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Ofcom Begins Review of UK Telecoms Complaints Handlers

Wednesday, Nov 29th, 2023 (11:14 am) - Score 1,520
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The UK telecoms regulator, Ofcom, has today began a review to examine whether the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) providers, which are third-party ombudsman schemes that help consumers to resolve complaints with their phone providers, broadband ISPs and mobile operators, is working effectively.

The regulator requires that all such service providers – those offering services to consumers and small businesses – must be members of an approved ADR scheme (there are two of these – CISAS and Communications Ombudsman [formerly Ombudsman Services]). The schemes are free for consumers to access and designed to supplement (not replace) your provider’s own internal complaint procedure(s), although ISPs often have to pay sizeable costs regardless of whether they win or lose a case.

The ADR process is usually seen as a last line of defence for consumers and thus such schemes are generally only used after a dispute has gone unresolved for 6-8 weeks, or earlier with the agreement of their provider (i.e. the “Deadlock Letter” stage). See our ISP Complaints and Advice section for more information.

However, the new review will consider whether consumers and small businesses are receiving accessible, fair and consistent outcomes from the ADR procedures established under the Communications Act 2003. To help assess this, Ofcom plan to look comprehensively at the consumer journey through ADR, including how consumers first access ADR and their experience of engaging with the scheme.

Scope of Ofcom’s ADR Review

We plan to focus on three main areas:

Consumer access to ADR

Under our current rules, consumers and small businesses (both referred to as consumers in this document) can take their complaint to ADR eight weeks after they have complained or, before that, when their complaint has reached deadlock. We plan to look at whether these rules are working effectively for consumers.

Consumer experience of ADR schemes

Under the Act, we are required to keep our approvals of the two ADR schemes under review. We will consider whether the schemes still satisfy the relevant criteria. As part of this, we will consider whether consumers are receiving an accessible and fair service at different stages of engagement with the schemes, from submitting a case to receiving a decision. This will help us to assess whether or not to keep approving the schemes and/or require changes to their operations.

Ofcom’s oversight of ADR schemes

Ofcom monitors the performance of the ADR schemes on an ongoing basis, including by tracking their performance against Key Performance Indicators (‘KPIs’) set by Ofcom. We plan to look at whether we should make any changes to our oversight of the schemes, including the KPIs, to incentivise better outcomes for consumers.

Evidence gathering

To inform our assessment of the above areas, we are planning several pieces of evidence gathering including:

• a qualitative research study looking at the consumer experience of using the two ADR schemes.

• a review of a sample of cases from both schemes to assess the effectiveness, fairness and consistency of decision-making within and between schemes.

• information requests (to providers and the ADR schemes) to further inform our understanding of how providers are currently facilitating access to ADR and how the ADR schemes are operating in practice.

On the whole, ADR schemes are a useful tool for consumers, although ISPs sometimes grumble about how they are occasionally said to accept “vexatious” consumer complaints. But a previous review found that there was a “high level of decision making accuracy across both Schemes with regard to case acceptance or rejection” and “no evidence … to suggest that acceptance of cases was financially motivated, or that [they] were accepting vexatious cases” (here).

Ofcom’s review will remain open for feedback until 5pm on 10th January 2024 and, after that, they intend to publish their preliminary findings and proposals by Autumn 2024.

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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 X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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13 Responses
  1. Avatar photo Craig says:

    The problem with the ADR schemes from a provider’s point of view is you never really “win” as even if the ADR scheme sides with you, you pay ~£500 in case fees to the scheme plus your own costs internally for handling the case. So you don’t really “win”. For example I seen a case where a customer was complaining their wireless speed was “not what they were paying for” (4 walls from the router!) despite an engineer visit showing hard wired the speed and offering the customer the ability to purchase extenders. They refused and raised their complaint to the ADR service. The provider won the case but for the ~£500 case fee it would have been cheaper to just give the customer the extenders for free.

    Maybe a better way would be for only the complaints that are lost should the case fee be paid? Therefore weighted to the providers who provide bad service and don’t resolve complaints as they should? Sadly the review doesn’t appear to be looking at this matter…

    1. Avatar photo Martin Pitt - Aquiss says:

      I absolutely agree, from a service providers point of view.

      We have only ever had one case brought against us, around 5 years ago, this was for an automatic final invoice for a customer, to the value of £1.08, for telephone call charges the customer had made.

      The invoice got rightly generated, but rather than the customer talking to us, instead within 4 hours of us raising the invoice, they went to our ADR and raised a case.

