Vulnerable customers must be treated fairly

23 July 2020

People suffering financial, health or emotional problems should be treated fairly and given the right support by their phone, broadband and pay-TV providers, under best practice guidance issued by Ofcom today.

The graphic shows some statistics of how people in the UK are affected by circumstances that make them vulnerable. It sets out that 14.1 million people have a disability, that 2.5 million people are living with cancer, almost 1 million people are affected by dementia, 1 in 6 adults experience common mental health problem every week and 318 people are declared bankrupt or insolvent every day.

The coronavirus pandemic has increased the potential for customers’ circumstances to change suddenly, and providers are already offering additional support to people who are struggling to pay their bills to help them to stay connected. But 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.

Our job is to make sure that, whatever difficulties a person is facing, communications providers offer a high level of customer care, and the services and support people need.

We require providers to have policies and procedures in place to make sure that vulnerable customers are fairly treated. Today we are setting out the practical measures that providers could adopt, in light of these rules.

We’re setting out industry best practice to help ensure vulnerable people are treated fairly and sympathetically by their phone, broadband and pay-TV providers.

This is especially important at a time when many customers may be worried about their physical and mental health, as well as their finances.

Jane Rumble, Director of Consumer Policy at Ofcom

What providers can do

Steps providers can take to make sure vulnerable customers are treated fairly include:

  • planning for treating vulnerable customers fairly,  publishing clear, up-to-date policies which are easy to understand;
  • identifying people who need extra support - customers may be more willing to share information about the challenges they are facing if they know they can get extra support from their provider by doing so;
  • keeping information about customers’ needs, with frontline staff  accurately recording and updating vulnerable customers’ needs in line with data protection legislation;
  • training staff appropriately, so they can recognise the potential characteristics, behaviours or verbal cues of someone who might be vulnerable, and also be fully aware of the additional services available to help them; and
  • monitoring and evaluating changes in complaints levels, customer service survey results or other customer feedback.

Best practice examples suggesting how customers should be treated

People who are behind on their bills

We would expect providers to:

  • prevent customers from being disconnected wherever possible, allowing the customer time to get help and support, without the threat of enforcement actionduring that period;
  • offer payment holidays or deferrals, or freeze additional fees and charges;
  • discuss a realistic, reasonable and flexible repayment plan;
  • offer tariff advice, whether switching to a cheaper tariff or social tariff;
  • refer customers to debt organisations or charities that can provide free advice and support; and
  • use a range of communications channels to get in touch with the customer.

Victims of crime

  • make sure victims don’t pay for mobile phone services they have been unable to use if their phone is taken away by the police as evidence;
  • listen carefully with empathy and compassion, taking time to ensure the customer has the right information, which might include a crime reference number;
  • avoid pressuring victims to provide any more information than necessary, to avoid them reliving experiences;
  • and offer new numbers, temporary SIMs or handsets where appropriate.

Next steps

The measures set out in our best practice guidance are not intended to be exhaustive. We will work with providers and review the guidance over time. We will also monitor companies’ performance – including against our Fairness for Customers Commitments, which are designed to strengthen how companies treat their customers.