Wednesday, 26 August 2009 13:46

Watch out carriers or we'll fight you on TV: ACCAN head

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In a colourful speech today, Allan Asher, the new CEO of the Australian Communications Consumers Action Network (ACCAN) has given telco service providers a tongue lashing. He warned that they risk having their reputations publicly questioned in the media by the new telecoms consumer peak body if they don't pick up their game.

In a stark demonstration that ACCAN means business, the former deputy chairman of the ACCC and current board member of the UK Office of Fair Trading opened his speech by publicly outing his first victim to representatives of the telecoms industry at the inaugural Customer Service Summit held by the Communications Alliance in Melbourne.

"Last weekend I took my 84 year old mother in law to buy a new mobile phone," said Mr Asher.

"Of course she became used to the phone number that she had, so I said 'that won't be a problem we'll easily be able to get the old number ported to this one.'

"Indeed before we even bought it, I phoned the company Virgin to arrange for that to be done and was told that it would all be done in two hours.

"I've just confirmed now that four days later it is still not ported.

"Just in that one incident it captures pretty well everything that I want to say.

"This industry which is so essential to the welfare and well being of all residents of Australia has made incredible promises. Promises of connection; promises of business efficiency; promises of social engagement. Yet its performance just so consistently and persistently disappoints.

"From the point of view of ACCAN, we're not going to any longer be satisfied with simply making a point where the problems are but simply instead we're going to follow those up with positive actions that we hope will lead to reform."

Mr Asher sounded an ominous warning for the telecoms service providers in the audience, also singling out Telstra, saying that ACCAN plans to be a "strong voice of communications consumers."

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"You'll never find ACCAN critical of profits that are earned by providing good service. But you will find us always critical if the level of service is poor," Mr Asher said.

"So when Telstra introduced the $2.20 payment for paying bills by other than EFT we were very critical because it comes at the same time as your appalling level of customer service.

"There will be many here shaking their heads and complaining that ACCAN will be just another obstacle to business. If that's the approach that you want to take then I'll look forward to meeting you elsewhere - perhaps in the pages of the papers or investigative TV programs. For those who want to work with us, I'll be equally delighted to meet with you as well."

According to Mr Asher, telecoms consumers in Australia are getting the short end of the stick by service providers. He warned telecoms representatives at the summit that they will soon face the consequences of a backlash.

"In Australia at present consumers are getting a pretty lousy deal from this sector of the economy and I believe that's one reason that ACCAN was established," he said.

"Simply to say that consumers are dissatisfied with the level of service is quite an understatement. From my experience in Europe, the United States and elsewhere, the level of dissatisfaction is going to bring more pressure on this sector and you'll be faced with that obvious crunch question of fix it or get out."

Mr Asher hinted strongly that Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman figures indicate that Australia has worse service standards in the industry than the UK.

"Looking at the graphs with the spike of complaints last year, what strikes me is that the numbers of issues dealt with are on a par with the number of complaints in the UK - an economy with three times the population," he said.

"Either Australians have taken up complaining with a greater gusto than I thought or that the practices here are actually worse than in the UK.

"The insult added to injury, as bad as the number of complaints are, these are made worse by the proportion of those which are complaints about the process of resolving them, where promises are made to return calls, to reduce bills, to send information, to change addresses. It seems that almost routinely they're ignored and this bringing the industry into disrepute."

Mr Asher pointed to bundling of services as a major source of problems.

"Economically, bundling can be quite a sensible thing to do but it does permit this problem of information overload. Consumers find it very hard to make rational informed decisions in those circumstances. They start out already annoyed with suppliers."

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Stan Beer

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Stan Beer co-founded iTWire in 2005. With 35 plus years of experience working in IT and Australian technology media, Beer has published articles in most of the IT publications that have mattered, including the AFR, The Australian, SMH, The Age, as well as a multitude of trade publications.

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