Job losses are expected at the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman after a steep and unexpected decline in consumer complaints about telephone and internet services this year.
Unfortunately the TIO was expecting complaint levels to keep rising in 2012 and went on a recruitment drive in 2011.
But an email sent from the Ombudsman, Simon Cohen, to staff last week clearly shows the industry-funded body now has more investigations staff than it needs because of "the ongoing reduced demand for TIO services". He called for voluntary redundancies and said there was no guarantee more jobs would not go in the future.
The TIO expected more complaints about the closure of the old Three Mobile network, which has been split between Telstra and Vodafone, and problems installing a new complaint handling system.
"Since August 2012, we have closely monitored the closure of the 3GIS network (Three) to see what impact that may have had on complaint demand. It has not resulted in any increase in demand for TIO services. It now appears clear that the level of demand for TIO services had dropped substantially . . . this means that unfortunately the TIO still has more investigations staff than is required to do the work that is coming in," Mr Cohen wrote in an email to staff seen by BusinessDay.
The TIO had 275 staff at June 2011, up from 218 in 2009. It has grown quickly, from just 65 staff in 2004, as mobile phone and internet penetration increased and grew more complex.
It is funded by the telecommunications industry through complaint handling fees — that start at $32 and increase up to $2400 for a level four investigation — and a general levy.
TIO spokeswoman Mirjana Jovetic said the decline in complaints was welcome.
"A consequence of improvements in industry has been a slight reduction in demand for the TIO's services and we have had to offer a small number of redundancies."
However, staff claim a new conciliation scheme gives telcos too many chances to resolve a complaint before it is escalated to a higher investigation, which saves the telcos from high complaint fees. Fees did not increase between 2007 and 2011, but in July 2011 complaint fees rose by $1 for level one complaints and up to $250 for the highest level. And level two complaint fees were upped to $300 from $280 in July 2012, but all others remained the same.
Last year the TIO's revenue increased just one per cent to $28.9 million while new complaints increased 18 per cent to a record 197,682. The number of complaints reaching level two, three or four due to the new conciliation process.
But conciliation is resolving problems swiftly, according to the chief executive of the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network and TIO council member, Teresa Corbin.
"We believe that it is a better system for consumers because it provides a quicker outcome and ultimately that is what consumers want," she told BusinessDay.
"We are also aware that some telcos have been investing heavily in improving their complaint handling process."
Telstra says its level one TIO complaints have dropped by 26 per cent since mid-2011 while Vodafone's "Vodafail" episode has tailed off since it invested in network equipment and more call centre staff. Large companies have brought in usage alerts to help consumers avoid bill shock as part of new consumer protection rules.