Telco customers credit management and financial hardship SEPTEMBER 2012

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1 Telco customers credit management and financial hardship SEPTEMBER 2012

2 Canberra Purple Building Benjamin Offices Chan Street Belconnen ACT PO Box 78 Belconnen ACT 2616 T F Melbourne Level 44 Melbourne Central Tower 360 Elizabeth Street Melbourne VIC PO Box Law Courts Melbourne VIC 8010 T F Sydney Level 5 The Bay Centre 65 Pirrama Road Pyrmont NSW PO Box Q500 Queen Victoria Building NSW 1230 T F Commonwealth of Australia 2012 This work is copyright. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, no part may be reproduced by any process without prior written permission from the Commonwealth. Requests and enquiries concerning reproduction and rights should be addressed to the Manager, Editorial Services, Australian Communications and Media Authority, PO Box Law Courts, Melbourne Vic Published by the Australian Communications and Media Authority

3 Contents Executive summary 1 Research background 1 Objectives and methodology 1 Key findings 2 Personal telecommunication services 2 Bill shock 2 Difficulty paying bills 2 Contact with the service provider 3 Credit management 3 Contact with the TIO and independent financial advice 3 Use of credit and spend management tools 3 1. Introduction 5 Overview 5 The need for research 5 Research objectives 5 Outcomes 6 2. Research methodology 7 Overview and rationale of the quantitative methodology 7 Statistical reliability of the quantitative results 8 Statistical testing of results 9 Rounding 9 Comparison with relevant studies 10 Overview and rationale of the qualitative methodology Personal telecommunication services 11 Chapter overview 11 Introduction 11 Telecommunications services 11 Telecommunications service providers 14 Billing and bundling Bill shock 18 Chapter overview 18 Introduction 18 Incidence of bill shock 19 Frequency of bill shock 20 Amount of bill shock 21 acma iii

4 Contents (Continued) 5. Difficulty paying bills 23 Chapter overview 23 Introduction 23 Incidence of difficulty paying telecommunication bills 23 Frequency and time frame 28 Services and service providers 31 Reasons for difficulty paying bills Contact with the service provider 39 Introduction 39 Customers contacting the service provider 39 Timing of the contact 41 Bill disputes 42 Satisfaction with outcomes of contact Credit management 48 Introduction 48 Extension of bill due date 48 Payment plan 50 Credit reporting agencies 54 Solutions for the future 55 Credit management for respondents who did not contact the service provider 57 How to improve experience Contact with TIO and independent financial advice 59 Introduction 59 Contact with the TIO 59 Reason for contacting TIO 60 Outcome of contacting the TIO 61 Independent financial advice Use of credit/spend management tools 63 Introduction 63 Awareness of tools 63 Use of tools 66 Perceived usefulness of tools 75 Conclusion 77 iv acma

5 Contents (Continued) Appendix A Quantitative research 78 Appendix A1 Quantitative research methodology 79 A1.1 Sample structure 79 Sample breakdown of respondents, by demographics and characteristics 80 Appendix A2 Quantitative research instruments 83 A2.1 Questionnaire design 83 A2.2 Questionnaire 83 Appendix B Qualitative research 117 Appendix B1 Qualitative research methodology 118 B1.1 Sample structure 118 Rationale for sample 118 Recruitment of sample 118 B1.2 Discussion guide 118 Appendix B2 Qualitative research instruments 119 B2.1 Guidelines for the interviewer 119 acma v

