Ofcom, the UK telecoms regulator, has persuaded all major UK communications service providers to promise to ‘put fairness first’.
As far as empty, ill-defined and vacuous statements of intent goes this is right up there. Ofcom drafted a bunch of commitments under the heading ‘Fairness for Customers’, and got CSPs to sign on the dotted line. Of course they had no choice but to go along with the scheme as failure to do so would have resulted in catastrophic publicity, but there is little to indicate this is anything more than a token gesture.
You may be thinking the angle taken in this piece is a tad mean-spirited but let’s have a look at the substance of the announcement. The starting point has to be the operative term ‘fair’ Here are some dictionary definitions:
- Treating people equally without favouritism or discrimination
- Treating someone in a way that is right or reasonable, or treating a group of people equally and not allowing personal opinions to influence your judgment
- Something or someone that is fair is reasonable, right, and just
- Marked by impartiality and honesty: free from self-interest, prejudice, or favouritism
By these definitions all CSPs have committed to is to treat all their customers equally. If there was any evidence of them actively discriminating against any of them we would surely have heard of it by now so, as a fresh commitment, it’s totally redundant.
More likely is that Ofcom is using a definition of the word not supported by the major dictionaries, but popular among politicians, marketing professionals and small children. This is a catch-all concept designed to appeal to absolutely everyone by implying everything will be better as a result of becoming more fair.
Still think we’re being too harsh? Let’s have a look at the actual commitments then.
- Customers get a fair deal, which is right for their needs. Providers offer customers packages that fit their needs and have a fair approach to pricing. Prices are clear and easy to understand;
- Customers get the support they need when their circumstances make them vulnerable. Providers understand and identify the characteristics, circumstances and needs of vulnerable customers – such as vulnerability due to a disability, age, mental illness or having recently been bereaved – and act to give them fair treatment and equal access to services too;
- Customers are supported to make well-informed decisions with clear information about their options before, during, and at the end of their contract. Providers design and send communications in a way that reflects an understanding of how customers generally react to information so that they can understand and engage with the market;
- Customers’ services work as promised, reliably over time. If things go wrong providers give a prompt response to fix problems and take appropriate action to help their customers, which may include providing compensation where relevant. If providers can’t fix problems with core services they have promised to deliver within a reasonable period, customers can walk away from their contract with no penalty;
- Customers can sign up to, change and leave their services quickly and smoothly. Providers ensure that customers who are leaving do not face additional barriers or hassle compared to those who are signing up to new services;
- Customers can be confident that fair treatment is a central part of their provider’s culture. Companies can demonstrate that they have the right procedures in place to ensure customers are treated well. They keep these effective and up-to-date.
Points 1, 2 and 6 depend entirely on the ill-defined term ‘fair’, while the other three are merely restatements of obligations already imposed on CSPs by Ofcom, so what is new here? We asked Ofcom how it will be monitoring these ‘new’ commitments and what the consequences will be of any failures to adhere to them and got the following statement.
“Many of the commitments are already underpinned by existing consumer law and Ofcom’s rules, so we will monitor practices against those and we can take action where necessary. We will also monitor complaints we receive from customers – particularly on price and service quality. The providers will be asked to demonstrate their performance on fairness and we’ll publish a progress report next year.
“Where we have concerns about an industry practice that isn’t covered by existing rules, we will work with the relevant company to resolve the issue as quickly as possible. If we don’t see sufficient action, we will consider potential changes to our rules.”
The condensed version of that statement seems to be; “We’re keeping an eye on UK operators to make sure they’re following our rules.” While that’s good to know, it’s also kind of the default position for telecoms regulator isn’t it? The progress report next year will be worth reading, if only to finally see how Ofcom measures fairness.
“I welcome the commitments the providers have made, and the action they’re taking to ensure customers are treated fairly every step of the way,” said Ofcom Chief Exec Sharon White. “Great service cannot be optional. It has to be the norm. That hasn’t always happened in the past in broadband and mobile services, but there is now a growing belief from providers that putting customers first is paramount.”
“I’m pleased that all the major telecoms providers have signed up to Ofcom’s commitments today,” said UK Minister for Digital Margot James. “They will not only help consumers get fairer deals, but will support competition by making sure providers work to the same objectives and compete on standards.”
Possibly inspired by all this vague virtue-signalling, Virgin Media has announced its own promise to be a good CSP from now on. Specifically it takes the form of a new ‘service promise’ that will give unlimited mobile connectivity to anyone whose broadband stops working, so long as they get both from Virgin.
“We know how important it is for our customers to stay connected and that’s why Virgin Media’s new service promise offers peace of mind, no matter what happens,” said Jeff Dodds, Managing Director of Virgin Media.
“It’s a simple, transparent and straight-up commitment to our customers that we’ll keep them online with superfast unlimited 4G mobile data if they experience an issue with their broadband, plus they have the option of a next-day engineer appointment to get things fixed.”
We guess all these vows, pledges and oaths are better than nothing but only just. Furthermore if everyone’s suddenly promising to put the customer first then surely that implies they weren’t previously. The Ofcom thing just feels like a cheap way for regulators and politicians to make it look like they’re doing more than they are, using vague terms and obsolete aspirations. That doesn’t seem fair to us.