The “ripple effect” from last year’s Optus data breach drove a surge in consumer complaints so substantial that the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) trialled AI to keep up, the agency has revealed as annual figures show complaints dipped 16.5 per cent overall.

Consumers turned to the TIO in record numbers in the wake of the Optus breach, the latest Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) annual report revealed, with 20,323 complaints lodged against the company – representing 30.6 per cent of the 66,388 total complaints and an increase of more than 29 per cent over the previous year.

By comparison, complaints against Telstra, the largest and traditionally most complained-about Australian telco, dropped by 35.7 per cent year on year – despite that company having far more customers than Optus – and every other major player, apart from Vodafone, saw similar declines during the year.

The TIO received some 6,800 complaints in October 2022, the month after the breach – in which millions of Optus customers’ personal and financial details were stolen and ransomed by cyber criminals – compared to 5,400 the month before.

That represented a 25.9 per cent jump in complaint volumes in just one month, creating a “ripple effect across the industry” that diverted staff away from other issues and drove the TIO’s Dispute Resolution Group to tap robotic process automation (RPA) technology to trial what ombudsman Cynthia Gebert called a “pre-conciliation tool that gave us the ability to be flexible and meet higher demand.”

The TIO’s Early Resolution Group also began exploring the use of bots and automation tools “to facilitate contacting customers for follow-up purposes,” Gebert wrote in introducing the new report – which revealed that the TIO got significantly slower at resolving complaints over the past three years.

While 53 per cent of escalated cases were closed within 60 days in fiscal 2020-21, that percentage dropped to 43 per cent last year even as the number of complaints about privacy breaches surged from 524 the year before, to 1,114 during fiscal 2023.

The slowdown highlights the difficulties posed by the major data breach and the challenges of a limited TIO workforce that, board chair Michael Lavarch said, is struggling with attrition “a touch higher than we would hope for” after employee engagement scores slumped to 53 per cent the previous year.

In fiscal 2022-23 that had rebounded to 63 per cent – still short of internal goals of 75 per cent – and Gebert said a brief July pause on the agency’s Project ECHO digital transformation project, which has been running since 2021 but had encountered “delays and hiccups”, had allowed the agency to “refocus [our] efforts to ensure we would achieve the full benefit of the transformation and get what we need out of it at its core.”

Phase one of the revamped complaints management solution is expected next month but a core part of the broader transformation will include the use of AI – which is now being eyed at board level for streamlining complaints handling and will, Lavarch said, be progressively trialled by the TIO over the next 12 to 18 months “as the Board considers its potential role in our organisation” to help compensate for ongoing staffing challenges.

“At an operational level we have our eyes on what AI can achieve for complaint handling,” he continued, noting that “the opportunities AI presents in process efficiency and productivity must be balanced with the risks for consumer and provider interactions.”

Internet, landline complaints decline

Despite the bump in Optus related complaints, the rest of the TIO report painted a relatively rose picture of an industry where overall complaint numbers were down 16.5 per cent compared to the previous year – a result that Lavarch called a “positive endorsement of industry initiatives” to improve customer complaint resolution.

Complaints about landline services dropped 38 per cent and complaints about Internet services dropped by 24.1 per cent year on year, with sharp declines in the number of complaints about having no phone or Internet service, intermittent service or dropouts, slow data speeds, or delays establishing a service – all long-term sticking points whose impact has tainted the ongoing rollout of the national broadband network (NBN).

NBN Co has worked hard over the past year to improve service, with speeds improving and plans to extend fibre to the premises services to 1 million new households – and the investment seems to have paid dividends.