The latest Telecommunication Industry Ombudsman’s report has exposed weaknesses in telco offshoring strategies with the regulator experiencing a surge in complaints about call centres following the COVID-19 shutdowns.

Overall complaints about telecommunications services declined as telecommunications providers worked to meet demand during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, new industry figures have shown, but critics have pointed to a 1500 per cent surge in one particular type of complaint as evidence that Australians can no longer tolerate offshore contact centres.

The TIO received127,151 overall complaints about phone and Internet service providers during the 2019-20 financial year, the organisation’s newly released annual report found, with 85.5 per cent of complaints coming from residential customers.

Figures were well down from the industry peak of 167,831 complaints in fiscal 2017-18 – a “sustained decrease” that John Stanton, CEO of telecommunications industry organisation Communications Alliance, welcomed as a result of “significant work by telcos to improve the customer experience while continuing to deliver lower costs and increased value”.

Yet while overall complaints were down, the most recent year saw an 18 per cent year-on-year surge in the number of complaints escalated for rapid resolution.

Fully 49.2 per cent of all complaints related to connection, change of provider or service quality issues, while a third of complaints related to Internet services – whose importance was felt particularly keenly in the last third of the financial year as remote working and remote schooling drove an unprecedented dependence on resilient telecommunications.

Complaints about Internet services surged 47 per cent during the first six months of 2020 – from 8736 complaints in the December quarter to 10,659 in the March quarter and 12,851 in the June quarter – as COVID-19 demands brought consumers face-to-face with the limitations of their Internet services.

“The extraordinary events of the year meant that consumers have increasingly had to rely on telecommunications services and internet to continue to live, work and educate,” Ombudsman Judi Jones said in announcing the new figures, “and many have faced frustrations as providers worked to adapt to unprecedented challenges.”

A blow for offshoring

Those challenges drove a fundamental reckoning for companies maintaining large contact centres that were overwhelmed under customer demand during the pandemic’s early days.

Not only were call volumes exploding, but telecommunications providers – like airlines, travel companies, government agencies and other large service organisations – were hit with a double whammy as offshore workers went offline due to local lockdowns.

This led to long phone queues and unanswered calls, fuelling what the TIO now reports as a 1500 per cent year-on-year surge in complaints from customers complaining that they could not contact Internet providers when they needed their help the most.

That “appalling” figure “paints a vivid picture for the failed strategy of offshoring jobs,” Macquarie Telecom group executive Luke Clifton said as the TIO figures emerged.

“Offshoring never worked,” he said, but “unfortunately it has taken this crisis for many providers to recognise that.”

In July, a COVID-19 specific analysis by the TIO found that Australia’s telecommunications providers “coped well” as they raced to adapt to the new normal – thanks to moves by the likes of Datacom, Telstra and Optus to add much thousands of Australian contact centre operators.

Stanton downplayed offshoring’s role in the uncontactability complaints, arguing that the 1500 per cent surge came from a “very low base level of 127 complaints” in the previous year and noting that contactability complaints “have now returned to pre-COVID levels.”

Clifton, however, remains unconvinced.

Although there had been “some positive signs that telcos and other industries are willing to reverse the systemic offshoring of Australian jobs,” he conceded, the TIO figures suggested a high prevalence of “fed up” Australians – confirming that, for an industry that has never been important to everyday life, “there is much more to be done.”

“The telco industry needs to step up,” he said, “and drastically improve customer satisfaction and contribute to the economic recovery by hiring here, not over there.”

Australian contact-centre recruiter Citrus Group noted that contact-centre onshoring had created “openings for people of all ages and all skill levels”, with joint managing director Paul Smith encouraging businesses to “open the doors to people who previously have not considered a role in this industry”.