The bad news: complaints about telecommunications companies increased during the lockdown.

The good news: even with the pandemic uptick, fewer of us felt the need to complain about mobile or broadband than last year.

That's according to the latest figures released by Telecommunications Disputes Resolution - a free service funded by the industry but run by an independent agency, FairWay Resolution (an independent Crown company that adjudicates complaints across several industries).

If you've got a complaint about your phone company or ISP, and you're making no headway, the TDR's free mediation service can be a good place to turn. (If your broadband provider is also a power company, then an alternative is Utilities Disputes, which offers a similar service.)

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The TDL's report on the first-half of 2020 says it managed to settle 52 per cent of complaints over the period. 17 per cent were partially settled, 4 per cent were upheld and 26 per cent were not upheld.

The biggest sources of complaints between January and June. Source / TDR
The biggest sources of complaints between January and June. Source / TDR

All of the retail telcos have invested in automated systems such as chatbots and do-it-yourself online forms for people who want to avoid phone queues when resolving issues.

But the pandemic has recently thrown a spanner in the works. Spark and Vodafone had to pedal fast during March as lockdowns in the Philippines and India forced contact centre partners to send staff home. The day of the level 4 lockdown also overloaded landline and mobile calling for all-comers at times.

The retail telcos have traditionally had two beefs about complaint figures assembled by various regulators. One is that they don't include Chorus (or its smaller rivals) even though the buck for an outage or install delay often stops with the network operator. The other is that the largest companies get the most complaints simply because of their scale.

Chorus is absent (still) from the TDR's latest report, but it does address the scale issue by calculating complaints per 10,000 connections.

Mobile complaints. Source / TDR
Mobile complaints. Source / TDR

The TDR received 380 complaints relating to mobile over the first half of this year, compared to 453 in the second half of last year.

In broadband, where the TDR's survey expands to include Trustpower, which bundles internet with power and Vocus, owner of Slingshot and Orcon), complaints fell from 826 to 606 in the same period.

Broadband complaints. Source / TDR
Broadband complaints. Source / TDR

Telcos can't rest on their laurels, by any means.

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An annual Commerce Commission survey has found telecommunications the most-complained about industry year-after-year.

But at least the TDR survey shows it moving in the right direction.

The TDR report also offers two case studies to illustrate how it operates, with names changed:

I am the authority!

Barry's new broadband plan backfires when his friend is added as an account authority

Barry wanted to change his internet service so he went to see a provider in store. Barry brought his friend Pete along to help him pick which broadband plan he should change to. Pete also assisted in the conversation with the provider's representative. An agreement was reached between Barry and the provider, and they also agreed for Pete to pick up the modem as Barry was going overseas.

When Barry returned from his trip, he received a very large and unexpected bill from his provider for a phone, broadband connection and mobile services which had been added to his account.

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Barry called his provider and was told that Pete, who they advised was added as an authority to the account when the account was set up in store, had made the purchases.

Pete had also requested the invoices be sent to his own personal email.

Barry disputed both the charges and that Pete had been added as an authority on his account - saying he had not given Pete the authority to make purchases or changes to his account, only to pick up the modem. The provider advised that Barry must have added Pete as an authority as this was how Pete was able to pick up the modem and subsequently that Barry, being the account holder, was responsible for the charges.

Image / 123rf
Image / 123rf

Barry and his provider were unable to work out the differences themselves and the matter was deadlocked. Barry brought his complaint to TDR who assigned the matter to a Resolution Practitioner.

Both parties requested the matter be adjudicated as they had been unable to resolve the matter and were steadfast in their positions. The Resolution Practitioner agreed to adjudicate the matter and accepted further submissions from Barry and his provider.

Based on the information provided, TDR's Resolution Practitioner issued a determination.
The Resolution Practitioner summarised that the primary dispute in the case was whether Pete did in fact have Barry's authority to act on the account.

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They agreed that while it is common practice among New Zealand telco providers to allow an account holder to nominate a person or persons to act on the account, it is up to the provider to prove that they have received that authority and provide that evidence when required. The telco did not provide any record of the communication between Barry and the provider to note exactly what allocating authority to an account allows.

On the basis of the information provided, there was insufficient evidence that supported the provider's claim that Barry had given Pete full authority on the account.

Therefore, the complaint was upheld and the provider was ordered to reverse any charges raised against Barry for the products and services obtained by Pete.

Gimme what I paid for

This customer believed he wasn't getting what he signed up for

Paddy was looking to switch to a new provider, so he called around to see what they could offer.

The provider he chose confirmed that they would match the deal Paddy was currently receiving and in addition, would provide him with a welcome gift.

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At initial sign up Paddy chose a Naked broadband option (broadband without a phone line).

But a couple of months later, he decided to include a home line. This increased his total bill, however he believed it shouldn't have as it now did not "match or better" his previous provider's deal which had included national calling.

Paddy contacted his provider and they confirmed that the new plan he signed up to did not include a landline. However, he had the option to include it later for an additional cost.

Paddy argued that the provider's sales representative had, at point of sale, promised him "better" than what he already had.

Image / 123rf
Image / 123rf

However, the provider responded that this was subjective. The matter was raised with TDR by the customer and after lengthy communication between the customer and provider, deadlocked.

A Resolution Practitioner was assigned to work with both parties. During the process, it was made clear that the provider had "bent over backwards" for Paddy in resolving this and other issues raised. A swap of welcome gift had occurred, credits were added towards Paddy's previous supplier's early termination fee, as well as being offered half-price options for calling plans.

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The Resolution Practitioner stepped Paddy through all the goodwill offered and effort the provider had made, and Paddy did reflect that they had attempted to look after him.

After further discussion with TDR, the provider offered an additional small credit to help Paddy feel he was "getting something" and Paddy agreed to settle the matter by taking a discounted landline offer with a nominated "favourite number".