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Telcos under the microscope over "financial hardship" handling

Hafizah Osman | June 8, 2017
Some of Australia's largest telcos have received poor scores over how they handle customers in financial hardship.

Vodafone has scored poorly in a so-called "financial hardship" performance study conducted by the peak body for financial counsellors in Victoria, the Financial and Consumer Rights Council (FCRC), and the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN).

The Rank the Telco report describes the results of a survey of Victorian financial counsellors about the "hardship practices" of major telecommunications providers, measuring how well telecommunications companies assist customers who are in financial hardship.

This is FCRC's first report ranking financial hardship practices within the telecommunications sector.

This Rank the Telco survey polled financial counsellors to draw on their first-hand casework experience over the last 12 months and rate the financial hardship performance of the three major telecommunications providers: Optus, Vodafone and Telstra.

In terms of overall performance, across all measures and overall, Vodafone came last, with a score of 3.2 out of 10 (one being very poor and 10 being excellent), with financial counsellors' comments pointing to an inflexible refusal to negotiate hardship assistance.

Optus received the highest rating across almost all measures, achieving the top overall score of 4.0 out of 10. Telstra rated second, slightly behind Optus.

But closer examination of Telstra's scores show greater variability in the views of respondents, which suggests inconsistency in Telstra's hardship practices.

Also, while there are differences, they are slight, according to the report, alluding to the finding that the standard of hardship practice is "strikingly poor" across the telecommunications industry.

In 2016, for example, the lowest-performing tier-one energy retailers received overall performance ratings of 5.8 out of 10, well above the 4.0 achieved by the top-performing telecommunications provider. 

The study found that, compared with water, banking, energy and even debt collection, telecommunications providers are falling short in their treatment of customers in financial difficulty.

FCRC executive officer, Peter Gartlan, said within telecommunications, it is clear that there are some big issues to be tackled.

"Industry has work to do changing upselling practices that see many consumers with plans far beyond their needs or payment capacity; simplifying contracts; improving access to and communication with hardship teams; and expanding the hardship assistance offered to customers.

"Regulators and policymakers also have a role to play in shaping a framework that encourages such practices. The results of this report evidence the need for improvement and warrant serious consideration by the telecommunications industry, regulators, government and other stakeholders," he said.

Findings from the study also highlighted that post-paid 24-month contracts for mobile phone handsets and services were identified as the biggest contributor to clients' telecommunications debts. Almost all financial counsellors identified post-paid phone contracts as either a 'major' (67 per cent) or 'moderate' (32 per cent) contributor to debt.


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