The regulator has issued new best practice guidelines, outlining how telecoms companies should treat customers with are experiencing mental and physical health conditions, are in debt, are bereaved or have been the victim of a crime.
To protect these customers, telecoms companies should identify and communicate with them quickly, asking at the earliest possible opportunity if they have accessibility or service needs the provider can address. The provider should accurately record and update these service needs, in line with data protection legislation, and share this information between frontline staff via controlled systems, so customers don’t have to disclose their needs to every staff member and department they have contact with.
Those frontline staff members should also be trained to communicate empathetically and supportively with customers, to recognise the characteristics of customers who may be vulnerable and to direct them to the support available, while understanding that not all customers will be comfortable disclosing their personal circumstances.
Policies for protecting vulnerable customers should be developed alongside experts, consumer bodies and charities and be published clearly and regularly. Firms should also monitor their performance in dealing with vulnerable customers, including soliciting feedback from focus groups and panels and checking for changes in complaints levels or survey results.
Ofcom has also issued specific guidance for how telecoms firms should handle customers in specific circumstances.
For customers who are behind on their bills, providers should:
- ensure customers aren’t disconnected, wherever possible
- offer payment holidays or freezing extra charges
- discuss repayment plans, which should be realistic, reasonable and flexible
- offer advice on tariffs, including directing customers to cheaper or social tariffs
- use a range of communication methods to get in touch with customers
- refer customers to debt organisations and charities which can offer free advice
For customers who have been victims of crime, Ofcom suggests that telecoms providers:
- ensure customers don’t have to pay for mobile phone services if their handset has been taken by the police as evidence
- offer new numbers, SIMs and temporary handsets where appropriate
- listen to victims with empathy and compassion
- don’t pressure victims to give more information than needed, to avoid making them unnecessarily relive the experience
- however, ensure they do gather the necessary information, including crime reference numbers
These protections should apply to the 14.1 million people with disabilities living in the UK, including one million with dementia. Additionally, one in six adults face mental health problems each week and 23% of people experience anxiety when dealing with service providers including their broadband and phone companies, according to data released by the watchdog.
The coronavirus crisis has also increased the chance of people’s circumstances changing very quickly, and anyone can become vulnerable, Ofcom said.
Jane Rumble, Ofcom director of consumer policy, 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.”
Repeated studies, by Ofcom, providers and consumer groups, have found that vulnerable and older consumers are the least likely to switch their telecoms providers and are thus more at risk of overpaying for the services. For instance, a recent survey from ISP Zen Internet found that 83% of consumers over 55 haven’t switched their broadband provider in the last year, while nearly half (45%) of those 16 to 24 had moved to a new ISP.