Telco complaints drop in 2021, but COVID customer service impacts continue

The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) has released its latest yearly report into telco complaints, covering the period from July 2020 through to June 30 of 2021. Although complaint volumes have declined overall year-on-year, sloppy response times from the big telcos are still our number-one source of frustration – and it’s small business customers who are feeling the sting.

It’s been a difficult year for most Australians: the impacts of COVID-19 have placed enormous strain on millions of households, and a switch to home-based working and schooling has increased the pressure on broadband and mobile networks.  However, there is good news: while the TIO recorded 119,400 complaints over the last financial year, this is a decrease of 6.1% when compared to the 2019-2020 period.

Although complaints from residential customers are down 8.2% in 2020-2021, small business issues have increased: this year, business customers made 19,689 calls to the TIO, a rise of 6.6% year-on-year. Internet was the most-complained about service type from all customers, sparking 33.4% of total complaints, while mobile accounted for 32.7%.

Internet complaints

From 2020-2021, the TIO logged 35,911 complaints about internet; of these, 19,982 were complaints regarding NBN plans and services, with 5,187 complaints relating to other broadband networks. Over one-third of total complaints to the TIO in the past financial year concerned internet issues, most notably poor customer service, switching issues, and fees and charges. The top five sources of complaints are:

  • No action or delayed action by a service provider: 14,721 complaints
  • Service and equipment fees: 11,901 complaints
  • Delay establishing a service: 7,085 complaints
  • No phone or internet service: 6,639 complaints
  • Intermittent service and/or drop-outs: 6,590 complaints

Delayed action from broadband providers is the biggest bugbear for internet customers, with 36.9% of internet-related calls concerning slow or unresponsive telcos. With ongoing lockdowns both here and overseas leading to massive call centre headaches for some of our biggest NBN and internet providers, it’s unsurprising that disappointing service has Aussies up in arms; across both phone and internet, complaints involving poor response from a provider rose by 11.7% when compared to the previous year’s report.

In good news, it seems more of us are satisfied with our internet speeds, as speed-related complaints dropped by an impressive 21.2%. Missed appointment complaints, and problems with telcos meeting their resolutions also fell, but providers being ‘uncontactable’ skyrocketed by a massive 42.7% — again, most likely due to lockdowns, and the resulting impact on customer service centres.

Mobile complaints

Accounting for 39,094 complaints, mobile phone services were the second-largest telco issue for Aussies in 2020-2021. While previous years have seen contracts and termination fees as stand-out sore spots, the top five issues for mobile customers in 2021 are as follows:

  • No action or delayed action by a service provider: 16,034 complaints
  • Service and equipment fees: 14,787 complaints
  • Resolution agreed to but not met: 4,067 complaints
  • Poor mobile coverage: 3,197 complaints
  • Equipment fault: 2,594 complaints

A lack of response from a provider is also the number-one complaint for mobile, accounting for 41% of mobile-related calls to the Ombudsman in the past year. Device and service fees were also  source of stress, contributing to 37.8% of grievances, while complaints about mobile coverage grew by 9.3% when compared to 2019-2020.

Image: TIO

Australia’s most complained-about telcos

This year’s report also looked at the most complained-about telcos in Australia. Once again, Telstra took the top spot, with 62.1% of all complaints in 2020-2021 concerning the company: a significant 11.3% increase from 2019-2020. A total of 23,841 Telstra customers complained about internet in the 12-month reporting period, 21,134 experienced issues with mobile, and 19,307 encountered problems with multiple Telstra services.

Although this does paint Telstra in a negative light, it’s important to remember that the provider does have the largest market share for both phone and internet in Australia, and services millions of customers across both categories. It makes sense that the company would therefore be responsible for the largest volume of TIO complaints, and customers should also keep in mind that this doesn’t indicate that Telstra is at fault for every dispute escalated to the Ombudsman.

The top 10 most complained-about providers are below.

  • Telstra: 74,135 complaints (62.1%,)
  • Optus: 18,900 complaints (15.8%)
  • Vodafone: 5,668 complaints (4,7%)
  • TPG: 3,913 complaints (3.3%)
  • iiNet: 2,929 complaints (2,5%)
  • Southern Phone: 1,561 complaints 1.3%)
  • Dodo: 1,062 complaints (0.9%)
  • Aussie Broadband: 1,047 complaints (0.9%)
  • Boost: 964 complaints (0.8%)
  • Foxtel: 693 complaints (0.6%)

TIO: telco complaints fall, but service still a concern

While complaints are down overall, the increase in small business issues and a rise in unresolved disputes is cause for concern, particularly with the ongoing affects of COVID-19 lockdowns.

“It’s been a challenging year for telcos and consumers, and we acknowledge industry efforts to reduce complaints,” said Ombudsman Judi Jones.

“However, we saw an increase in the proportion of complaints returning to us as unresolved, which challenged our response times. This resulted in frustration for consumers wanting to have their phone or internet problems addressed quickly.”

Group Executive for Macquarie Telecom, Luke Clifton, said the 2021 findings paint a “worrying picture” for customer service in the telco sector.

“The TIO shows complaints by small businesses – more reliant on telco services to operate during lockdowns – have reached a three-year high, while systemic issues such as poor service, billing issues, and the baffling inability to even contact telcos continue to go unfixed,” Mr. Clifton said.

“I have been vocal for many years of the short-sighted but long-term negative impact of outsourcing and offshoring Australian technical skills abroad. This appalling lack of leadership shows that Australia is being left behind with quite simply a lack of skilled Australians available to connect technology to the needs of customers.”

In 2020-2021, 53% of escalated complaints were closed in less than 60 days; in 2019-2020, that number was 56%. While this isn’t a huge shift, it does emphasise the need for both the TIO and telcos themselves to handle disputes in a timely manner.

“Telcos need to continue focusing on giving great customer service. This includes making it easy for customers to complain when there’s a problem and providing an effective complaints process to fix that problem,” said Ms. Jones.

“We will continue reporting on these complaint trends and working with the telcos to reduce these complaints and improve practices.”

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