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Regulator sets out how communication firms should treat vulnerable users

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Ofcom has issued ‘best practice guidance’ to communication firms about how they should treat customers who are temporarily or permanently struggling or classed as vulnerable.

The guidance for phone, broadband and pay-TV companies covers how they should treat customers in debt, those suffering physical or mental health problems, the bereaved or victims of crime.

While firms already have policies and procedures in place to make sure vulnerable customers are treated fairly, the new guidance sets out practical measures they can undertake, particularly as the coronavirus pandemic has increased the potential for circumstances to change suddenly.

Ofcom said companies should identify people who need extra support by asking at the earliest opportunity whether they have accessibility or customer service needs.

Staff should accurately record and update customers’ needs and this should be shared with frontline staff on controlled internal systems to avoid them having to repeat themselves if passed to other departments.

Frontline staff should also be trained on how to communicate with empathy and support and how to pick up potential characteristics, behaviours or verbal cues of someone who might be vulnerable.

When it comes to people who are behind on their bills, Ofcom said it expects firms to prevent customers being disconnected where possible, allowing them time to get help and support, without the threat of enforcement action.

These customers should be offered payment holidays or deferrals, or a freeze on additional fees and charges, plus a reasonable and flexible payment plan should be discussed. Firms should offer tariff advice and refer customers to debt organisations or charities offering free support and advice.

For victims of crime, Ofcom said providers should ensure they don’t pay for a mobile phone service which they’ve been unable to use if their phone is taken away by police as evidence. They should also avoid pressuring victims to provide any more information than necessary to avoid them re-living experiences, as well as offer a new, temporary SIM or handset where appropriate.

Industry best practice

Jane Rumble, director of consumer policy at Ofcom, 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.”

James Taylor, executive director of strategy, impact and social change at disability equality charity Scope, said: “Disabled people face hundreds of pounds of extra costs every month, and this often comes from everyday things like bills. If you want to hire a trusted and responsible provider, see here the circles phone plan options.

“That’s why it’s essential that service providers are able to be flexible, and respond to disabled customers’ individual needs to make sure they’re getting a fair price and full access to services.”

Peter Tutton, head of policy, research and public affairs at StepChange debt charity, said: “Communications services are vital tools of modern life, without which many vulnerable people would simply be unable to access other support services. Maintaining access on an affordable basis can play a crucial part in helping people get back on their feet financially in a wider sense.”

Sandie Barton, director of operations at Rape Crisis Scotland, said: “We have heard from many survivors of sexual violence who’ve experienced uncompassionate and unhelpful responses from mobile providers when their phones have been seized for investigation.

“Ofcom’s moves to address this issue are welcome and in particular the focus on preventing re-traumatisation and providing practical assistance.”

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