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New Ofcom Guidelines for Fair Treatment of Vulnerable UK People

Thursday, July 23rd, 2020 (8:09 am) - Score 613

At present the COVID-19 crisis has shown that phone, pay TV and broadband ISPs have adopted different approaches for how they deal with “vulnerable customers” (i.e. those suffering from financial, health or emotional problems). Ofcom has today produced new guidelines that attempt to standardise how the market tackles such issues.

Over the past few months’ providers have done a lot to improve how they interact with and handle sensitive situations, such as providing additional support and flexibility to those who many be struggling to pay their bills. Despite this we have previously noted, based on practical examples from customers, that there has been a lot of variation in how providers have responded to this challenge (here).

NOTE: Ofcom said 37% of people who have experienced a mental health problem, for example, exhibit significant levels of anxiety when dealing with energy, water and telecoms companies.

Ofcom adds that anybody can face circumstances that make them vulnerable – either temporarily or permanently. “These might include physical or mental health problems, debt or unemployment, bereavement or becoming a victim of crime,” said the communications and media regulator.

The regulator already requires providers to have policies and procedures in place to make sure that vulnerable customers are fairly treated, but today they’ve also set out the practical measures that such providers could adopt via their new Best Practice Guidance.

What Providers Can Do

Plan for treating vulnerable customers fairly.

Companies must publish clear, up-to-date policies which are easy to understand. These should be led from the top, with senior leaders accountable for embedding them in their organisation’s culture. We recommend that providers consult with experts, consumer bodies and charities to strengthen their understanding of different vulnerable customers’ needs.

Identify people who need extra support.

Customers may be more willing to share information about the challenges they are facing if they know they can get extra support from their provider by doing so. Providers should therefore ask customers at the earliest opportunity whether they have any accessibility or customer service needs that the provider can help with, and offer a range of ways to explain the help, support and services available – such as online forms, phone, post, email, web chat or video and text relay.

Keep information about customers’ needs.

Frontline staff should accurately record and update vulnerable customers’ needs in line with data protection legislation. This should be shared with other frontline staff on controlled internal systems, to avoid customers having to repeat themselves if passed to another department.

Train staff appropriately.

All frontline staff should be trained on how to communicate with empathy and support, recognising that some people who are struggling may be reluctant to discuss their personal circumstances. They should be trained to recognise the potential characteristics, behaviours or verbal cues of someone who might be vulnerable, and also be fully aware of the additional services available to help them. Specialist teams who primarily deal with vulnerable customers, including those in financial difficulty, may benefit from additional training.

Monitor and evaluate.

Providers should regularly monitor changes in complaints levels, customer service survey results or other customer feedback. They should also consider mystery shopping, as well as focus groups and panels to gain feedback and share best practice.

Just to help clarify all this, Ofcom has also included some practical examples from two of the most sensitive of situations.

Best Practice Examples

People who are behind on their bills

We would expect providers to:

* Prevent customers from being disconnected wherever possible, allowing the customer time to get help and support, without the threat of enforcement action during that period;
* Offer payment holidays or deferrals, or freeze additional fees and charges;
* Discuss a realistic, reasonable and flexible repayment plan;
* Offer tariff advice, whether switching to a cheaper tariff or social tariff;
* Refer customers to debt organisations or charities that can provide free advice and support; and
* Use a range of communications channels to get in touch with the customer.

Victims of crime

* Make sure victims don’t pay for mobile phone services they have been unable to use if their phone is taken away by the police as evidence;
* Listen carefully with empathy and compassion, taking time to ensure the customer has the right information, which might include a crime reference number;
* Avoid pressuring victims to provide any more information than necessary, to avoid them reliving experiences; and
* Offer new numbers, temporary SIMs or handsets where appropriate.

Providers of course have a difficult balancing act to consider because they’re not charities and, like it or not, some unscrupulous individuals who are not in difficulty will always try to exploit any generosity. The only real way for them to defend against that is by requesting and confirming as much information as possible, although this may be made more difficult by Ofcom’s approach.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of people will only ever seek help when they really truly need it and thus measures like this are focused on a minority of consumers who do run into genuine difficulties.

Jane Rumble, Director of Consumer Policy at Ofcom, said:

“We’re setting out industry best practice to help ensure vulnerable people are treated fairly and sympathetically by their phone, broadband and pay-TV providers.

This is especially important at a time when many customers may be worried about their physical and mental health, as well as their finances.”

Peter Tutton, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at StepChange Debt Charity, said:

“We are really pleased to see the recognition that customers in arrears will generally be vulnerable, and the regulatory expectation that firms will give them the support they need through breathing space, affordable repayment plans, social tariffs, or referrals to debt charities like us for more holistic debt advice.

Communications services are vital tools of modern life, without which many vulnerable people would simply be unable to access other support services. Maintaining access on an affordable basis can play a crucial part in helping people get back on their feet financially in a wider sense.”

Broadly speaking this is a welcome improvement from Ofcom and should help to set a wider standard for dealing with complex issues, which often go largely unnoticed. All of this builds on top of last year’s Fairness for Customers commitment(s) and the regulator’s related Fairness Framework (PDF).

The new measures set out in Ofcom’s guidance are “not intended to be exhaustive” and will be reviewed over time.

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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.
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