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Super-complaint targets telco customer exploitation

Complaining about problems

The UK Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) has launched a super-complaint with the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) asking the regulator to outline plans on how it will protect the consumer from loyalty penalties.

The super-complaint does not target the telcos specifically, though the industry has been given its fair share of attention. Research released by the CAB last week suggests the loyalty is being penalised across five ‘essential’ markets (mobile, broadband, home insurance, mortgages and savings), with service providers over-charging customers to bring in an extra £4.1 billion a year.

“It beggars belief that companies in regulated markets can get away with routinely punishing their customers simply for being loyal,” said Citizens Advice CEO Gillian Guy. “As a result of this super-complaint, the CMA should come up with concrete measures to end this systematic scam.

“Regulators and Government have recognised the loyalty penalty as a problem for a long time – yet the lack of any meaningful progress makes this super-complaint inevitable. The Government’s price cap in the energy market will protect some loyal customers. However, there’s still a long way to go in other sectors. The loyalty penalty is clearly unfair – 89% of people think it is wrong. The CMA needs to act now to stop people being exploited.”

While the claim from the CAB is a damning one, it is supported by additional research. Research commissioned by Broadband Genie has found many over 55s could be paying too much for their broadband service, but lack the knowledge or confidence to choose a new package. 51% of respondents said they had been with the same provider for more than five years, 41% had never changed supplier, though price rises would have certainly been applied during this period. The Broadband Genie research reinforces the claim consumers are being penalised for loyalty.

A super-complaint is a complaint made by a government-approved watchdog organisation on behalf of consumers, which is fast-tracked to a higher authority such as the CMA. Since being introduced as part of the Enterprise Act 2002, the CAB has exercised the right four times, including the complaint against payment protection insurance (PPI) in 2005 which helped to generate at least £32.2 billion in refunds and compensation for customers.

This complaint not only follows up research from the CMA, which claims four million people in the UK are still paying back phone subsidies after the device has been paid off, but also an Ofcom consultation which is investigating the pricing strategies of the telcos for the very same issue. As you would imagine, the telco industry is not particularly pleased with the busybody consumer protections group escalating the issue to the lofty offices of the CMA.

“With a consultation ongoing, we feel that Citizen Advice is jumping the gun in relation to the broadband market and we are concerned that the narrative of a ‘loyalty penalty’ conflates customer loyalty with ill-informed or unengaged customers,” the Internet Services Providers’ Association (ISPA) responded. “Loyalty to a provider does not necessarily mean that a customer is not content with their service, especially as in the broadband sector there are a range of non-price issues that the customer may value, including performance, service quality, and reliability.”

This is hardly a surprising statement from ISPA, as while the telco industry will not want to found out for ripping off consumers, it will certainly not want to give up the ‘free money’ generated through the lazy behaviour of consumers. Unfortunately this is not only an issue for the telcos as the complaint could also impact brand credibility and trust as well as bank accounts. Time and time again the telcos have been shown to employ dated business practises, not presenting themselves as customer centric organizations. Telcos are generally pretty bad at managing their brand or presenting themselves as forward-looking, consumer orientated businesses, and this noise surrounding the super-complaint will not help.

Aside from the money and the brand credibility, long-term consequences of the super-complaint could also be quite damaging. According to Stuart Murray, telecoms specialist and a partner at UK law firm TLT, government intervention on pricing could have a knock-on effect for investment.

“The CAB’s super-complaint goes to the heart of how a market-led economy works and any interventions that have the effect of regulating prices in competitive markets like telecoms may result in significant and unintended consequences,” said Murray. “If the CMA took steps to regulate pricing in the telecoms industry, this could have a negative impact on investment, reduce innovation and give consumers less choice, as well as dis-incentivising consumer engagement as people come to rely more on regulatory intervention.

“In a market-led economy, people who actively engage in markets benefit from discounts paid for by higher charges paid by those who are less engaged. The government and private sector have launched several campaigns in recent years to raise awareness of the benefits of engaging in these markets and encouraging consumers to exercise their rights to switch providers if another company is offering a better deal. This is a positive step – as long as measures are also taken to protect the truly vulnerable, who find it difficult or are simply unable to engage.”

This is certainly an area telcos should be keeping a keen eye on, as the long-arm of the government has been searching for ways to gain more authority in the industry. Should the super-complaint lead the CMA towards more stringent pricing regulations it will inhibit new ideas and innovation at a time when the telcos need it the most. Unfortunately, this does seem to be another step made down the path of utilitisation.


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