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ombudsman news

issue 130

November/December 2015

ombudsman focus: business feedback

We want everyone who uses us to have confidence that we’ll give fair, expert answers to complaints. And each year - from conversations with trade bodies and consumer groups, regular meetings, surveys and formal consultations - we ask for feedback from the people who use and fund our service.

When we’ve resolved a complaint, we also ask the people involved - the business complaints handler and the customer who contacted us - to tell us about their experience using our service. This helps us to better understand what we’re doing well and where we could improve - as well as identifying any misunderstandings we need to address.

In this ombudsman focus we highlight and respond to some of the recent comments and suggestions we’ve received from complaints handlers at businesses.

 

I felt the adjudicator had a limited knowledge of the way the investments in question work

image: John Morris, Zoe Harvey and Sam Rutherford

Clare Mortimer, managing ombudsman

 

A business will - hopefully - understand the products they’re selling and recommending. And we need to ensure our people can resolve the wide-ranging, sometimes life-changing problems that reach us involving these products.

So clearly, an understanding of financial products and services is part of our work. But beyond a certain point, just knowing the intricate detail and structure of, for example, a specific investment product won’t help with the more pressing question of moving things forward. I’ve seen all too often the nub of a problem - and a clear practical solution - being totally overlooked, with too much focus on irrelevant technical arguments.

I think anyone dealing with complaints needs, first and foremost, to be an expert in problem-solving. And most importantly, that’s about listening to different perspectives and unpicking what’s gone wrong. In some cases, we also need to clarify something that a business hasn’t communicated particularly well - which of course means having expert knowledge of how financial products and services work.

In my experience, focusing too narrowly on technical ins and outs risks overlooking the real practical and emotional impact of what’s happened. Say we’ve decided someone’s been unfairly charged a large fee. Yes, to make sure they’re not out of pocket, we’ll need to understand what needs to happen to reverse it. But did they need that money for something else? What about the worry the mistake caused? These are very practical questions our people might ask, which may not have been addressed by the business.

I know this issue is very important to businesses. And we invest significant time and resources each year in training and developing our people. But for us to do our job effectively, those skills have to be much broader than purely product-based. That’s why the type of work we do attracts people from all sorts of backgrounds, where seeing the bigger picture is essential - from solicitors and barristers, to auditors and Trading Standards enforcement officers.

These claims companies just seem able to put in a complaint about anything without any specific arguments. You should penalise them for making unqualified claims

image: John Morris, Zoe Harvey and Sam Rutherford

Steve Townsley, senior ombudsman

 

Over the last few years, we’ve received significant numbers of complaints through commercial claims-management companies - nearly exclusively about PPI, and more recently about packaged bank accounts. As an ombudsman working in this area, I’m well aware of some businesses’ views about claims managers - as well as sometimes hearing concerns from people who’ve used them to complain.

While it’s ultimately people’s personal choice, I think it’s right that we’ve always made it absolutely clear there’s no need for people to pay for help to bring a complaint to us. And we’ve always stressed how important it is that we hear from people in their own words - so we can really get to the heart of why they’re unhappy.

Given the thousands of complaints we get through claims managers, it’s not surprising that some people think it’s our job to regulate them - and that we should be calling them up on poor practice. Parliament didn’t set us up to regulate claims managers, so where we see bad practice we talk to their own regulator - the Claims Management Regulator, part of the Ministry of Justice. We highlight where things need to improve, and the information we pass on helps the Claims Management Regulator take action where standards aren’t being met.

We also work closely with claims managers themselves - to help stop the unfocused, generic type of arguments you’ve mentioned. We regularly meet them to make sure they understand exactly how we work - particularly those claims managers who send us the most complaints. 

I’m pleased to see that this work with claims managers is having a real impact. It includes telling them to review carefully the cases they’ve already sent - or were planning to send - to us. In the area of packaged bank accounts alone, these frank conversations have led to claims managers deciding not to pursue several thousand complaints.

From what I’ve seen, businesses can play their part in helping to avoid unnecessary complaints being made by claims management companies. Some claims managers tell us they haven’t been given a full answer to a complaint by the business. Sometimes it’s only after we step in that a business really engages with the complaint - sending us strong evidence, for example, that their customer specifically wanted a particular packaged account.

By being clear and open from the start - and taking the time to explain what’s happened - businesses can improve their relationships with their customers, and play their part in reducing the number of complaints consumers refer to us.

