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Ofcom tightens complaints procedure

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Ofcom is reviewing the Alternative Dispute Resolution - mainly because no one seems to have heard of it - and will be asking operators to make complaining easier in future.

Ofcom reckons most complaints are dealt with satisfactorily, but that it is unnecessarily complicated for every company to have their own code of conduct. Few people, it figures, know that there are alternatives to shouting down to the phone when they're in dispute with their operator. So the UK regulator plans to impose its own code of conduct, as a minimum, and to make operators write to complainers informing them of their options.

Every Communication Provider (CP) in the UK must be a member of one of the two Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) services, Otelo or CISAS, and punters with disputes more than 12 weeks old can take it up with the appropriate ARD. The problem is that the CPs have to pay for every case that goes to their ARD, so have little incentive to tell customers about the option.

Ofcom discovered that only 15 per cent of adults in the UK had heard of either Otelo or CISAS, and that measures such as putting the information on the back of the bill - Otelo's preferred solution - simply don't work. So Ofcom wants to see every complaint receiving written information about the appropriate ADR, within five days, and a follow-up letter sent out after eight weeks - the reduced time after which a complaint can be escalated to the ADR.

This is unlikely to go down well with operators, who will have to pay for the letters and keep track of the age of complaints, not to mention paying for the increased number of ARR actions - which are free for the complainer.

The primary objection will be cost, as even the most frivolous complaint demands a fixed payment from the CP to the ADR, and informing people of the option will inevitably lead to more complaints. But operators will probably contend that sticking the name of their ADR in the terms and conditions, or on their website, will be sufficient - not to mention a lot cheaper.

Ofcom's proposal is open for comments until October 4, and operators are no doubt already working out how to word their objections. It will be interesting to see if the regulator can stick to its guns or if operators will be forced to tell customers how to complain properly, twice. ®

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