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7 Executive summary Research background In 2010, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (the ACMA) conducted the Reconnecting the Customer public inquiry into customer service and complaintshandling in the telecommunications industry. The inquiry was prompted by the high number of complaints to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) and the increasing complexity of the telecommunications industry. The inquiry report, released in September 2011, examined the issues consumers encountered when dealing with their telecommunications provider, including problems and causes. It also looked at issues relating to bill shock and ways for carriage service providers (CSPs) to give consumers improved information about plans. However, it did not deal in depth with issues of credit management. In March 2012, the ACMA commissioned Roy Morgan Research to undertake this national study to further investigate the current incidence and nature of unexpectedly high bills, difficulty paying bills and use of spend management tools and payment arrangements among telecommunications bill-payers. This study builds on earlier ACMA research that examined the dimensions of mobile phone bill shock and takes a closer look at consumers experience with credit management and financial hardship arrangements in telecommunications. The current research provides a point of reference for understanding the extent of unexpectedly high bills and credit management issues in telecommunications, before new provisions of the Telecommunications Consumer Protection (TCP) Code come into force in September This work will help to assess how effectively the new code provisions deal with telecommunications credit management practices. Objectives and methodology The main objective of the research was to provide the ACMA with an understanding of: > the nature of financial hardship and payment arrangements that may be in place between personal (that is, non-business) customers and their CSP > why such arrangements are required > whether other customers would benefit from these arrangements if they were aware of or offered them. The findings from the study will inform the ACMA s approach to compliance activities relating to the relevant provisions of the TCP Code. There were two phases to the research: > a quantitative stage surveying a national representative sample of 2,400 Australian telecommunications bill-payers > a qualitative stage comprising 20 in-depth interviews (IDIs) In line with the main objective of the research, the study covered customers of telecommunication products for personal use only, excluding business customers. acma 1

8 Key findings Personal telecommunication services > Three-quarters of Australian bill-payers pay for a fixed-line telephone (77 per cent). > Nine in 10 bill-payers (91 per cent) pay for a mobile service, with: > 56 per cent paying for only a post-paid service > 21 per cent paying for only a pre-paid service > 14 per cent paying for both post-paid and pre-paid services. > Over half of those with a mobile phone have a smartphone (58 per cent). > Two-thirds (68 per cent) of bill-payers have at least one telecommunications service provided by Telstra. > Two-thirds (68 per cent) of people have bundled telecommunications services. > Seven in 10 (71 per cent) people receive a single bill covering multiple telecommunications services. > The most common service on a single bill is a fixed-line telephone (92 per cent). Bill shock > Bill shock is a colloquial term used to describe unexpectedly high bills. > The incidence of bill shock is similar for pre-paid and post-paid services for those who received an unexpectedly high bill or ran out of credit sooner than expected at least once in the last 12 months. > Those aged years are the most likely to experience bill shock on a post-paid service (43 per cent), while those aged years are the most likely to experience bill shock on a pre-paid service (40 per cent). > Those over the age of 55 years are significantly less likely to experience bill shock (23 per cent pre-paid, 24 per cent post-paid). > Those with pre-paid services experience bill shock more frequently than those with post-paid services. > A quarter of those post-paid customers who experienced bill shock said they received a bill that was $200 or more over the usual amount. > The average amount of unexpectedly high bills is $169 over the usual amount. Difficulty paying bills > Consumers may experience difficulty paying bills for a wide range of reasons, which may include bill shock but can often be attributed to other circumstances. > 14 per cent of Australian bill-payers have experienced some difficulty paying their telecommunication bills in the last 12 months. > Those aged years are significantly more likely to experience difficulty paying telecommunication bills (22 per cent), while those aged 55 years or more are significantly less likely (seven per cent). > Post-paid bill payers who experienced bill shock are more likely to have difficulty in paying telecommunication bills (30 per cent) compared to five per cent of those that had not experienced bill shock. > In the last year, 24 per cent of those who reported difficulty paying bills experienced this only once, 18 per cent twice, 16 per cent three times, 12 per cent four times and 18 per cent more than five times. > 47 per cent of respondents indicated bill shock as a reason for difficulty paying a telecommunication bill. 2 acma

