skip tocontent

the power of listening: rebuilding trust by setting new standards

Natalie Ceeney, chief ombudsman, speaks at the annual international banking conference

London, October 2013

The theme of this conference - "consumers, growth, standards" - is one that resonates with our goals at the ombudsman service. We were set up to help businesses and consumers resolve complaints informally, without fuss.

What we all want is to see:

  • better relationships between businesses and their customers;
  • businesses that nurture and grow customer loyalty; and
  • strong customer service standards.

But in my job, I see what happens when these don't work. And in my time as chief ombudsman - nearly four years now - I've seen far too much going wrong.

The ombudsman service has two goals. The first is to sort out individual complaints. The second one is to share insight into those complaints - to help identify what's going on with consumers and businesses to prevent those issues arising in the first place.

And so I'd like to take the opportunity today to share some of those insights with you. I'd like to share what we see. And what we think businesses might take away to strengthen and rebuild relationships with a customer-base that - like the financial services sector itself - has taken some hard knocks over the last decade.

where are we now?

Since I joined the ombudsman service nearly four years ago, our workforce has more than doubled - as our workload has risen from dealing with 163,000 cases in 2010 to over 500,000 last year.

Our increasing workload is a reflection of more consumers complaining. Since I joined the ombudsman service in 2010, the volume of complaints reported to the FCA by banks and building societies has doubled, from 2.5m in 2010 to over 5m by the end of 2012.

More and more people across all aspects of society are saying "this went wrong for me, and the business hasn't put it right".

The good news is that I'm now hearing the right words from financial institutions about what you want to do to turn things around. I meet senior leaders from banks on a regular basis. And over the past year I've heard an increasing commitment to treating customers well - and restoring trust. That's something that everyone in the UK will want to see happen.

But there's also a danger here. You might have moved on. But your customers haven't. Your customer's experience today will lag tomorrow's aspiration.

You might all be focusing on new products, better sales approaches and clearer pricing. But many of your customers are struggling with past failings.

Your customers are realising that products sold to them a decade ago weren't what they needed. Or they are only now discovering that they were persuaded to buy products that they could never use.

And for many consumers, they are battling with a complaints "infrastructure" that's slow, bureaucratic and doesn't "live your brand".

It is, of course, crucial that the mistakes of the past don't happen again. As the recent Commission on Banking Standards said:

"Trust in banking can only be restored when it has been earned, and it will only have been earned when the deficiencies in banking standards and culture, and the underlying causes of those deficiencies, have been addressed."

But it's just as important to put past wrongs right. Consumers won't trust you until they see that their case has been sorted out. That they are treated as a valuable customer and not just as a vehicle for making more money.

You need to sort out the past as well as prepare for the future.

what are you saying?

You only have to pick up a newspaper to see the mismatch between the aspiration and the reality - as perceived by many consumers.

Let me start with what you're saying.

We've all got our values - our slogans, our mottos, our straplines. They're a statement of who we are - who we want to be.

And I know from speaking with leaders across the financial services sector that you want to deliver this for your customers.

But the reality for many consumers is very different.

A study by Mintel this year showed that of nearly 1,800 people surveyed:

  • the majority (63%) felt they'd been let down by a financial services provider at some point in the last two years;
  • 25% felt they'd been let down "numerous times"; and
  • 34% said they "always expect the worst" when dealing with financial service providers.

It's easy to blame newspaper headlines. But in my job I see what goes wrong. And I can see just how many customers of your banks are let down when they tell you that something has gone wrong. I can see how those headlines get written.

So if you want to restore trust, you all need to do more than promise. You need to deliver.

what are we hearing?

So what's happening when people tell you things are going wrong? Cases we see at the ombudsman service can give us a real insight here.

For example, in a case I saw just the other day, failings in internal record-keeping by the bank meant that the consumer's solicitor had to send the bank a copy of their Lasting Power of Attorney on six separate occasions - and even after we got involved, the bank still asked us for this document on two more occasions.

What this says to me is that this bank needs to get its house in order. As our population ages and more people struggle to manage their affairs, it's natural that people might appoint representatives to help them.

So when things go wrong, you need to communicate with people and their representatives in a way that genuinely meets their needs. Financial services providers need to be able to deal with this reality - because if they can't, it causes huge distress, inconvenience and cost.

Consumers are forming their opinions of you every time they deal with you - and particularly when things go wrong.

When a business doesn't handle things well, it reinforces their worst suspicions. It makes your job in turning things around all the harder.

