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ombudsman news

issue 104

August/September 2012

ombudsman focus: casework experiment

You might have noticed in our recent annual review that we've been experimenting. We've been trialling a new approach to handling some complaints involving e-money and money transfers. ombudsman news caught up with Jane Hingston, lead ombudsman, to find out how it's been going ...

So what's the background to this project, Jane?

I'd been talking with colleagues about how rapidly people are changing the way they use financial services - and what this means for us. The project really came about from one of those conversations.

Our tried-and-tested approach to casework works well for the more established ways of using financial services. But we thought there would be value in trying something new for consumers who had particular complaints involving e-money and money transfers.

We wanted to make sure we could meet people's changing expectations - which can be very different if they've used services like these. If someone has dealt with their e-money provider entirely over the internet, or was attracted to a type of money transfer that offered "instant" service, then it may seem strange for that consumer to have to adapt to our more formal, paper-based service if things go wrong.

How did your early ideas take shape?

The first thing to say is that we didn't have a blueprint for this. We knew that a conventional project-management approach just wouldn't work - and that we needed to be far more fluid, learning lessons as we went and tweaking things along the way.

We soon realised that we needed to start by setting aside our standard process and procedures, so that we were forced to think in new ways about how we could best help these customers - consumers and businesses alike.

The first thing we did was to remove the traditional division we have between "enquiries" and "complaints". This left the way clear for us to challenge more of our traditional assumptions about "casework".

We wondered whether it would be possible to give our people licence to engage with the parties and just "sort it" - without all the usual trappings of complaint form, signatures, questionnaires and acceptance forms.

We also wondered how we could give our people more freedom to tailor their approach to suit each individual case. And we asked ourselves how, in an organisation of 2,000 people, someone phoning us could get straight through to talk to the person they needed.

Finally, we had to rethink timescales. Of course we aim to resolve everyone's case as quickly as possible. But given that these consumers were used to being able to communicate with their financial provider in a more immediate and informal way, we were particularly keen to be able to engage in as near to "real time" as we could.

So, effectively, it was pushing the boundaries on all fronts.

Sounds ambitious. How did you define success for the project?

We didn't go into this with a cut and dried definition of what would constitute "success". We thought that would be too limiting and might cause us to miss some really good chances to learn and build on new ways of doing things. We were also careful not to prejudge what our customers would like best. We thought it would be better to simply get their feedback, once they had experienced the newer way of doing things!

So how did you make it happen?

Once we'd got some good ideas about what we wanted to try, we knew we needed to get the right partners involved. So we were very pleased when two major financial players responded especially enthusiastically - with their most senior people wanting to get directly involved.

So far as our own team was concerned, we created a small group who could deal with enquiries and complaints as soon as consumers contacted us. We then got straight to work on sorting out whatever had gone wrong. In most cases, this meant sorting problems for customers in hours or days rather than weeks or months.

This was a big change for us - but less of a surprise for our customers (something I'd like to come back to later). What this approach meant was that the front-line team had to be real experts in the subject - so that as soon as a consumer called, they could immediately speak to someone who said,"yes, I understand exactly what you're talking about".

When it came to putting a framework in place for dealing with people's problems, we were determined not to be constrained by "we've always done it like this" thinking. So we decided to try things and see what worked and what didn't - and then scale up or scale down, based on what happened.

We also realised that the technology we used to engage with customers would need to be rather different. We'd be doing more over the phone, over the internet and by text - and writing very few conventional letters.

But even though we'd adopted a more fluid approach, we still had to make sure we had proper systems in place to record what had happened in each case and the same standard of quality control and monitoring as we have in our "mainstream" casework.

We also wanted to capture information about what sorts of approaches worked well, and what went less well than we had hoped. That would enable us to build on those initiatives that seemed to work best.

How did you get on when the phone started ringing? Did it all go smoothly?

Well, there are always early glitches in any project, and this was no exception. But we'd prepared ourselves for them, and were determined to learn as we went along."Techie" issues are inevitable with a project like this. So we seemed to be permanently on call to our IT helpdesk. We found ourselves fixing and adapting things as we went along, which perhaps made life for our IT team a bit more exciting than they had bargained for - but they supported us brilliantly!

We also found ourselves fighting against the urge to create a "process for no process". Like any large organisation dealing with casework, we have frameworks and processes to make sure our service is consistent. But with these cases, the team was dealing with real life as it happens. So we were absolutely determined to make sure that any pieces of process we did introduce weren't there to be a comfort blanket for us - but genuinely to help our customers.

So once it was up and running, how did you decide whether the new approach was working?

One obvious sign was the far shorter time it took us to get problems sorted out for customers. We were really pleased - and so were the two financial businesses involved - to have sorted out some consumers' problems in less than an hour.

Customer satisfaction was the other big indicator. Even where the outcome of their getting in touch with us was not what they had hoped for, consumers were still generally very pleased with the way we had treated them.

What else did people have to say about it?

Well, nine out of ten consumers rated this approach to sorting their problem highly. That was whether or not we had come down in their favour.

The key things that consumers appreciated were having just one person dealing with their problem, the depth of knowledge of the person they dealt with, and the interest that person took in what had happened and how they could help.

We were delighted with this. We'd worked hard to make sure our front-line team had an exceptionally thorough knowledge of the products that these consumers would be contacting us about, and about how the products worked in practice. It really paid off.

Did anything in the feedback surprise you?

Interestingly, many people were fairly neutral about the time it took to sort things out. They were often very pleased by the fact that things had been settled so quickly - but they thought the timescale was about right for the type of problem they had brought to us.

We could see the logic in this. If e-payments and money transfers can happen so quickly, why shouldn't problems be sorted out equally speedily?

How did the businesses involved in the project find it?

I must say we are really grateful to the two businesses for their positive attitude and willingness to take a chance with something new. We have had positive feedback from them throughout the project and they seem to have found it a refreshing way to work!

So would this approach work for everything?

I don't think we could automatically replicate this with every type of case we deal with here. But on a practical level, it's given us a lot of operational ideas that we need to think through in terms of how they might work on a larger scale. And that doesn't mean we can't use and develop many of the techniques and approaches that we used during this experiment. So we're certainly thinking about whether - and how - we can take these ideas forward.

We also know that a key reason for the success of the project was that the financial businesses that took part were geared up to providing us with the right information really quickly (usually within 21 hours - rather than 21 days!). And most significantly, they invested in putting the right number of people - with the right levels of authority - at the interface with us. These were businesses who really understood that handling customer problems well isn't just about "compliance" with the rules - it's the very heart of good customer service.

Finally, how would you sum up your own feelings about the project?

I think what I'm most pleased about is that many of the things consumers told us they liked best are things we can easily work to improve across the ombudsman service as a whole - without needing to introduce any new processes.

Our people pride themselves on their professionalism and knowledge, and we have already adapted our organisational structure to make sure expertise can be shared more easily.

And it's been really interesting to have the freedom to work on sorting out problems for businesses and their customers without the normal constraints of the "traditional" process. I was particularly impressed with the way our project team was able to pick up and put into practice the brief for this experimental project - testing out different ways of sorting problems and complaints without the usual process and procedures.

Finally, it struck me that the fact consumers weren't totally bowled over by the timescales we managed to achieve - settling problems in days not months - probably means that it was our assumptions about how long is "about right" that were out of line - not theirs. I think this is a useful reminder - never assume you know best!