9 > For those who had difficulty paying bills, 57 per cent of bill-payers reported postpaid mobile phones as the relevant service, 49 per cent fixed landlines and 31 per cent ADSL/ADSL2/ADSL2+ broadband connection. Contact with the service provider > Three in five (59 per cent) bill-payers who experienced bill shock or had difficulty paying bills contacted their service provider to discuss this issue. > The majority (85 per cent) of these respondents contacted their service provider at the time they received a bill they had difficulty paying. > Two-thirds (64 per cent) of bill-payers who experienced bill shock disputed the amount of the debt or bill with their service provider. > A quarter (25 per cent) of bill-payers who contacted their service provider were satisfied with the quick resolution of their issue. > A quarter (23 per cent) of bill-payers who contacted their service provider were not satisfied, with staff not understanding their problem or being empathetic. > Three in five (65 per cent) bill-payers who contacted their service provider due to bill shock or difficulty paying their bill were asked to pay a reduced amount. > Two-thirds (64 per cent) of bill-payers who contacted their service provider due to bill shock or difficulty paying their bill were satisfied with the outcome. Credit management > One-third of the respondents (33 per cent) who contacted their service provider asked for an extension on the bill s due date. > 81 per cent of those asking for an extension said there was no negotiation on the extension date. Payment plans were generally similar, with: > two-thirds of those offered an extended payment plan were given less than a month to make a payment (67 per cent) > nine in 10 involving instalment payment amounts below $200, with 29 per cent between $100 and $199. > Only 14 per cent reported service restrictions and eight per cent service suspensions while on the payment plan. > Only three per cent of those who experienced difficulty paying bills had their debts listed with a credit reporting agency. > Only one in three (29 per cent) people who contacted their service provider due to payment difficulty or bill shock were offered advice about avoiding such situations in the future. > A third (34 per cent) of bill-payers who negotiated a payment arrangement with their service provider were happy with the arrangement or felt that nothing more was needed to improve their experience of the payment arrangement. Contact with the TIO and independent financial advice > A small group (four per cent) of bill-payers who experienced bill shock or difficulty paying bills contacted the TIO. > Eight bill payers who had trouble paying for their bills sought independent financial advice. Use of credit and spend management tools > A quarter (26 per cent) of bill-payers who experienced bill shock or difficulty paying bills in the last year were aware of spend and credit management tools before receiving an unexpectedly high bill or a bill that they had difficulty paying. acma 3

10 > A quarter (25 per cent) of respondents who had not experienced bill shock or difficulty paying bills were aware of spend management tools. > An online usage meter is the most popular tool (32 per cent of respondents reported using such a tool), followed by SMS alerts (22 per cent) and alerts and service providers application (both 11 per cent). > 88 per cent of bill-payers who use at least one credit/spend management tool consider the tools to be useful. 4 acma

11 1. Introduction Chapter 1 describes the motivation for the research and its objectives. Overview Difficulty paying telecommunications bills is a major issue for consumers. According to the TIO, nine per cent of telecommunications complaints are about credit management, and 17 per cent are about billing and payments more generally. In , Telstra s Bill Assistance Program helped over 30,000 people in financial difficulties, with that number increasing by 33 per cent in In research conducted by Colmar Brunton for the Low Income Measures Assessment Committee (LIMAC) in 2010, 18 per cent of the community agencies interviewed said telecommunication bills are a major reason why their clients seek emergency relief. Difficulty paying bills is not always due to general financial difficulties or hardship, but can also be related to bill shock, where the bill for a particular month is unexpectedly high. This issue, while less severe than difficulties due to long-term financial hardship, is a far more common occurrence. ACMA research from June 2011 with 3G mobile bill-payers found that half of those on a post-paid account had received at least one unexpectedly large bill on their current or previous 3G plan. Similarly, 44 per cent of pre-paid users reported running out of credit faster than expected at least once in the last 12 months. The need for research The ACMA s study into credit management and financial hardship among telecommunications customers was intended to provide information on the current incidence of unexpectedly high bills, difficulty paying telecommunication bills and payment arrangements. The aim of this national study was to provide the ACMA with an understanding of the nature of financial hardship and payment arrangements that may be in place between personal (non-business) customers and their CSP, why such arrangements were required and whether other customers would have benefited from either of these arrangements had they been aware of or offered them. Research objectives The objectives of the research were to increase the ACMA s understanding of: > the incidence of unexpectedly high bills > the number and proportion of consumers who have difficulty paying telecommunication bills > the kinds of consumers who have difficulty paying their telecommunication bill and the services most likely to be involved > the reasons consumers have difficulty paying their telecommunication bills > how consumers who had difficulty paying their bill dealt with the situation (including contact with the service provider and the TIO) > the proportion of consumers who had difficulty paying their bill who entered into a payment or other arrangement with their service provider > consumers use of spend management tools. acma 5

