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Phone and broadband firms told to treat vulnerable customers fairly under new regulator guidance

Phone, broadband and pay-TV firms must give extra support to vulnerable customers – which could include payment holidays and tariff advice – under new guidance from communications watchdog Ofcom.

Ofcom has set out new best practice guidance on how firms should treat customers who are in debt, experiencing physical or mental health issues, are bereaved or have been a victim of crime.

It says that the effects of the coronavirus pandemic has increased the potential for people's circumstances to change suddenly, meaning they may need extra support – but anyone can become vulnerable.

The watchdog says there are 14.1 million disabled people living in the UK, and one million with dementia. One in six adults experience common mental health problems every week, with 23% of people experiencing anxiety when dealing with service providers.

Providers must have policies in place to ensure vulnerable customers are treated fairly, and Ofcom has now set out practical measures firms could adopt to support their customers better.

These could include stopping disconnections or offering payment holidays for customers who are struggling to pay their bills, or not charging victims of crime for unused mobile phone services if their phone has been taken by the police as evidence.

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What must providers do for vulnerable customers?

Ofcom says that broadband, phone and pay-TV companies must plan for treating vulnerable customers fairly, which includes publishing clear and up-to-date policies which ideally will have been informed by consulting with experts, consumer bodies and charities.

Firms must also identify and communicate with vulnerable customers, asking at the earliest opportunity whether they have any accessibility or service needs that the provider can help with. These needs should be accurately recorded and updated in line with data protection legislation, and shared between frontline staff within controlled systems so that a customer doesn't need to repeat themselves if they deal with different departments.

All frontline staff should be trained on how to communicate with empathy and support – recognising that not everyone will be comfortable discussing their personal circumstances – and to be aware of characteristics of potentially vulnerable customers and the support available.

And firms should regularly monitor and evaluate their performance, which could include getting feedback from focus groups and panels, and checking for any changes in complaints levels or survey results.

What could this mean for consumers?

Ofcom has given some practical examples of what firms could do to help customers under best practice guidance.

These include ways to support customers who are behind on their bills, such as:

  • Making sure customers don't get disconnected wherever possible, giving the customer time to get extra support without the threat of enforcement action.
  • Offering payment holidays or freezing extra fees and charges.
  • Discussing repayment plans, which should be realistic, reasonable and flexible.
  • Offering advice on tariffs, which could include switching to a cheaper or social tariff.
  • Referring customers to debt organisations or charities that can offer free advice.
  • Using a range of communication methods to get in touch with the customer.

And it's also set out ways to support customers who have been victims of crime, including:

  • Making sure victims don't have to pay for mobile phone services if their phone has been taken by the police as evidence, meaning they can't use it.
  • Listening to victims with empathy and compassion and making sure they have all the information they need (which could include a crime reference number).
  • Not pressuring victims to give more information than needed, to avoid asking them to relive experiences.
  • Offering new numbers, SIMs and temporary handsets where appropriate.

What does Ofcom say?

Ofcom director of consumer policy Jane Rumble said: "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."

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