Ofcom's principal duty under the Communications Act 2003 (the Act) is to further the interests of citizens and consumers, where appropriate by promoting competition. As we said in our 2009 Consumer Experience Report, consumer information plays a critical role in ensuring competitive communications markets (-1-). The absence of key information may lead consumers to make poor purchasing decisions, or inhibit them from switching provider. If such information is not readily available or is presented in a complex way, there may be a case for Ofcom considering whether intervention can be justified to address issues in the interests of and to protect consumers.
The Act requires us to make arrangements to find out about the experiences of consumers using electronic communications services and the way they are provided and we do this by carrying out research into their experiences of these services (-2-). We have a duty to publish the results of our research and to take account of it in carrying out our functions (-3-).
Our research indicates that when consumers think about choosing a communications provider, their top considerations are price and quality of service (QoS) issues related to network performance (-4-). We therefore seek to ensure the provision of useful consumer information in these areas. On price, in addition to price transparency obligations on providers, we encourage clear, accurate and robust price comparisons through our accreditation scheme for websites (-5-). On QoS, we have identified as priority issues broadband speeds and mobile coverage. As we said in our 2010/11 Annual Plan:
"It is important that Ofcom focuses on those QoS issues we know matter to consumers and where our intervention is likely to have the most impact. We are therefore undertaking a two year programme of research into fixed line broadband speeds (following last years research publication) and are now intending to measure mobile coverage to see whether there is scope to provide improved information to consumers."
There is an aspect of QoS information where the case for Ofcom intervention is less clear cut: customer service. For example, only 4% of consumers consider customer service important when choosing a broadband provider, compared with 73% on price and 72% on network performance (-6-). However, some consumer stakeholders have argued that Ofcom should ensure the provision of information about customer service.
So, to help us reach a view, we commissioned research in 2009 into the experiences of consumers who had recently contacted their provider with a customer service query. This research (conducted by GfK) provides the following insights:
1. The majority of those who contacted their customer service provider in the last three months were satisfied with customer service across the fixed line, mobile, broadband and pay TV sectors. However, there are some differences in satisfaction by sector, with the broadband (60%) and landline (58%) sectors trailing mobile (69%) and pay TV (66%) sectors.
2. Across the fixed line, mobile, broadband and pay TV sectors less than a quarter of respondents stated that they would value information about customer service and that it would be important to them when choosing a service provider. It should be noted that with this type of questioning respondents often overstate intentions to act and that actual behaviour is often lower than stated intentions.
3. Technical aspects of suppliers' performance accounted for substantial numbers of contacts with communications providers, especially in the broadband sector. Enquiries about connection speeds generated most contacts to ISPs (42%). The most popular reason for contact in the landline and mobile sectors was customers wanting to change their package or service, 28% and 38% respectively. However, contacts about technical issues were also big issues in both these sectors. Lack of coverage/reception was the second most important reason for contact in the mobile sector (31%) and poor line quality second in the landline sector (23%).
The purpose of the research was to gain an understanding of how satisfied respondents were with customer service in general and by particular topic and provider. The results of this research must be treated with caution and should not be used by consumers for comparative purposes for the following reasons:
The report was not designed to be used in a promotional context: we would therefore discourage anyone from using the contents of the report in any promotional context as it could be misleading.
In our view, there is no current case indicating consumer harm or level of concern such that intervention to provide customer service QoS information would be appropriate. Instead, we intend to focus on those aspects of QoS that we know are important, i.e. issues related to network performance. We also continue to examine the possibility of publishing Ofcom complaints data.
However, whilst levels of satisfaction are generally positive and the communications sector appears to compare favourably with other sectors such as insurance and banking, the 2009 research illustrates that not all consumers are satisfied with the level of customer service they have received. Customer service may well be a more important consideration for such consumers than for others, and relevant information could therefore help them to choose another provider.
To that end, we are exploring the possibility of publishing our own data on a provider-specific basis about the calls and queries that we receive from consumers. We should know later this year whether this data is sufficiently robust for publication. We are also taking action to improve the way in which consumers complaints are handled by the communications industry, for example by ensuring the increased awareness of consumers rights to make use of Alternative Dispute Resolution (-7-).
In addition, we will examine the way in which consumers process and use information. This will help ensure that the information we provide is easy-to-understand and effective.
4.- Figures 1, 15 and 31: Provision of quality of service information: Research Document PDF, 369.8 KB