t always simple). Likewise ISPs often still have to foot the bill for mistakes or faults caused by their suppliers (e.g.  Openreach, TalkTalk Wholesale), although some would consider this to be a cost of doing business.

Telecoms and internet providers might not like ADRs but then few consumers enjoy the stress of having to take their complaint that far in the first place.

UPDATE 28th Nov 2017

The UK Internet Service Providers’ Association (ISPA) has offered some useful feedback.

A Spokesperson for the ISPA told ISPreview.co.uk:

“ISPA supports alternative dispute resolution (ADR) as a free and easy-to-use way for consumers and business to resolve disputes. We provide free ADR as a benefit of membership and work with our members to identify practical issues with the schemes and come up with improvements and solutions.

We regularly facilitate workshops between our members and ADR providers to work through points and trends our members may encounter. As part of our code of practice, ISPA operates a complaints service that provides consumers with the ability to complain to their provider via ISPA, once they have exhausted the internal procedures and before a complaint reaches ADR. We encourage members of the public to make use of this service and note that sites like ISPreview helpfully provide some further information to consumers about this additional protection.

In our response to the five-yearly Ofcom review, we included several examples of cases that demonstrated problems with the process and a number of recommendations to help improve the system. While not all of these suggestions were accepted, we are pleased that Ofcom has agreed to look further into some of the trends our members have identified, including research into whether appropriate decision are being made, publishing more robust data and a sample case review of potential out of scope cases to see if there are any underlying issues that need to be addressed.

ISPA would be happy to take part in this work as we continue to ensure the ADR system is fair to both consumers and businesses.”

Just as a quick reminder, these are some of the issues that the ISPA raised at the start of Ofcom’s review.

ISPA’s ADR Review Recommendations

We believe the following recommendations will help the overall development of the ADR system for our members and ultimately consumers:

1. Promoting greater choice in ADR provision, by giving proper consideration of the benefits of options outside the current duopoly

2. Strengthening the rules for refusing disputes so that only cases that meet the scope are accepted

3. Ensuing there is a robust appeals process to challenge and report cases accepted that are out of scope

4. A commitment from ADR providers to continually understand and learn about the industries in which they operate

5. Reducing the size of the case fee levied by ADR providers to a more proportionate level

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
Leave a Comment
3 Responses
  1. Alex Bristol says:

    Hi Mark, it would be good if you could ask the ISPA response to this and whether they have any proactive teams looking into the history of disputes and whether anything could be improved within the industry to avoid the disputes in the first place and in turn save their members time and money. Disputes are neither good for their members or the public image it gives the ISP industry.

    This is what some other industry representative bodies do like The Law Society (http://www.lawsociety.org.uk/about-us/).

    1. Alex Bristol says:

      Cool – well done Mark.

      Anyone working for ISPs, the next time you have any involvement with complaints it would be great if you could start thinking of ways the ISPA could help reduce them, for example line speed is a well known contentious issue with consumers but there is no industry standard way of measuring it so the ISPA can help by coming up with an industry standard line speed measuring solution. Think of the many hours your colleagues over multiple teams would save by consumers mistakenly thinking their line speed is underperforming, and then think of all the other ISPs wasting the same time on the same issue, and all the enormous costs to each ISP and to the industry. Team meetings are a great starting point for these discussions.

      Quoting from the ISPA’s website, to promote “positive development of the Internet industry” (https://www.ispa.org.uk/about-us/ispas-industry-role/) reducing complaints is positive development.

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