On Friday I attended the Communications Policy Research Forum at the University of Technology Sydney.
Speaking at the Forum, amongst many others, were my old supervisor, Associate Professor Elaine Lally and my colleague at the University of Western Sydney’s Centre for Cultrual Research, Professor David Rowe. Lally and Rowe were presenting the results of a research project about customer complaints for the Communications Alliance, the peak body for the telco industry in Australia.
The results were sobering. There were an astonishing 230,000 complaints to the national complaints body, the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman, in 2008-09, a rise of 54% over 2007-08 figures, according to TIO data. Horror stories like this one published by the Sydney Morning Herald’s Paul Sheehan are common. So bad is the situation that a large proportion of complaints are actually about Telco complaints handling proceedures themselves. Complaints by mobile phone customers were up a staggering 78%.
Lally and Rowe’s talk detailed why. Training hours for call centre workers in the telecommunications industry are much l;ower than for industries like banking. In fact, an amazing 72% of telecommunications call centre workers leave the industry after less than a year. There’s also no prizes for guessing why there are so many complaints: maddeningly complex phone plans and byzantine corporate billing and service structures make it almost as hard for employees to understand customer issues as the customers themselves. The way phone and internet services are bundled and solved is structurally complex, to the point of being almost impenetrable.
More fundamentally, the practice of making customers wait in long phone queues for information about their service or to make a complaint is inherently frustrating. In many cases, customers are being asked to spend significant amounts of time and do significant amounts of unpaid “work” merely in order to resolve a complaint for a service they’ve already paid for. It’s not surprising customers and call centre workers often end up adversarial, angry – even traumatised.
The result is Australia’s unhappiest industry – as the TIO data shows. No wonder the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is threatening to step in and introduce greater regulations for the sector. Consumers will be wondering why anyone expected anything else.