Chris Lees, Research Officer, Money and Mental Health

Ofcom’s guidance for treating vulnerable customers fairly: a welcome direction in our current circumstances

30 July 2019

Last week Ofcom, the regulator of telecoms providers like mobile phone or broadband companies, published guidance on how to treat vulnerable customers fairly. The guidance is a welcome direction for telecoms firms, and it is good to see Ofcom focus on making telecoms services work better for people with mental health problems. The coronavirus pandemic is set to have a long-lasting impact on the finances and mental health of many, so this guidance is needed now more than ever. 

It is particularly good to see the guidance address two crucial challenges people with a mental health problem have when accessing telecoms services.

Making communication easier

Over half (54%) of people who have experienced mental health problems have serious difficulties speaking to essential services providers over the phone. Some people find it acutely stressful and can struggle to articulate themselves or follow the conversation if they are expected to engage in this way. All customers need to speak to their telecoms provider from time to time, to resolve service issues or to get help with managing accounts. If the telephone is the only option, many people with mental health problems will delay dealing with their problem or find it impossible to communicate in this way.

“If I have a problem, it is very difficult to ring someone to sort it out… I can’t always understand what I am being asked or told. I avoid making contact, as I am afraid of not being able to deal with it.”– Expert by Experience

We are pleased to see Ofcom recognise this issue and call on telecoms providers to offer a wide range of communication options. This will allow people with mental health problems to get in contact in the way that feels most comfortable, making it easier for people to deal with account admin and get help where needed. 

Clear, accessible information

Mental health problems can also affect our ability to process and retain information, particularly if it is complex. This can mean that people struggle to understand telecoms bills or access help resources on providers’ websites, which can lead to missed payments or not being given valuable extra help. It is essential, therefore, that information from providers is designed with these problems in mind, that it is as easy to understand as possible, and key information is highlighted.

“I feel as though my brain is in total meltdown. I cannot think very clearly at all. The mental effort required to analyse different websites and jargon is just too much. You cannot take information in, let alone process it.” – Expert by experience

We are glad to see that the new guidance from Ofcom stresses the importance of providing clear and accessible written communication, which will make telecoms services much more accessible for people with a mental health problem.

What’s next?

Ofcom’s guidance sets out a range of practical changes that telecoms providers can make that will make a big difference for their customers with mental health problems. 

We know that providers may need some assistance with supporting vulnerable customers, which is why we launched our Mental Health Accessible programme. Mental Health Accessible helps essential services providers better understand and deal with the challenges that their customers with mental health problems face. We are delighted to see Ofcom recognise Mental Health Accessible as an example of good practice in the new guidance.