More consistent customer service needed for vulnerable people

14 June 2021

Have you ever tried to contact your telecoms provider but been transferred from person to person, hoping the next one will be better than the last?

New Ofcom research found that some vulnerable people have experienced inconsistent customer service when getting in touch with their phone, broadband or pay-TV provider.

Our rules mean telecoms companies must have policies and procedures in place to make sure vulnerable customers are treated fairly. And we have a guide that sets out practical measures they can adopt, in light of these rules.

We also keep a close eye on companies’ performance. Earlier this year, we conducted a series of in-depth interviews with a sample of vulnerable people who had contacted their provider recently.

What we found

There were examples of positive customer service experiences. For example, some people received extra support because they highlighted their vulnerable circumstances, such as financial difficulty; while others reported positive outcomes despite their provider being unaware they were vulnerable.

However, there was a lack of consistency in the levels of customer service on offer, with few people having positive experiences from beginning to end when contacting their provider.

People’s experiences seemed highly dependent on the member of staff they dealt with, and were often different each time the customer contacted their provider, or if they were transferred from one customer service agent to another.

We also spoke to the following consumer organisations and charities about their conversations with customers: Age UK; Christians Against Poverty; Citizens Advice; Money Advice Trust; Money and Mental Health Policy Institute; Money Carer Foundation and Ombudsmen Services.

These organisations also found a lack of consistency in how customers were treated. Again, the experience seemed dependent on the member of staff they dealt with.

Overview of vulnerability in the UK. 14.1 million UK residents have a disability. Cancer affects 2.5 million people in the UK, while dementia affects almost 1 million. 1 in 6 UK adults experience common mental health problems every week, and almost a quarter (23%) of us suffer from anxiety when dealing with a service provider. 310 people were declared bankrupt or insolvent each day from February to April 2021.

Supporting vulnerable customers

Anybody can face circumstances that make them vulnerable – either temporarily or permanently. These might include physical or mental health problems, debt or unemployment, bereavement or becoming a victim of crime.

The coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has increased the potential for customers’ circumstances to change suddenly and providers have been offering additional support to people who are struggling to pay their bills to help them to stay connected.

But it can sometimes be difficult for providers to recognise that a customer might be vulnerable. So, if you need extra support due to your circumstances, you should speak to your provider as soon as possible to see how they can help.

Providers can do more

We’ve told providers they should:

  • train staff to make sure they can recognise the potential characteristics, behaviours or verbal cues of someone who might be vulnerable and proactively offer appropriate help, support and services;
  • identify vulnerable customers and record their needs (with consent); and
  • actively promote to all customers the services and support available.