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Speech at the Communications Alliance Customer Service Summit.

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Communications Alliance Customer Service Summit

As always it is a pleasure to speak to the people behind Australia's communications sector.

This is a sector of vital importance to our national economy.

It provides services that are highly valued by the community and form the backbone of millions of personal and business transactions every day.

It is my particular pleasure to be here today to address the first ever Communications Alliance Customer Service Summit.

In addition, may I acknowledge the great contribution that Anne Hurley has made in her time as chief executive of this important industry organisation.

Anne announced yesterday that she will step down from her role in 2010.

It has been a pleaseure working with Anne in my time as Minister, and also as Shadow.

Anne should be very proud of the things she has done to bring together industry to promote competition, innovation and consumer interests.

She has been a strong advocate for industry working together to chart its future in the National Broadband Network-enabled world.

Well done Anne and best wishes for the future.

I have described before that building confidence will be a key factor in the development of our digital economy.

Equally, ensuring solid customer service and satisfaction is a key priority to make sure we meet that goal.

You may be aware that the Government has made a strong commitment to ensure improved outcomes for communications consumers and we strongly support this event.

The Communications Alliance should be acknowledged for shining the light on the customer service issues now facing the industry.

Industry-driven responses are a key component in addressing customer service problems in an effective and sustainable way.

This summit is a prime opportunity for stakeholders to develop clear strategies to better meet customer expectations.


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You may be aware that on Monday I helped the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman launch the first Connect.Resolve report.

The report suggested there has been stabilisation in complaints in recent times, however, it made clear there is still plenty to be done to address consumer concerns.

The increase in complaint statistics over the past 18 to 24 months cannot be wished away and it is up to industry to respond and ensure consumers have confidence in their service providers.

Of particular concern are the lowest level complaints that should be dealt with quickly and simply by telcos at the first point of customer contact.

This includes frustrations like:

1. billing errors, 2. missing information, 3. inconsistencies, and 4. failure to follow through on requests.

Complaint data for June 2009 shows that customer service and complaint-handling issues made up 35.4 per cent of all issues recorded by the TIO.

This is simply not good enough and the Government has made clear that regulation is a real prospect if long-term improvements are not made.

Having said that, the Connect.Resolve campaign should be recognised for highlighting these issues and ensuring they become a priority for industry.

As we are all aware, recognising the value and importance of protecting consumer interests is paramount to any successful business.

It makes sense that a happy customer remains a customer, and is also a prospect for additional service offerings.

Industry always has the first and best opportunity to address consumer concerns at an early stage and I am pleased to note the proactive responses of many players to the Connect.Resolve campaign to date.

Your attendance at today's summit is also a clear signal of the renewed importance consumer protection is staring to hold for industry.

I expect that discussions today will explore not only the challenges, but the opportunities for industry to enhance the customer service experience in a rapidly evolving and increasingly complex technological environment.

I encourage you to draw on experiences from other industries, and consider new and emerging resources for the industry to improve complaint-handling procedure and practice.

As I have said, the Rudd Government has made a strong commitment to ensure a better deal for communications customers and we will continue to work with industry to foster improvements.

The Government has also worked to support a new peak body representing consumer interests, to raise their voice in the broader telco regulatory and service environment.

The Government is investing $2 million annually in the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) and I know this organisation is quickly gaining momentum under the stewardship of Allan Asher and Teresa Corbin.

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ACCAN is currently developing its policy priorities for the next 12 months and I expect customer service will be high on the agenda.

It is important to note that ACCAN will not only represent disadvantaged consumers… Allan and his team have a mandate to represent consumers across the board.

I expect ACCAN to improve the interface between consumer groups and industry.

I expect it to help restore the balance between consumer and provider interests.

I know ACCAN will be making a strong effort to make itself heard and to be accessible to industry.

To those industry members here today, I urge you strongly to embrace ACCAN as a valuable partner in your efforts to improve customer service.

One of ACCAN's key tasks will be to support consumers through the provision of information, to empower them when making decisions.

Another important role is research, for example, into current and emerging consumer trends.

