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ombudsman news

issue 101

March/April 2012

ombudsman focus: introducing our new chairman, Sir Nicholas Montagu

Sir Nicholas Montagu joined as the new chairman of the Financial Ombudsman Service in February 2012 - succeeding Sir Christopher Kelly, who stepped down after ten years on the board.

ombudsman focus catches up with Sir Nicholas to ask his views on customer service, financial services jargon, the challenges ahead - and how he'll be following his predecessor's parting advice.

what did you know about the Financial Ombudsman Service before you joined?

I already knew broadly about the role of the ombudsman service - helping people with their difficulties with financial institutions. I was previously the chairman at the board of the Inland Revenue, where we had a Revenue Adjudicator doing something similar.

I knew from the Revenue Adjudicator's work how important it is to have someone independent and accessible handling complaints in an area that can often seem complex and confusing.

what was it about the job advert for our new chairman that attracted your attention?

I like organisations that deal simply and clearly with sorting out what are often really worrying problems for customers. The way outcomes are explained is very important - whether or not they're favourable to the parties involved in the dispute.

do chairmen have to have job interviews?

Absolutely. My application was filtered through the recruitment process. Then I was invited to an informal meeting with Sir Christopher Kelly, the previous chairman, and Natalie Ceeney, the chief ombudsman. I think this was to see whether she and I felt we'd be able to get on with each other, if I was appointed to the job! Finally, I had a formal interview with a three-person panel questioning me.

who officially appointed you as chairman - and who do you report to?

The formal appointment was made by the Financial Services Authority (FSA) - as required under the Financial Services and Markets Act. This also required the approval of HM Treasury.

As part of our formal framework of accountability, twice a year I'll be going with the chief ombudsman to meetings of the FSA's board - to talk about our work and to answer their questions. We also report formally through our annual plan and budget, our directors' report and our annual review.

I also have very real accountability in relation to the board of the Financial Ombudsman Service, whose members are the non-executive directors. I'll want to be sure that as part of the board's appraisal process - involving self-appraisals - I'll be appraised in my own role as chairman.

the job of chairman of the ombudsman service is described as 'non-executive'. What does this mean in practice - and will this be a change for you?

It means I'll be leaving Natalie Ceeney and the executive team to run the service on a day-to-day basis. I'll be available to support them, being a 'critical friend' for them to bounce ideas off.

More formally, being the non-executive chairman also means ensuring there's a robust process for challenging the executive team constructively - and holding them to account. And, of course, chairing the ombudsman service means a real involvement in setting the strategic direction for our plans.

I also see the role of the chairman as important at a representative level - for example, in maintaining strong relationships with stakeholder organisations.

But no, none of this will be a huge change for me. Since I retired as chairman at the Revenue, all the things I've done have been on a non-executive basis.

what kind of knowledge do you already have of retail financial services - do you know your APRs from your OEICs?

I'm not going to fall into the acronym trap! And I don't like acronyms and jargon, because they so often exclude rather than inform - and that in itself can cause problems that lead to complaints.

But more generally - yes, of course, I've got a lot to learn, which is why I've been going through a hefty induction over the last few months. Helpfully, my experience in establishing and chairing the Aviva With-Profits Committee - and as a board member of a couple of pension companies - has given me a broad grounding in the kind of things we deal with at the ombudsman service.

And a lot of our cases are quite similar in some ways to the social security or tax disputes that I saw in government.

in the press release announcing your appointment, Lord Turner, the FSA chairman, described you as a 'customer-service champion'. Why do you think that's important?

It's important because we want to be recognised and trusted as the place where consumers and financial businesses alike can get a fair and impartial review of their case if they can't sort things out between themselves - whether or not the eventual outcome is in their favour.

customer service may not be what most people immediately think of, if you ask about their experience of paying tax! What change did you oversee, when you were chairman of the Inland Revenue, that you think made the biggest difference to customers?

One of the things I'm proudest of is getting the Revenue away from the idea that it was Revenue civil servants who 'owned' the tax system - and to start seeing taxpayers and tax-credit claimants as customers.

We recognised that we needed people to see themselves as customers - to help them make their affairs as easy to understand and resolve as possible.

Introducing customer contact centres and making sure we led the way in government 'e-services' helped a lot with this. I'm also proud of making the Revenue a leading organisation in the public sector in terms of diversity - a particular passion of mine.

do you think consumers and businesses alike should have the same level of customer service?

Of course. Settling for less than the best service you can give is an admission of failure.

what's the best customer service you've ever experienced personally?

It was the superb service provided by the insurance company that handled my travel insurance claim for disruption caused by volcanic ash.

... and the worst?

A nightmarish hotel in Yorkshire - with unspeakable food and poor accommodation. When I checked out, the receptionist asked if I'd enjoyed my stay. I said I hadn't and explained why - but she clearly didn't listen, because she simply said, ""ell, hope to see you again soon."

did you complain about that poor experience?

There was no point after that. I just said, "I think that's most unlikely" and left.

what are your top tips for getting a complaint taken seriously?

Think about the heart of what you're complaining about, state it at the outset and then support it with relevant facts. When you're steamed up, it's tempting to throw everything into your complaint bar the kitchen sink - but don't.

have we become a nation of complainers?

No. But we've become a nation that's moved away from old-style deference to big institutions towards the expectation that we're entitled to decent service. And I think that's healthy.

what do you think will be the biggest challenges for financial businesses in the year ahead?

Given the economic environment, financial pressures on businesses are undoubtedly going to be considerable. The challenge will be to make sure that the urgent pressures of the moment don't knock other priorities off course.

And for businesses, it's obvious that treating people fairly has to come right up there at the top of the list of priorities.

what are you most looking forward to as chairman of the Financial Ombudsman Service?

Working with committed people at all levels in the organisation.

... and what do you think the most difficult part of your job will be?

Identifying the areas where the board collectively - and I personally - can add most value - and making sure we concentrate on those areas.

what would you like to have achieved in your first year as chairman?

I'll want to have a deep understanding of the ombudsman service and its future direction - and a real feel for how we should take that vision and direction forward. I'll also want our strong relationship with our wide range of external stakeholders to continue.

But it's really important for me, as well, that I can get to know colleagues right across the ombudsman service - and be open and accessible for them. I want people to feel they can tell me what they think - and I'm always open to new ideas.

and finally - your predecessor, Sir Christopher Kelly, gave three words of advice for the incoming chairman - 'question, probe, challenge'. How will you be doing that?

I'll be asking lots of questions as I get to know my way around. I'm never worried about looking stupid - and I've often found that it's the 'stupid' questions that turn out to be the most challenging ones!

In board meetings I'll want to make sure that the non-executive directors and I use each other's talents to the full - in challenging the executive team and each other. When you're all pursuing the same goals, there's no threat in that - and it makes for solutions that stick and that the executive and non-executive team are all happy with.