Small business ombudsman Kate Carnell has implored telecommunications providers to improve how they work with small businesses “as a matter of urgency”, following a jump in the number of complaints by business owners since the start of July.
Small business complaints to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) rose by 28% during the first quarter of the financial year, continuing an upward trend over the past year.
According to the TIO’s latest complaints report, 5,527 complaints were made to the ombudsman by small business customers between July and September, compared to 4,323 complaints in the fourth quarter of 2019-20.
Small business complaints accounted for 16% of total complaints to the TIO during this time, which the ombudsman said is the highest proportion and volume for small business complaints in the past five quarters.
Overall, residential consumers and small businesses made 34,476 complaints about phone and internet services during the three-month period, which represented a 3.4% increase on the previous quarter.
The number of total complaints has now grown for the third consecutive quarter.
A “major problem”
The number of complaints from small businesses is “unacceptably high”, said small business ombudsman Kate Carnell, who noted the volume of complaints in only three months shows the nation’s telcos have a “major problem”.
Small business complaints increased across mobile, landline and internet services, however, the biggest increase in both volume and proportion was for ‘multiple services’, or bundled services.
The specific problems reported by small businesses were similar to those in previous quarters, but the volume of reports increased across the top 10 issues.
In particular, the TIO said complaints about small businesses being unable to contact their service provider increased by a significant 47%, while complaints about access to compensation for business losses jumped by 42%.
Telstra received the most complaints for the quarter, from both small businesses and residential customers, with complaints increasing by more than 27% compared to the previous quarter.
The second-most-complained-about telco was Optus, followed by Vodafone, TPG and iiNet.
However, the TIO said complaints about the top 10 providers decreased in both volume and proportion, with the exceptions of Telstra, Boost and Southern Phone.
Both Carnell and telecommunications industry ombudsman Judi Jones said the spike in complaints from small businesses is particularly concerning in the current economic climate, with Jones saying any issues between businesses and their providers can have “significant consequences”.
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“I have said before, the relationship between small businesses and their providers is vital to the business’ ongoing success,” she said.
Phone and internet services are “essential services” for small businesses, said Carnell, particularly when so many are working remotely and “struggling to stay afloat” during the coronavirus recession.
“This year has been incredibly difficult for small businesses and many have made huge efforts to digitise their business in order to survive,” she added.
“It is critical telecommunications providers take greater steps to support their small business customers and to promptly assist when an issue arises.”
A spokesperson for Telstra told SmartCompany the telco will be taking Carnell’s advice and urgently addressing the increased number of complaints.
“Yes, we know our customer service for small businesses hasn’t been at the level we want it to be and we are addressing this as a matter of urgency,” they said.
The spokesperson said this will involve a number of measures, including improving access to small business specialists in contact centres for businesses that are experiencing billing, faults or service issues.
Business owners can also now book appointments at a nearby Telstra store, says the spokesperson, and access a number of other COVID-related support initiatives, such as suspending their services or accessing discounts.
At Optus, vice president for digital consumer, Vaughan Paul, told SmartCompany the telco was pleased with the results included in the TIO report “as they continue to build our consistent momentum of decreasing complaint volumes, and in this instance, we have done so compared to the previous quarter, unlike some of our competitors”.
Paul said Optus prioritises customer experience and the company will “continue to remain fixated on reducing complaints even further”.
“It is critical we continue to strive towards producing more positive outcomes and timely resolutions to customer concerns and we look forward to making this happen,” he said.