ACCAN has already produced well-resourced research that could be of great value to industry when trying to understand the behaviour of consumers.

ACCAN recently released two research reports, ‘Informed Consent' and ‘Customer Service', which examine key emerging issues for consumers in telecommunications.

Among other things, the reports discuss consumer relationships with service providers.

They identify that consumers have a difficult relationship with communications providers.

Consumers are experiencing increasingly poor customer service and have concerns about complaint-handling.

They are unhappy about the relationships between consumer representatives and industry.

As I said, this insight could be of great value for industry in developing its response to the customer service challenge.

On the topic of research, it is also worth noting the work of the Communications Alliance in partnership with the University of Western Sydney.

Their report, Preparing for the Broadband World: Fostering Consumer Confidence through Collaboration and Partnerships, highlights the need for collaboration rather than antagonism between service providers and consumers.

Industry sustainability and success rely on building the expectation that service providers are reliable and responsive.

In addition, consumers must believe that they are respected and their interests are being looked after.

Theses are key factors in digital confidence and the report offers industry some valuable advice.

Specifically, it suggests installing trusted processes that pre-empt problems.

These systems should help prevent problems from reaching the level of complaint

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that warrants the attention of the TIO and Government.

I commend this report to you.

As we continue to develop our digital economy it will be important to maintain a high focus and priority for consumer interests.

The Government will continue to work with industry to address this issue, but as I said, regulatory options will be considered if consumer interests are not adequately protected.

Of course, while working with industry, the Government also has an important role to ensure the broader consumer protection framework is more responsive to consumer needs.

The co-regulatory framework within the telecom sector must be flexible, responsive and capable of providing practical solutions to new and emerging consumer needs.

However, the current regime has been criticised for failing to meet these expectations adequately.

As I expect industry to meet consumer expectations, the Government must also take necessary steps to protect consumers.

That is why I announced earlier this year that I will provide ACMA with additional enforcement powers to enable the regulator to issue infringement notices.

Legislative arrangements are now being made to give ACMA these enforcement powers.

This is being done with the aim of introducing legislation this year.

Furthermore, the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy has also conducted a review of consumer-related industry code processes.

Through this review we made clear our objective to make code processes more efficient, effective and responsive.

The goal is for code processes to achieve positive outcomes for consumers while still maintaining a balance between the needs of consumers and the legitimate business interests of industry.

Seventeen industry, consumer and Government stakeholders responded to the Issues Paper, and I thank them for their valuable contributions.

I will be considering the findings of the review in the coming weeks.

Ensuring that the telecommunications consumer protection framework is robust is a core responsibility for Government and part of our commitment to improve consumer standing in this sector.

Periodically reviewing the operation of the co-regulatory framework is vital to ensure it remains relevant and able to meet consumer and industry expectations.

This is of particular relevance in such a dynamic industry and one that in the future will further underpin so many vital social and economic functions in our community.

From a broader perspective, the Government is currently overseeing an overhaul of consumer law with the establishment of the new national consumer law regime.

Elements contained in this new national package of reforms will certainly impact on the telecommunications industry.

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Changes to unfair contracts law is one area of relevance.

The new regime also provides new enforcement powers for the ACCC, which will significantly impact on compliance and enforcement activity in the telecommunications sector.

Once again, I am very pleased that we are all able to be here today for the inaugural Communications Alliance Customer Service Summit.

Since the telecommunications market was fully opened in 1997, consumers have benefited through a wide range of services and significant reductions in prices.

Some of the services on the market today offer a glimpse of what we can expect in the future as high-speed broadband is made available across the country.

The National Broadband Network promises a new era of competition and a new era of innovation, delivering new services and productivity gains across the economy.

It will mean a transformation in the way we all go about our lives and ensuring community confidence will be a big factor in the success of the services provided.

True competition in the telecommunications sector should produce improved customer service practices.

This summit is a prime opportunity for industry to consider strategies together to ensure that this becomes the case in the future.

I look forward to seeing the outcomes of today's discussions.

Once again, thank you to Anne and may I wish you all the very best for your future endeavours.

Thank you.

Document ID: 119283 | Last modified: 27 August 2009, 10:55am

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