Over a month ago, Kable published a cryptic piece on how disadvantaged people use public services.  But there was no trace of the research on which it was apparently based.  Now it has finally appeared on the National Consumer Council website.

It was worth waiting for.  It turns out to be a project called consumer futures, addressing some big difficult questions:

What does it mean to be a consumer in the 21st century? What is the nature and extent of consumer disadvantage? How can consumers’ needs best be addressed by decision-makers in government and business?

There are four documents – three punchy leaflets, and a slightly more detailed research paper which covers much the same content.  They are all worth reading.

People made six simple requests:

Listen to us.

“…something more like you’re doing here [deliberative forum], and people
actually listened and did something, things would be better.”

Talk to us face-to-face.

“…because if it’s not face-to-face people won’t believe they’ll do anything.”

Come and see how we live.

“…they should send people to live in the community to find out for themselves – it’s ok listening to us, someone needs to be there to see what it’s really like.”

Help us make our voices heard.

“It’s difficult for us to get anywhere, to say what we want.”

Give us feedback – no more ‘fake listening’.

“They make a big deal about collaborating and listening to everyone, which they do  but in the final [council] decision the weighting given to local people is 20%.We’re the ones who have to put up with it, why isn’t it 80% for us and 20% for them? It’s an indication of the fundamental problem. They’re communicating with us in the sense  that they’re getting our views, but they’re not listening and responding appropriately.”

Be honest with us.

“…if you can’t do anything for people, tell them you can’t.”

Different service providers will wince at different parts of the material – though none of it makes comfortable reading .  For many, the most telling part describes the profound difficulties of telephone-based contact:

Call centres have become one of the biggest consumer bugbears of our time. Complaints relating to poor customer service were widespread among forum participants.The rapid growth of call centres in public services, as well as in the private sector, means that consumers have little choice but to deal with them.

Call centres are unpopular with most consumers, and there is evidence that the reliance on them is even more detrimental to disadvantaged consumers, for a number of reasons.

The forum discussions confirmed previous research indicating that disadvantaged consumers prefer face-to-face interaction, particularly where there is a problem. They are less confident about telephone transactions and find it harder and more time consuming to get problems resolved this way. Issues that could have been easily addressed by popping into a local shop or office can escalate when they have to be addressed via a call centre.  Experiences of having to make multiple calls, being unable to speak to someone with the authority to deal with their problem, repeating the same information to several different people each time they called, being left on hold for long periods, and finding that promised actions were not followed up, were all common complaints. There was widespread agreement within the forums that call centres make it far harder to resolve problems.

In addition, having to telephone meant that people incurred extra costs, which can be disproportionately high for disadvantaged consumers. It was not unusual for forum participants to have limited access to landline telephones either because they did not have one at home or, more commonly, because they couldn’t use a landline phone during office hours. Often the only way they could contact a call centre was using a mobile, where ‘freephone’ numbers may not apply – and often on a pay-as-you-go basis, which is generally more expensive. While some companies’ call centres will call people back on landline numbers, many, especially in public services, will not return calls to mobiles.

For pay-as-you-go mobile phone users, time spent talking, or on hold, to a call centre left them without phone credit for their normal everyday usage.

A minority of people did not have access to either a landline or a mobile phone, so contacting a call centre meant a trip to a public phone box, where being unable to talk to the right person, being put on hold for long periods or being asked to call back is particularly problematic.

This is such powerful stuff that if feels churlish to cavil.  But it seems a very strange set of priorities for the NCC to be highlighting and drawing media attention to their worthy but rather less earth shattering work on software licences while all of this doesn’t even seem to rate a press release.