12 Outcomes The major findings from the research are: > 14 per cent of Australian bill-payers experienced some difficulty paying one or more telecommunication bills in the past 12 months. > Nearly half (47 per cent) named bill shock as one of the main triggers for difficulty paying a bill. > 69 per cent of consumers who contacted their service provider about payment difficulty or bill shock were not offered advice about how to avoid such situations in the future. These findings have confirmed the need to make financial hardship and its causes a focus of the ACMA s compliance activity for the new TCP Code. 6 acma

13 2. Research methodology Chapter 2 describes the two phases of the research conducted, focusing on the methodology. The study comprised a main quantitative stage surveying a national representative sample of Australian telecommunications bill payers. This was followed by a qualitative stage comprising in-depth interviews with respondents selected through the quantitative study, based on their experience as telecommunication bill-payers. The indepth interviews provide case studies to illustrate and expand on the survey results. Overview and rationale of the quantitative methodology The main objective of the quantitative phase was to obtain robust estimates of billpayers experiences of bill shock, difficulty paying telecommunication bills and payment arrangements. The population of interest was bill-payers for personal (non-business) telecommunication services. Services included mobile phones, fixed phone or fax landlines, cable broadband connection, ADSL, ADSL2 or ADSL2+ broadband connection, dial-up internet connection, mobile broadband connection and internet or VoIP (voice over internet protocol) phone, both pre-paid and post-paid. Of particular interest were those who experienced difficulty paying a bill, either due to bill shock or financial hardship. All participants were aged 18 years or older. Fixed-line households were recruited through random digit dialling (RDD). The sample design also considered the increasing proportion of the population that does not have a fixed-line phone by separately recruiting a sample of mobile phone-only users from the Roy Morgan Single Source database. 1 A total of 2,407 computer-assisted telephone interviews (CATI surveys) were conducted. This number comprised two sub-samples as mentioned previously respondents with a fixed-line home phone connected (n=2,005) sourced through RDD and respondents who had only a mobile phone (that is, had a mobile phone and no fixed-line phone connected in the home) (n=402) sourced through re-contact of respondents from the Roy Morgan Single Source database. All interviews were conducted on weekday evenings (5.00 pm to 8.30 pm) or on weekends (11.00 am to 4.00 pm) from 8 to 25 May 2012, preceded by a pilot of 50 interviews. Quotas were set for both samples so that their demographic profile (age, sex and area) was representative of the population of Australian telecommunications bill-payers aged 18 years and over. This included both fixed-line home phone and households with a mobile phone only, as determined by the latest Roy Morgan Single Source data. Proportional weights were applied to the data to reflect the true distribution of these customers. These were an interlocking weight of area by sex, area by age and area by region (metro/country), and a rim weight for the sample type (respondents with fixed landline and with mobile phones only). The weights used were calculated from the latest Roy Morgan Single Source data. 1 Every year, Roy Morgan Research conducts over 50,000 face-to-face interviews in Australia. This forms the basis of Single Source. Approximately 40 per cent also return additional self-completion diaries, the Product Poll and Media Diary. acma 7