      I wrote back to our ADR and asked why they had accepted the case in the first place as the 8 week deadlock period had not even started or settled. After 3 months, they came back to us and said no deadlock was needed (ignoring their own rules on their website), but agreed with us that we acted correctly. They however advised us to send the former customer an apology for any stress caused and write off the invoice. They also presented us with a £480.00 bill for privilege.

      Therefore I agree with you Craig, the playing field should be level, to which its not currently IMHO. Someone presenting a case to an ADR should have their own house in order. It really don’t surprise me to hear your example.

    2. Avatar photo RightSaidFred says:

      Really bizarre that the ADR is accepting cases that haven’t gone through an internal complaints process first.

      Every large organisation empowers it’s front line staff to resolve at first point of contact since the cost to investigate, and then refer to mediation, is invariably higher than the cost to resolve at FPOC.

    3. Mark-Jackson Mark Jackson says:

      @RightSaidFred. In fairness, you have to remember that not all providers treat their customers correctly or even well. Some will use silence and avoiding contact as a strategy, while others can behave in a way that is, frankly, criminal. So you can’t always rely on a provider’s internal complaints process, sadly.

      Having said that, Martin’s example is a valid case in point of where the ADR process and rules can go wrong. I would have thought that example deserving of a small claims court case, since the ADR provider did not appear to be acting within the rules.

  2. Avatar photo Matt says:

    Just used them to resolve a long running complaint with Virgin for my partner (July). If they are taking user feedback on how useful these are, I’m 100% behind them. The “Deal” they came back with was financially sound, and included compensation. I just wish the process from “accepting” the outcome to resolution was quicker (something like 4/6 weeks after accepting)

  3. Avatar photo Jonny says:

    This seems overly complicated, give Ofcom enforcement powers and have them handle complaints that ISPs won’t resolve.

    1. Avatar photo Craig says:

      OFCOM don’t need to be given powers. They would just need to take the powers they have delegated back. I agree with you this should be done. That way OFCOM would see first hand what the common issues of consumers are and do something about these!

    2. Mark-Jackson Mark Jackson says:

      Doing that would require new systems, processes and more resources (expensive). As such, the use of pre-established third-party ADR providers made more sense. But I do agree that there is some merit in giving Ofcom more direct visibility and engagement of consumer complaints at this level.

  4. Avatar photo Matt says:

    I think in general they do a pretty good job, for the most part.

    I remember seeing a case where a customer went to them after the ISP’s final offer was something like £200 over a silly complaint. The ADR actually came back and said the customer was only entitled to £10 or somthing like that. I guess the ISP still got charged the £500 though.

    I agree with what’s been said above though about Ofcom having more direct visibility and engagement, not quite on the level of a ADR I think its good for that to be separate but it might be good for Ofcom to watch what’s happening on a more individual bases at times.

    1. Avatar photo Matt says:

      Just thinking how far do their powers go? The ISP has to abide by their decision but can they do much beyond making the ISP say sorry and pay x amount to the customer? Thinking more in the case of faults and tech issues rather than billing and package price errors.

    2. Avatar photo Ben says:

      @Matt it’s generally very hard to compel “specific performance” — while it’s theoretically possible, a financial settlement is a much more likely outcome.

  5. Avatar photo A Snowman named Olaf says:

    The process could be tightened up somewhat, I don’t see why a customer or business should have to wait 8 weeks if a company doesn’t resolve a complaint and refusing to issue a deadlock letter. Shorten it to 4 weeks in respect of that, of course some situations do take longer than that if for example a service provider like Openreach needs to do road works etc.

    Last I checked the Ombudsman Service(s) was the most expensive nearing that £500 a few years back, where as CISAS was markedly cheaper under £200. Using these services should be a last resort, however its completely understandable companies are miffed when they are landed a bill over a vexatious claim. As someone has already stated it is cheaper and more efficient to resolve at first point of contact, however you look at some ISPs getting a complaint resolved is politely put challenging.

    It needs to be the case that the cost of using those services should scale according to the size of the ISP, in that the larger ones should be pay more (as inevitably they will have the most complaints). I’ve seen first hand some of the complaints people raise, 90% of the time its usually someone on the frontline being too lazy to do their job and RTFM.

  6. Avatar photo Rik says:

    I think it’s wrong for providers to be billed by the ADR in instances where its proven the customer complaint is frivolous at best.

    I’ve known of customers going to the ADR because their 15 year old computer would only give them 200 Mbps on their 500 Mbps service. It’s not the job of the ISP to update customers own equipment.

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