CMA backs super complaint against loyalty penalties

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has backed a ‘super complaint’ raised by Citizens Advice which suggests UK consumers are being ripped off by loyalty penalties on services such as broadband.

The super complaint was raised by in September by Citizens Advice, asking the CMA to investigate whether customers were effectively being punished by service providers, so called stealth price rises for example. The areas being called into question were cash savings, mortgages, household insurance, mobile phone contracts and broadband.

The CMA agrees with the points raised by Citizens Advice, suggesting the segments in question gain £4 billion a year through ripping off loyal customers.

“Our work has uncovered a range of problems which leave people feeling ripped off, let down and frustrated,” said Andrea Coscelli, CEO of the CMA. “They shouldn’t have to be constantly ‘on guard’, spending hours searching for or negotiating a good deal, to avoid being trapped into bad value contracts or falling victim to stealth price rises.”

Looking specifically at the telcos, this is a frustrating point for many consumers. UK telcos show very little desire to reward customers, setting in processes and systems which make it impossible to leave. Many will give up on trying to navigate the red-tape maze as the poor experience proves to be favourable to the frustrations of trying to leave. By making this process as difficult as possible, the telcos don’t have to worry that much about retention and can instead focus on luring new customers.

The CMA has pointed this out during its own investigation, ensuring that one of the recommendations made to government and regulators will be to simplify the exiting process. This will intend to tackle the process, systems and the fees which customers face when attempting to secure a better deal.

It appears the telcos are much better at scaring customers away from exiting than enticing them to stay with positive customer service. Your correspondent can confirm this is the case after trying to end a Vodafone contract last year. It took a ridiculous amount of time, engagement with several staff who had no idea what they were doing (or was this trained in to make the process as painful as possible?) but the mission was stubbornly completed.

“We know that the better deals are often found by switching provider,” said Richard Neudegg, Head of Regulation at uSwitch.com. “But many companies make this more difficult by not being transparent enough about the options available or how to take your custom elsewhere. We are pleased to see the CMA identify this as an area for improvement, to ensure the power to get better deals is placed firmly in the hands of consumers.”

One specific complaints which has been firmly aimed at the telcos concerns subsidized handsets. The CMA highlights telcos should not be allowed to charge the same amount per month once the handset has been fully paid for. This will be a frustration from the consumer, but like the ridiculous nature of roaming fees, because the industry has stuck together little progress has been made.

Above all else, the CMA opinion adds to the already well-known position that telcos are not at all customer-centric organizations and have a lot to do if they want to be considered relevant for the digital economy.

TalkTalk takes swipe at competitor over pricing fairness

TalkTalk has launched its Fairer Broadband Charter calling into question whether competitors know the definition of simple concepts such as honesty and fairness.

According to research from TalkTalk, 87% of customers feel it is unfair providers raise prices mid-way through contracts, with 54% of consumers supporting a complete ban on these price hikes. While these might seem like obvious statements to make, they do fit quite comfortably upon the beautifully groomed high-horse TalkTalk CEO Tristia Harrison is trotting along currently.

“Telecoms companies have been ripping-off consumers for far too long,” said Harrison. “The industry has to change to rebuild trust with consumers. We led the way two years ago and became the first provider to guarantee no mid-contract price rises. It’s proved hugely popular and today we’re going even further. Our Fairer Broadband Charter sets out three simple ways we’ll put customers first. I’m challenging our rivals to follow our lead so that the whole industry can rebuild trust with customers.”

While any research conducted or commissioned by a telco should be taken with a plate full of salt, TalkTalk does have a point and the Fairer Broadband Charter should create a position where customers do feel valued. What is quite interesting is a challenger brand actually offering something of value to a customer, instead of initiating a race to the bottom. While lower prices are often appreciated by customers, margins are realised elsewhere perhaps explaining poor performance and woeful customer service. It could be seen as somewhat of a hollow victory.

The Fairer Broadband Charter is essentially a challenge to the industry, with TalkTalk hoping to set the pace with other telcos following suit. Perhaps marketing campaigns down the road will be built on the ‘look what we made everyone else do’ or ‘they all needed to copy us’ messages. It isn’t necessarily the worst idea we have ever come across for a challenger brand.

Looking at the three pillars, the first is a continued commitment to maintaining the agreed upon prices throughout the contract. Sounds simple, but all major ISPs have introduced a mid-contract price hike to some degree over the last 18 months according to TalkTalk. Secondly, a connection guarantee will be introduced, allowing new customers to ditch the contract in the first 30 days if they are not happy. This is not necessarily a new one, as Vodafone introduced such an idea recently. Finally, the TalkTalk team will contact customers before their contract ends to ensure they do not get automatically put onto a higher priced plan upon automatic renewal.

These are of course all nice ideas, but it shows the woeful state of affairs in the telco industry if this new Charter is deemed going above and beyond. In most other industries, this would be considered the status quo or bare minimum requirements. For too long customer satisfaction has been an afterthought, instead focusing on enticing new customers with embarrassingly-poor Kevin Bacon adverts which make the brand seem dated, desperate and as creative as a dull shade of worn leather.

The tide is beginning to turn but the traditional telcos, in both mobile and broadband, are having their hands forced by challenger brands.