Junk mail: are telcos failing customers with paper correspondence?
The humble letter takes its revenge on the internet as Telstra repeatedly falls foul of Australian regulators over failures with its handling of mail. How can telcos get their paper correspondence right?
Telstra has fallen foul of Australian industry regulators for cutting off 5,410 customers without warning due to missed bill payments.
The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has written a stern letter to Telstra for not providing customers with at least five working days’ notice before suspending or restricting their connections, as required under Australia’s Telecommunications Consumer Protections Code.
Per the ACMA’s investigation report, none of the affected customers had an email address linked to their Telstra account; therefore, any notifications of changes to their accounts had to be sent by post. Due to an unspecified “intermittent issue” however, the list of customers was not forwarded on to its third-party mail house, and these letters were not generated.
5,245 customers with unpaid bills were not notified before their services were restricted, and 165 customers had their services suspended. While most customers had their services automatically resumed around seven days later because the customer acted (paid their bill), over 1,000 customers had to wait a month for Telstra to reinstate their accounts.
Australia’s Telecommunications Consumer Protections Code states that telcos must give customers at least five working days’ notice prior to the imposition of any restrictions or disconnection of services due to debt, unless the customer poses an unacceptable credit risk, is suspected of fraud, or is subject to a restriction point.
Nerida O’Loughlin, ACMA Chair, said: “By limiting peoples’ services without notice Telstra likely caused these people significant additional stress.”
This isn’t Telstra’s only recent run-in with the ACMA; in February, they were found to be in breach of its priority assistance (PA) obligations to provide additional levels of support to customers with life-threatening medical conditions, with over 250 enquiries for assistance not followed up on. In some of these cases, again, due to manual errors made by staff when processing requests, a valid mailing address or instructions as to the type of PA documentation that should be sent were not provided.
Telstra was instructed to review any agreements with third-party mail house providers, implement a process to verify that all requests to send PA documentation are carried out, and follow up when there are no records of documentation being sent.
And last November, Telstra was found to have breached rules on credit management for 70 customers on financial hardship plans between May and July 2022, leaving customers unable to make calls except to Telstra and the emergency services.
Meanwhile, Telstra introduced price rises in June last year – as the aforementioned billing correspondence disaster was unfolding – and are considering once again raising the prices of its prepaid services by 20%, despite net profits climbing 25% in the last half year.
This comes hot on the heels of a warning from the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) that a fifth of consumers were unable to pay for their phone or internet bill, and that 26% of consumers surveyed considered their bills “unaffordable.”
Though communication errors are usually rare as increasing numbers of customers opt for paperless correspondence, they disproportionately affect hundreds or even thousands of the most vulnerable customers, who are least capable of rectifying them due to ill health or financial hardship.
Some operators are using financial incentives to get customers to switch to electronic bills and communications. For example, Irish telco Eir now charges customers €5.99 a month to receive their bills via post to encourage customers to use their web portal or mobile app instead, with the exception of customers over the age of 65, or those with accessibility issues. Is this a suitable compromise or a cynical way to skim more money from customers during a cost-of-living crisis?
Consumers have the right to receive correspondence in a way that best works for them. Digitalising the customer invoicing and payment processes means that bills are more likely to be paid in full and on time, but it’s still essential to be able to offer paper bills and correspondence to those who need it. And that must be an integrated and automated process, not an afterthought that depends on manual intervention.
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