The quality of telecom services for the disabled

By Tim Barber

Ofcom commissioned  a mystery shopping study  to check telecom companies’ compliance in providing services to disabled customers . BDRC designed the study to see what advice consumers were given by phone or email, and what information was available on the providers' websites.

We made over 1,200 telephone calls, around 150 to each operator, to enable statistically robust comparisons to be made.  We also  made calls  via the Text Relay service.  This provided an added level of realism to the project, as this method is how some hearing or speech-impaired people contact companies.

BDRC also conducted qualitative exercises to assess providers’ email responses and website information, assessing if the relevant information was provided and how easy it was to find.

The results
Following the publication of the report by Ofcom  the client felt that the results were fairly poor across all the providers surveyed. There were some slight improvements in spontaneous mentions of services available since we last carried out the research for them on this topic.  However, absolute levels of spontaneous mentions of the services available remained poor, and prompted mentions had fallen since the previous wave.  All companies surveyed performed less well than previously on prompted mentions.

On average, at least one mandated service was mentioned spontaneously 37% of the time.  After prompting, this rose to 75%, suggesting that call handlers often did know about the service in question, but hadn't mentioned it spontaneously.  However, it should be noted that, even after prompting, a significant number of calls resulted in no mandated service being mentioned, or in the caller being told specifically that the provider did not offer any special services for disabled customers (as opposed to just not mentioning any services).

Although at least one service was mentioned 75% of the time, this was not necessarily the service most likely to benefit that consumer or all the services to which the disabled person would have been entitled.  For example, priority fault repair might be suggested for a blind consumer, but not free directory enquires.  Spontaneous and prompted mentions of more than one service were very low: for three or more services, the average was 4% spontaneous and 18% prompted.

Ofcom discussed the findings of this research with the telecoms companies concerned and required them to produce detailed action plans setting out how they proposed to improve the situation.

The director of policy said that the research was “helpful to us being able to challenge the providers, and engage with them to agree changes to their behaviour which we expect to lead to a better experience for consumers now, and in future. So a very valuable piece of work.”

Katie Hanson, Consumer Policy Manager at Ofcom said after the project was complete:

We continue to receive good feedback from disability stakeholders on the design of the research, and we are seeing definite improvements in the ways in which the telecoms providers communicate with their customers…please do pass this message on to the mystery shoppers.  Disabled people they will never meet will benefit from their efforts, which is a pretty good reason to get out of bed!

The report,  written by BDRC, was published by Ofcom and can be read on their website.