I'm starting to believe that the experience of the last decade has fostered "the lost generation" of customers. A generation of mistrust and missed opportunities - meaning that instead of focusing on growth and innovation, you now have to focus on repairing reputations.

You need to deal with this if you want to rebuild trust. But the good news is that you have the power to stop this "cycle of scandal" in its tracks.

And I truly believe it starts with turning it around for customers who make complaints.

consumers have a lot to say … who's listening?

We have opportunities to set things right all the time. And our new ways of connecting with customers means that we can do that more powerfully than ever before.

There's a famous Twitter story about an American journalist who was about to miss her connecting flight because of a delay of 30 minutes.

The impact of the delay on her probably meant nothing for Delta Airlines. But for her, it was the difference between making it home or sleeping in the airport.

And just one tweet from her and the business had resolved the issue in 11 minutes. It's a brilliant example of customer service.

And as consumer behaviour changes - this is the new standard to match. In an age where the private can go public in just 140 characters, we need to match customer expectations.

So what are the new expectations?

Well, despite the sense that the economy is turning the corner, money is still tight. For many consumers, the £50 that was lost in interest when their ISA wasn't transferred on time - or that was incurred in charges when a standing order was wrongly delayed - really matters.

And over the last decade - whether we're talking about politics, the media or financial services - we've seen a collapse in people's trust in authority. People are a lot more willing to speak up where they see things going wrong.

And we're in a world where technology has changed the conversation. If you can send a payment around the world in 30 seconds, why does it take eight weeks to sort out a complaint if things go wrong?

Let's ask another question. If something goes wrong with a customer's account, you ask them to put it right straightaway. How much longer do you think they're going to be content with giving you eight weeks?

So how do you meet these expectations in financial services? Is it too much to ask?

what happens when you really listen

A week or so ago a consumer contacted our helpline in real distress. In fact, because of the circumstances involved, he was so desperate for help that he was suicidal.

Technically, under the complaints-handling rules, the case should have been handled first by the business involved.

But rather than the business taking the full eight weeks "allowed" under the rules - with lots of forms and paperwork - we and the business worked together to get things sorted for the customer in 48 hours.

The result was that not only did the consumer's financial problem get sorted - we were also able to get the consumer in touch with the right kind of support locally to help him pick up the pieces in other areas of his life as well.

Later on the consumer emailed us with an update:

I don't think you fully appreciate how much of a blessing you have been to me and my family … I really believe that we are starting a new, and much more positive approach to our finance. It may sound corny, but it's thanks to you we have reached this more positive phase in our lives … What more can I say but thank you.

So how did we do it?

First, we listened. The consumer had financial difficulties and was at the end of his tether - all over a relatively small sum of money. So we rang up the business and spoke to a person who was willing to get things sorted out - over the phone.

No "process", no "signatures", no "forms". We did it on his terms. We were able to tell him who at the business was going to call him, and when. And the business kept that promise.

But this could have been your story - not mine. So what does this tell me? It tells me there is another way.

turning it around - a new perspective

Let's look at "complaints" from another angle. We all know that things can go wrong, and many things have gone wrong in the past. Over the past decade we've seen a major series of scandals in banking which have rocked consumer confidence to the core.

It's how we deal with things going wrong which challenges perceptions, and turns them around.

Study after study shows that consumers are more loyal if something that's gone wrong gets fixed, than if they never had a problem in the first place.

So here's my challenge to you: step away from the word "complaint."

How about "feedback" instead?

Let me ask you a question. How delighted would you be if your marketing teams approached you tomorrow and said that over five million customers had given you feedback on your services?

Wouldn't you seize the chance to pore over their comments? To find out what made them tick. And to use this insight to inform new ways of working, new products, better services, a new relationship with your customer base?

Well, I'm pleased to tell you it's already happened - with the 5 million complaints that you reported to your regulator last year. That's 5 million people giving you honest feedback - for free.

We talk about trust - but trust is a hollow word if it's just something you talk about wanting.

Trust is something you earn. And it starts with honest dialogue. Trusting your customers enough to listen more deeply - and insightfully. And using that insight to explore new opportunities to connect, learn and improve.

The ombudsman service can help. I'm pleased to say that we're already working with many of you, to take these key steps towards rebuilding consumer trust.

We hear what you want to do to make good on your customer promises - to turn your aspirations into action.

Let's work together so your customers can hear it as well.

chief executive and Natalie Ceeney, chief ombudsman

useful links