Optus, you have a problem: Telco giant fuels complaints to ombudsman
Complaints about the country's two biggest phone and internet providers, Optus and Telstra, continue to make up the bulk of consumer gripes to the national Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO).
But while the Ombudsman Judi Jones said telcos were on notice to improve customer service, she said the industry was starting to perform better overall.
The TIO received 167,831 complaints last financial year — the highest number in three years.
More than a third were about the time it took to address or fix phone or internet issues.
Optus had a 35 per cent increase in complaints compared with the previous year, while Telstra topped the list of the most complained about telco — which reflects the company's market share.
And while the NBN has featured prominently in previous TIO reports, the latest figures revealed fewer complaints about the internet service.
Complaints to the TIO during 2017-18 financial year
- 146,958 complaints (87.6 per cent) were from residential consumers
- 20,433 (12.2pc) were from small businesses
- 51,328 (30.6pc) were about mobile phone services
- 46,703 (27.8pc) were about internet services
- Queensland recorded the highest growth in complaints, an increase of 13.2pc, followed by WA with 10.7pc
Why did complaints about Optus rise sharply?
The Ombudsman said it was unclear why Optus complaints rose so sharply.
"There's nothing that shouts out to us from our data," Ms Jones said.
But Teresa Corbin from the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) said Optus's problems were likely due to the company's restructure.
"I think the fact that companies are restructuring, companies are feeling the pressure of the competitive market, they're downsizing," Ms Corbin told the ABC.
"What they need to do is make sure they're not downsizing their customer-service staff and that they're not taking their eye off the ball when it comes to making sure you're still getting good service."
Optus said it was committed to reducing complaint numbers and it hoped recent changes would be reflected in the TIO's report next year.
"We have been working hard to improve the way we respond to customer complaints and resolve issues more quickly," an Optus spokesperson said.
"This year, we've invested in a number of customer-focused initiatives across our business aimed at reducing complaints.
"We expect these reductions to be reflected in the TIO's next report."
One customer's three-year battle with Telstra
The most complaints made to the TIO — 51,328 — were about mobile phone services.
And the most complained-about issue was about no action or delayed action by a service provider to resolve phone or internet issues.
Lisa Schoffel, who runs a graphic design business near Coffs Harbour in New South Wales, said she battled Telstra for three years over her poor internet and mobile phone connections.
Ms Schoffel went to the Ombudsman for help.
"I had a bundle. I had ADSL, two mobiles and a dongle," she told the ABC.
"It was extremely slow, it dropped out all the time, I basically had to ring them every day, I almost knew everyone in the Telstra Philippines office — I knew their names off by heart, it was that bad. It was extraordinarily bad.
"Pretty much as soon as I went to the Ombudsman they started to try and help me, but the problem was they had an exchange they'd reached the capacity on, and they had no intention of maintaining or upgrading it any time soon.
"They kept promising me that they were going to do that in three months' time, but three months passed and nothing happened."
Ms Schoffel said things improved six months ago, when she got onto the Sky Muster satellite service as part of the NBN and changed providers.
She said Telstra did refund her some fees twice during the three-year period.
In response to the TIO's report, a spokesperson for Telstra said the company's aim was "to always get it right, but from time to time we do get it wrong".
"Telstra's improvements in the second half of the financial year are reflective of the work taking place across the business to significantly improve the experience we are delivering for our customers," the spokesperson said.
"However, we know that we have a lot more work to do. We still have too many customers going to the TIO because they are not getting the experience they expect from Telstra and this needs to change."
NBN complaints slow down
The past two TIO reports have been notable for the skyrocketing complaints about the NBN. But this year's report has seen them drop off.
The NBN said the TIO report backed up its own data.
It showed that of the complaints made to the TIO about retail services delivered over the NBN network in the year to June 30, 2018, only 5 per cent were sent to the company as complaints to resolve.
Yes, we complain, but there's 'good news' too
"While almost 168,000 Australian residential consumers and small businesses complained to us, towards the latter part of the year we saw complaints decline and I think that's a good news story," Ms Jones told the ABC.
"Absolutely still too many complaints and still lots of work to be done, but we've seen what looks to be a bit of a turn in the corner and I think that's good news."
Ms Corbin from ACCAN said the number of complaints was still too high.
"The level of complaints and frustration, particularly with customer service, is still extremely high, so the telcos really can't stop focusing on this," she said.
"They really need to get to the bottom of this and they need to invest in looking after their customers."
She said the Government's move to introduce a new complaints-handling standard meant telcos had to improve customer service.
The new standard has been in force since July, and requires operators to acknowledge all customer complaints within two working days.
Telcos must also resolve all complaints on first contact where possible or within 15 working days.
"Obviously in the lead-up to this, the telcos started to change their policies and procedures, and clearly this complaint-handling standard has started to have some impact," Ms Corbin said.
Federal Communications Minister Mitch Fifield said the drop in complaints in the second half of the year showed moves to improve transparency and accountability for consumers was working.
"I'm very pleased to see that as a result of this work, consumers are receiving improved service from the telecommunication industry," he said.
"We have spoken to retail service providers, we've listened to end users and we are now seeing positive results.
"There's still work to be done to improve industry performance. We want to ensure consumers are making informed choices and know their rights."