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TIO reports increase in bill shock, customer service complaints

  • TIO shows providers need to work on customer service and billing
  • But complaints radically down from this time last year
  • Is the TIO useful for finding the best mobile plan provider?
Written by Mikaella Clements

The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) have released their complaint statistics from January to March of 2012. A quick look at the statistics for mobile services show that customers generally still have the same concerns: the sudden leap from an already expensive bill to bill shock, and the excess data usage charges, especially by those customers who haven't been able to track their internet usage properly yet.

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The TIO is an independent dispute resolution service for small business and residential customers having difficulties with their telephone and internet services. They aim to provide fast, objective decisions and help customers when dealing with huge corporate companies. The TIO has a fair amount of power within the telecommunications industry, as it can make Binding Decisions (decisions telcos are legally obliged to implement) up to the value of $30,000 and Recommendations up to the value of $85,000. All in all, the TIO is a formidable opponent to companies being able to get away with massive charges to their customers, and customers use them as such.

TIO complaints graph

Overall, the TIO reported 71,665 complaints about mobile plans (note: these are not necessarily all complaints from different people). This is only a very slight increase from last quarter, and after three quarters of decreasing new complaints, an increase is perhaps to be expected. Indeed, the report is mostly good news, showing that mobile plan providers have made an effort to step up their game when it comes to pleasing their customers. Particularly when compared to the results from this time last year (see above graph), we can see a massive improvement in the industry.

By far the biggest frustration for customer was around the issue of customer service, with 34,000 complaints. Customer service covers all kinds of sins: from inadequate information supplied to a customer who signed up or rude behaviour on the phone to a customer who had been with the company for a long time.

Customer service

Key offenders when it came to customer service were Vodafone, Optus, and Telstra, with huge numbers. Before immediately drawing conclusions about this, though, it must be remembered that these are three providers who all own their own networks, and thus attract a lot of customers. The excess of complaints can be attributed also to their large numbers of customers; a provider like Club Telco only reported 15 complaints about customer service as opposed to Optus's 4344, but Optus has over 9 million customers, and Club Telco has only just started reaching into mobile services. A little perspective is important when it comes to looking at these numbers, as is noting improvement – Vodafone's customer service complaints are down 64% from 2011, a massive change and improvement.

For those of us who really value customer service, though, a few companies came out clearly on top: Dodo (1300 301 550) halved customer service complaints to only 123, and TPG (1300 850 518) went down 65%, with only 70 reported complaints. Virgin Mobile (1300 302 649), another large company, went down 21% in customer complaints.

Bill shock

Another key issue for Australian consumers this year has been billing and payments.
Thirty thousand complaints were submitted to the TIO around this issue – almost double compared to last year. The TIO has expressly articulated these disappointing figures in their call for mobile providers to offer inexpensive cap prices with no hidden charges. Excess data usage charges can reach into the thousands of dollars for unaware or inexperienced customers, and some plans that may seem to have more than enough credit with $550 worth of texts and calls may quickly be overreached if a customer doesn't realise that call costs are at 90c per minute.

Sadly, the TIO reported a rise in complaints for some providers, including Optus's very slight increase of 4% and Virgin's more disappointing 21% rise. Since these figures, though, Virgin have decreased their excess data usage charges, so perhaps we will see customers more happy with Virgin's billing next quarter.

 TPG continued on its winning streak, with a decrease of 59% in complaints about billing charges, suggesting that they have taken their recent fines from the ACCC about misleading advertising seriously, and are offering more transparent plans with no hidden charges. Dodo also went down 61% in their amount of customer complaints around this issue, possibly as a result of transparent plans like the Dodo Prepaid Unlimited Magic SIM, which includes free calls to 13 and 1800 numbers under its "unlimited" banner, unlike many providers.

Other common causes for complaint included the way individual providers handled complaints, faults on the line, contracts, and credit management.

Overall, what does the TIO report tell us about what providers to choose for our mobile plans?

Honestly, the report shouldn't be taken as a serious indictment of one provider or an absolute reason to choose another. Data may look impressive, but it's all about the interpretation, and there are too many factors here that are unknown. How big, exactly, is every provider's subscriber list? How many of these customers only called once, and how many called multiple times? How many of the complaints were resolved quickly and easily?

It's important also to notice the subjective nature of complaints. What might be an issue worthy of complaint for one customer would not be for another. We should also consider the way certain providers are perceived in the media and in society.

Take Vodafone (1300 850 518), for example, who had the most complaints about faults (e.g. network failures), with 5234 complaints reported. No doubt all of these complaints were truthful – however, isn't it more likely that we notice Vodafone's failures more, considering how frequently they've been in the news about it, than a provider like Telstra, for example? Vodafone suffer from the perception, no matter how accurate, that they have a "bad network", and perhaps people are quicker to complain about Vodafone as a result. If they were with another provider, maybe they would be more forgiving, more willing to write the fault up to a congested network or uncontrollable factors like weather.

The statistics are more useful to show general trends, like the two big problems (customer service and billing and payments) that customers run up against, and in the positive signs of who is improving. When the numbers are big enough (that is to say, not when it comes to Exetel, who reported a 75% increase in complaints about billing – from 4 complaints to 7) we can begin to get an indication of who has made the most effort to improve their services. This suggests a willingness to listen to complaints, and to learn from them.

Three companies who frequently reported sizable decreases in complaints in particular areas over the last year were Vodafone, Dodo, and TPG. It is a sign of genuine effort, flexibility, and respect for customers that they have all made such changes in their complaint statistics. And it's true of many other providers – Australia is lucky in that it has a highly competitive mobile market, with many providers who want your business. They will try their best to deserve it, and while Australia still has many problems around bill shock and hidden charges, these latest figures from the TIO are an encouraging sign that providers are making an effort to change.

Having trouble understanding a plan? Want to talk it over with someone who understands common Australian concerns and ideas? Give us a call on 1300 850 518 and we'll be happy to help you however we can.


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