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A survey of Australian small business' use of telecommunications services suggests that most are paying a premium for 'business grade' services but experiencing customer service that is no better than that offered to consumers.

The survey,  of 260 businesses with less than 20 employees was undertaken by Market Clarity for ACCAN. It produced a litany of complaints from respondents detailing experiences with telcos' customer service that would be familiar to many consumers, such as long waits on hold, being transferred between multiple operators, having to make multiple calls to get an issue resolved.

Market Clarity called on telcos to provide much clearer differentiation between business grade and consumer grade services.

"Questions remain as to the precise definition of a business grade service, and how it might vary by provider," it said. "For example, what are the service level agreements (SLAs) that apply to business grade services, and how do they differ from a provider's residential service? Are separate customer service areas allocated to business customers? Are account managers allocated to business customers? In choosing a business grade service, what decision criteria do business customers apply?

ACCAN CEO, Teresa Corbin, said: "The time spent trying to get telecommunications problems fixed particularly impacts small businesses, as it is frequently the owner or a senior employee who is forced to spend time on resolving these issues; the smaller the business, the greater the impact."

She pledged that ACCAN would "continue to work with small business organisations to help them to find ways to minimise the impact of both outages and customer service and complaint - handling issues."

Corbin noted that small business complaints now make up almost 14 percent (27,000) of all complaints received by the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman, an increase of 18 percent on the previous year.

According to Market Clarity "Forty six percent of fixed voice services users; 29 percent of VoIP users; 32 percent of fixed broadband users; 33 percent of mobile voice users; 21 percent of mobile broadband users and 11 percent of EFTPOS users have experienced a significant customer service issue...

"Key issues reported by small business, across all service types were the significant amount of time spent on calls and needing to call their service provider multiple times on the same issue."

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Other reported issues included navigating an automated system / reaching a staff member, getting through to someone who can help, unresolved issues, billing issues, response times to fix technical or service issues, English language communication issues, service provisioning issues and lack of clear / correct information.

"Seven percent of fixed voice users report unresolved issues. Other common impressions involve English language communications issues and being passed around between departments," the report said.

"Overall, 11 percent of fixed voice service users were satisfied with the result of the complaint handling process, and 11 percent expressed overall dissatisfaction with their service provider."

This despite the overwhelming majority of small businesses paying a premium for business services rather than consumer grade services. "Small businesses overwhelmingly use higher value business grade services: fixed voice (95 percent), VoIP (81 percent), fixed broadband (91 percent), mobile voice (89 percent) and mobile broadband (86 percent)," Market Clarity said.

The figures were similar for fixed broadband services "The most commonly reported impressions involved needing to call multiple times (16 percent) and spending a significant amount of time on calls (15 percent). Six percent of fixed broadband users report unresolved issues."

The research was funded through the 2012 round of the ACCAN Grants Scheme, for which 2013 round applications open on 18 February. Details at accan.org.au/grants.

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