Our purpose is to build a connected future so that everyone can thrive. We’re committed to providing our customers the best technology, the best network and the best experience, and that also means acknowledging when we got it wrong.

Yesterday I spoke about responsible business at the Financial Counsellors Association of Queensland’s Annual Conference – including why it’s important to us, what it means for our culture, and why we’ve committed to do better.

Since we announced our T22 strategy in June 2018, we have made strong progress on our journey to become a simpler, leaner business and to focus more on our customers’ experiences with us. We have removed major pain points for our customers and fundamentally altered the way we sell our products and services, including radically reducing the number of plans we offer from more than 1800 down to just 20.

We’ve also made many other changes to become a more inclusive, aware and responsible business – which has meant confronting some uncomfortable truths about our past actions.

We’ve spoken previously about an issue we became aware of in a small number of our partner stores which had sold mobile devices and plans to some customers that ultimately could not afford them. This included sales to Indigenous Australians, some living in remote communities.

Some customers found themselves facing significant debts, particularly in excess data charges, that caused stress and anxiety. We didn’t make it easy enough for customers to engage us about this – it’s an uncomfortable truth that we let some of our customers down.

The issue is currently being investigated by the ACCC for potential unconscionable conduct and may result in a legal action against us. This is a serious matter, and we’re not shying away from it.

We recognised at the time that we had to do more than just improve our processes and work harder; we needed to change how we provide access to connectivity for our customers.

Changing our business to better suit our customers

Underpinning our change was a move in 2018 to implement new “peace of mind” plans with no excess data and no lock-in contracts across fixed, mobile and broadband services. This removes high excess data charges for our customers. We’ve also separated the phone purchase from the plan purchase, so the financial commitment people are making when they put a phone on a plan is more explicit.

We’ve changed how our partners are incentivised and have removed some frontline staff that haven’t followed process, and have implemented new training including cultural awareness education. We have waived bills over $1000 across some of our high-risk postcodes, and bills over $100 for sales in a number of specific stores. We’ve also improved our credit processes, and have gone above and beyond the new Telecommunications Consumer Protections Code with more safeguards and restrictions on device purchases.

Data is also helping us identify and respond to the needs of vulnerable customers. We’ve profiled the accounts of around 465,000 customers which we believe have indicators of some potential form of vulnerability or hardship, and have excluded these accounts from all direct mail, SMS, mail and telemarketing. We have also been working towards a process to allow customers to trade down or trade in devices when they are no longer affordable.

We recognise that these things help customers purchasing from now and will help avoid the problems of the past, but we are also very focused on resolving any existing issues our customers may have. Our intention is to do right by all customers, and we know every customer is different, has different needs and will need a potentially different solution.

Importantly, we have met with customers and communities affected by this issue to apologise.

While the issue of how to better serve vulnerable customer groups is and continues to be of critical importance, the underlying issue is affordability more generally. We are increasingly aware the cost of many devices is rising, and that is why we are looking at asking questions of customers to better help determine what they can afford based on their income, other expenses and personal circumstances.

We know that our changes as a whole are having an impact. Indeed, complaints around mobile data have reduced 68 per cent year-on year. Complaints around lack of clarity at sale have also reduced 37 per cent. We believe our plans represent the best and fairest in the market, and we are helping customers move onto them.

Introducing a mobile phone affordability initiative

We’ll also be introducing a new mobile phone affordability initiative at the end of March for people on a low income. This is a $30/month mobile plan offer with peace of mind data shaped after 2GB, with an optional $99 Blue Tick handset.

There is more that we can do for customers in financial hardship, too – so we are. We are setting up a dedicated 1800 number for customers in financial hardship to speak directly to a specialised customer care team, and improving our website to provide more information and guidance on financial hardship.

We’ve already made our Telstra Top-Up program available to specialist homelessness services across Australia, and we’ve extended this to emergency relief agencies assisting people impacted by natural disasters. We’re also working with financial counsellors on a simplified authority form to make life easier for them when advocating for customers.

We have thought long and hard about how this issue should change the way we do business. We have taken several significant steps to do this, but we also acknowledge that we have further to go.