14 A total of 290 respondents had experienced difficulty paying a telecommunication bill and were asked questions about their experience. The incidence of financial hardship reported in this study is an approximation of true incidence based on information obtained from the sample. The survey focused on bill-payers who experienced difficulty paying bills in the last 12 months. If respondents had experienced difficulty paying bills more than once in the last 12 months, the focus was on the most recent episode. Final survey results can be generalised to the Australian population of telecommunication bill-payers, aged 18 and older with telecommunication access (home or mobile phone). Total survey respondents are referred to as the population throughout this report Refer to Appendix A for further details of the quantitative methodology and instruments used. Statistical reliability of the quantitative results The estimates derived for this study are based on information obtained from a sample survey and are therefore subject to sampling variability. They may differ from results that would be obtained if all people in Australia were interviewed (a census) or if the survey was repeated with a different sample of respondents. One measure of the likelihood of any difference is the standard error (SE), which shows the extent to which an estimate might vary by chance because only a sample of people were interviewed. An alternative way of showing this is the relative standard error (RSE), which is the SE as a percentage of the estimate. Table 1 shows the SE for various sample sizes and response levels, and can be used to assess if there are statistically significant differences between results within the study. For example: > If the sample size was 1,250, a response set of 50 per cent has a SE of +/-2.8 per cent at a 95 per cent confidence level (that is, there are 95 chances in 100 that a repeat survey would produce a response set of between 52.8 and 47.2 per cent). > If there were 500 respondents (n=500) to a question and 50 per cent gave a particular response, then the SE for that response is +/ 4.4 per cent. Where the RSE is between 30 and 49 per cent, results should be regarded as moderately reliable. Where the RSE is 50 per cent or higher, results should be regarded as indicative estimates only. 8 acma

15 Table 1 Standard error for various sample sizes Total sample and sub-sets Survey estimate 2,400 2,250 2,000 1,750 1,500 1,250 1, Sample variance (+/ ) 95% confidence intervals % % % % % % % % % % 10% % % % % % % % % For results based on the total study sample of 2,407, this sample size constrains the maximum sampling error to +/ 2 per cent. When reporting on the 290 who had difficulties paying their telecommunications bills, this sample size constrains the maximum sampling error to approximately +/ 5.6 per cent. Statistical testing of results Significance testing at the 95 per cent confidence level has been applied to quantitative findings from the survey research. Specifically, significance testing throughout this report has been used to compare whether there is a reliable difference unlikely to be due to chance between each individual group or segment and the total group (for example, gender, age, income). If a total group was not applicable to a figure or table in the report, significance testing is not shown. The following colour coding and font style has been used to indicate the presence and direction of a significant difference: > figures in red and bold are significantly lower than the total group at a 95 per cent confidence level > figures in green and italic are significantly higher than the total group at a 95 per cent confidence level. In some cases, the report discusses differences that are not statistically significant where they appear interesting or counterintuitive, or where there are patterns of small differences worth noting. Rounding The reader may notice some discrepancies between the sums of the component items and totals. This may occur due to the effects of rounding. acma 9

16 Comparison with relevant studies When relevant, the findings of this study have been compared to the results of the 3G mobile bill-payers understanding of billing and charging arrangements report, commissioned by the ACMA and published in June This quantitative study investigated the level and nature of concerns experienced by 3G users in their understanding of charging arrangements. A sample of n=1,069 respondents were surveyed using a CATI methodology. Overview and rationale of the qualitative methodology The prime objective of the qualitative stage was to provide depth and richness to the reporting of the quantitative results, as well as further understanding of the reasons consumers have difficulty paying telecommunication bills and pathways to credit management arrangements. The qualitative research consisted of 20 in-depth interviews (IDIs) with telecommunications bill-payers who experienced difficulty paying a bill in the last 12 months. The respondents were recruited through the quantitative survey. The IDIs were conducted between 30 May and 7 June The respondents were selected to ensure a representative cross-section of bill-payer demographics in terms of age and gender. Of the 20 IDIs, 13 comprised respondents who indicated bill shock as the cause for encountering difficulty in paying bills. The remaining seven were with people who had difficulty paying bills due to other reasons. Of those 13 respondents who faced bill shock, seven indicated that this was due to a higher use of the service. One of the interviews included a respondent who contacted the TIO to discuss this issue. Quotations from the qualitative sessions are interspersed through the report to illustrate or expand on some of the points made by the survey findings. Please refer to Appendix B for further details of the qualitative methodology and instruments used. 10 acma