All this frees up both our - and businesses’ - resources. It also means people find out sooner rather than later if they haven’t actually lost out.

I recently called your technical advice desk and followed their advice to the letter. But when the customer later referred the complaint to you, you upheld it

image: John Morris, Zoe Harvey and Sam Rutherford

Sarah Lawrence, technical advice desk manager

 

The ombudsman’s technical advice desk has been an important part of our complaint prevention work since 2000. Since then we’ve been helping people who deal with complaints at the front line - from businesses through to community advice workers - to resolve problems themselves, without officially escalating things to the ombudsman.

Between us, we’re experts in explaining how our fair approach applies to all kinds of situations. But the nature of our role means we can only ever give an informal steer based on the one side of the story we are being told.

On the other hand, when one of our adjudicators is looking into a problem, they’ll have listened to both sides’ views before deciding what’s fair. And if it’s been a while from when you phoned the advice desk to when your customer contacted us, circumstances may well have moved on anyway. For both these reasons, an adjudicator’s or ombudsman’s answer can be different to the initial steer we’ve previously given.

I’m always really interested in feedback like yours. To me, it shows there’s more we can do to explain what we’re here for and the support we offer. Our free events around the UK for smaller businesses are also a great way of finding about our approach and the different ways we can help you resolve complaints fairly - as well as meeting our ombudsmen face to face and asking questions directly.

 

I think businesses should be able to challenge consumers face to face when they bring complaints to the ombudsman

image: John Morris, Zoe Harvey and Sam Rutherford

David Bainbridge, head of outreach

 

We were set up as an informal alternative to the courts - meaning, importantly, with our approach there’s no cross-examination, no need for legal representation, and no need to compile and formally present “pleadings”.

I can understand how some people might want their day in court. But for most people, an adversarial system would feel intimidating and confrontational - and act as an unfair barrier to using our service and getting a much-needed resolution to a problem. Face to face meetings as a matter of course would also be resource-intensive and very expensive to run.

But aside from that, it’s usually just not necessary to call everyone into a room to sort things out. Using the phone and email, we can hear different views and get the information we need very quickly and efficiently. Allowing people to explain things in their own words in their own time - without pressure or confrontation - can help to take the heat out of a situation and put things in perspective.

Your support and events for businesses concentrate on London in my opinion - they’re too far away

In terms of resolving individual complaints, meeting the two sides face to face as a matter of course would almost certainly be prohibitively expensive and complicated - and isn’t necessary in most cases anyway.

But in other areas of our work, we recognise that meeting face to face can be very effective - in particular when we’re looking to raise awareness of our role and our approach. It’s great that more than nine in ten businesses we cover don’t actually have any complaints referred to us at all each year. But it’s likely to mean there are a lot of businesses out there with no direct experience of our service and the support we offer.

If you’ve not actually had a conversation with us, I can appreciate how “the ombudsman” could seem a bit of a faceless “unknown”. And if you’re not using our website very much - or perhaps if you don’t regularly read ombudsman news - you might not know that we’re out and about meeting businesses pretty much every week across the UK.

Since January this year, we’ve hosted 59 different conferences, training days and local forums for businesses nationwide. And we’ve many more planned for the coming months - not to mention the dozens of other local and national industry networks and events we take part in.

Through our years of outreach work, we know that patterns of complaints and concerns - and business priorities - vary not just over time, but from place to place. So we continue to look into how we can get to know local communities even better, so we can help more effectively.

In October, for example, we ran a drop-in centre at the Bullring shopping mall in Birmingham. Over a long weekend, our adjudicators and ombudsmen met local businesses to find out more about the issues and challenges they’re facing at the moment. We also met community and consumer advice organisations, to learn about the problems people are bringing to them. And we gave practical tips and answers to the hundreds of shoppers who approached us - explaining the next steps in sorting out a problem, or just putting worries to rest. I’d like to think that each conversation we had prevented a potential complaint from being escalated - either to a business or to us.

upcoming events: meet the ombudsman roadshow, working together with the ombudsman, payday lending workshop

ombudsman news

ombudsman news gives general information on the position at the date of publication. It is not a definitive statement of the law, our approach or our procedure.

The illustrative case studies are based broadly on real-life cases, but are not precedents. Individual cases are decided on their own facts.