Complaints about phone companies are increasing, and the major players need to chip in with ideas to improve service quality, the Commerce Commission said in an open letter this morning.
The watchdog cites increasing complaints to the Telecommunications Disputes Resolution Scheme - a free mediation service, run by Crown agency FairWay Resolution.
The TDR recently reported a spike in complaints about telcos Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees during the pandemic, though also fall in complaints about broadband and mobile.
Network operator Chorus can be the root cause of various service delays, but is not covered by the TDR as, in terms of consumer law, the buck stops with retailers.
Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees all have efforts underway to modernise their help systems and introduce more DIY elements.
Jason Paris was candid about the need to improve service when he took the reins at Vodafone NZ at the end of 2018, instituting tech upgrades and an "X Squad" to deal with more complex queries.
Earlier this week, he posted that while progress was being made, "We still have a lot to do. 25 per cent of our customer issues are still not being sorted first time."
This is the second time the ComCom has had a go at telcos recently.
Last month, the watchdog said while New Zealand pricing is now competitive internationally, its analysis of 80,000 bills found that Kiwis were on the wrong plan - and that almost a quarter could save an average $11.60 per month by moving to a cheaper plan that still covered their needs.
The ComCom said telcos need to do a better job educating their customers about options.
Retail telcos said they were already doing that, and criticised what they saw as a key methodological flaw in the regulator's survey: that it did not include those who switched telcos over its 12-month survey period - a process that typically involves switching to a more keenly priced plan.
On the service quality issue and rising complaints, the Commerce Commission is after feedback by December 18, which it says could include ways to improve the TDR.
"Possible workshops on consumer pain points" are pencilled in for February.
"I think what we're seeing is a realisation that telecommunications is an essential service now, that people rely on the service for day to day life, for their livelihoods and for their recreation and when it doesn't work as expected this can have a huge impact on stress levels and life in general," tech commentator Paul Brislen told the Herald.
"In the old days, we used telecommunications to make phone calls and maybe to connect that one household PC to the internet. Today, it's in our pockets and used every minute of the day. It's our television, our radio station, our workplace, our connection to the outside world and given what we've all been through with Covid and lockdowns, the need for consistency is very high."
"We're pretty proud of our customer experience, especially in a year like this where our 100 per cent Kiwi-based call centre team moved seamlessly to work from home so we could look after our customers," 2degrees executive Mat Bolland said.
"Service is something we're always improving and we've done a lot this year to improve the digital channels our mobile and broadband customers access. We'll be keen to hear about issues – if we can make improvements we're always interested in hearing how."
Chorus should be in the gun
For Vodafone, a spokeswoman said, "We want customers to experience simple and easy service, so we are constantly improving our processes through staff training, involving our X Squad, and further enhancing digital options including upgrading our phone and helpdesk technologies. Our customers are telling us that our recent service improvements are working, with customer satisfaction scores the highest they've ever been.
"However, we acknowledge we need to continue to lift our game.
"The acceleration of digital adoption due to Covid-19, and the rapidly changing nature of customer preferences, means service providers like Vodafone need to invest in the digital services that consumers are increasingly preferring. The nature of customer experience is changing and will become ever more digital, and already Vodafone customers are choosing a self-service, technology-enabled option in 86% of interactions – such as using our website, app, chatbot, or interactive voice response service when they call us."
"From our perspective, the Telecommunications Disputes Resolution service is working well, as the complaints process gives telcos one chance to remedy the customer's issue, which the latest report shows we did in almost 99 per cent of cases. We appreciate the work the TDR does in helping us to address customer concerns and so encourage the Commerce Commission to widen the scheme - both to include all internet retailers, as the TDR currently only covers customers using the biggest providers so we are held to different standards and some consumers lack protection, as well as Aotearoa's local fibre companies (LFCs).
"A high number of complaints to Vodafone each month relate to the services that an LFC (Chorus, Northpower Fibre, Ultrafast Fibre or Enable) provides, mostly in connecting Kiwis to fibre broadband or to resolve a technical fault on the broadband connection, which we have very little control over.
"To provide our customers with better internet service, then Chorus and the other LFCs should be held to the same quality standards that retailers are, such as via the Telecommunications Disputes Resolution service."
Spark: Complaints about us are down
For Spark, a spokeswoman said, "While overall complaints about the telecommunications sector have risen over the past year we know from the information TDR gives us that they have seen a very pleasing reduction in the number of complaints and enquiries TDR received about Spark services.
"From June 2019 to June 2020, complaints and enquiries about Spark mobile services (per 10,000 customers) reduced by 33 per cent and the reduction was a huge 48 per cent for broadband.
"The results highlight the work we have been doing to offer plans that are simpler and more intuitive, improving our customer's digital experience for billing and payments as and implementing a programme to broaden the skill set of our customer care teams. This means customers can have their issue resolved with one agent, who is skilled across multiple facets of the business rather than being transferred between divisions."
The Spark spokeswoman continued, "In addition, it is important to note that a significant portion of this complaint data was captured while New Zealanders were in lockdown and results show Spark complaints continued to decline during that time.
"We're pleased to see the TDR partly attribute this to the way in which providers like Spark [and Vodafone and 2degrees and others] took extra steps to support New Zealanders, such as removing data caps, waiving late payment fees and offering flexible payment solutions."