17 3. Personal telecommunication services Chapter overview > Three-quarters of Australian bill-payers pay for a fixed-line telephone (77 per cent). > Nine in 10 bill-payers (91 per cent) pay for a mobile service, with: > 56 per cent paying for only a post-paid service > 21 per cent paying for only a pre-paid service > 14 per cent paying for both post-paid and pre-paid services. > Over half of those with a mobile phone have a smartphone (58 per cent). > Those aged years are significantly more likely to have a smartphone (86 per cent). > Two-thirds (68 per cent) of bill-payers have at least one telecommunications service provided by Telstra. > Two-thirds (68 per cent) of people have bundled telecommunications services: > significantly fewer people aged years have bundles (51 per cent) > bundling is most common among those aged years (73 per cent) > the most commonly bundled service is a fixed-line telephone (93 per cent). > Seven in 10 (71 per cent) people receive a single bill covering multiple telecommunications services: > significantly fewer people aged years receive a single bill (56 per cent) > receiving a single bill is the most common among those aged (75 per cent) > the most common service on a single bill is a fixed-line telephone (92 per cent). Introduction Chapter 3 provides information from 2,407 respondents about the types of telecommunications products paid for, and information about those services such as service provider and the use of bundling and single bills for multiple services. Telecommunications services About three-quarters of Australian bill-payers pay for a fixed-line telephone (77 per cent), with a similar proportion paying for a post-paid mobile phone (71 per cent). Nine in 10 bill-payers (91 per cent) pay for a mobile service 56 per cent pay for only a post-paid service, 21 per cent pay for only a pre-paid service, and 14 per cent pay for both post-paid and pre-paid services. acma 11

18 Figure 1 Communications services paid for A fixed-line phone or landline or fax line 77 A post-paid mobile phone or a mobile phone on a plan 71 An ADSL or ADSL2 or ADSL2+ broadband connection 48 A pre-paid mobile phone 35 A cable broadband connection 25 Mobile broadband (e.g., 3G modem) or tablet (e.g., ipad) 22 An internet or VoIP phone 9 A dial-up internet line or account % In total, 78 per cent of bill-payers reported paying a bill for some broadband internet service, including ADSL/ADSL2/ADSL2+, cable and mobile broadband connections. A significantly higher proportion of those under the age of 35 pay for a post-paid mobile service but no pre-paid service (73 per cent of those aged 18 24, 66 per cent of those aged 25 34), while significantly more people aged 55 and over (25 per cent) only pay for a pre-paid service. Figure 2 Mobile telephone services paid for 21 Post-paid only Pre-paid only Both post-paid and pre-paid 9 Neither Q1. Do you currently pay for any of the following telecommunications services, either for yourself or some other person or for the household? Base: Bill-payers (n=2,407). 12 acma

19 Figure 3 Mobile telephone services paid for by age % Post-paid only Pre-paid only Both post-paid and pre-paid Neither Q1. Do you currently pay for any of the following telecommunications services, either for yourself or some other person or for the household? S4. What is your age? Base: Bill-payers aged (n=158), (n=378), (n=921), 55+ (n=950). Over half of those with a mobile phone have a smartphone (58 per cent). Younger people are significantly more likely to have a smartphone most (86 per cent) mobile phone bill-payers aged years have a smartphone, compared with just a third (32 per cent) of those aged 55 years or over. Figure 4 Smartphone ownership 58% 41% Smartphone Standard mobile phone Don't know 1% Q2a. Is your current mobile phone a smartphone? Base: Mobile phone bill-payers (n=2,177). acma 13

20 Figure 5 Smartphone ownership by age % Smartphone Standard mobile phone Q2a. Is your current mobile phone a smartphone? S4. What is your age? Base: Mobile phone bill-payers aged (n=155), (n=365), (n=764), 55+ (n=793). Telecommunications service providers Telstra is the most common service provider for all telecommunications services. Twothirds (68 per cent) of bill-payers have at least one telecommunications service provided by Telstra. Table 2 Telecommunications service providers by service type Fixed-line telephone Telstra 69% Optus 16% Mobile telephone Telstra 45% Optus 25% Vodafone 17% Virgin 5% 3 3% Mobile broadband Telstra BigPond 54% OPTUSnet 17% Vodafone 11% 3 5% Virgin 4% Cable broadband Telstra BigPond 49% OPTUSnet 28% ADSL broadband Telstra BigPond 52% OPTUSnet 12% TPG Internet 7% 14 acma

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