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ombudsman news

issue 84

March/April 2010

ombudsman focus:
new chief ombudsman's initial view

Natalie Ceeney starts as the new chief ombudsman on 22 March 2010. Ombudsman focus catches up with her in her last few days as chief executive at The National Archives, as she clears her desk ready for her move to the Financial Ombudsman Service.

Welcome to the Financial Ombudsman Service. First of all - people seem unsure whether to pronounce your surname with a soft "c" (as in "Seeney") or a hard "c" (as in "Keeney"). And is it Ms, Miss, Mrs or just Natalie-

My name is pronounced "Seeney", but I like to be called just 'Natalie'. I'm so used to my surname being spelt and pronounced strangely that I won't take offence if people get it wrong!

But I do have fairly strong views on names other than my own. One of my bugbears is that I really loathe acronyms. If we want to make ourselves accessible, acronyms are the worst possible way of doing it.

So I'll be a stickler for spelling out the "Financial Ombudsman Service" in full - or "the ombudsman service" for short - rather than saying "FOS", which must be a pretty meaningless acronym to many people.

So how does it feel to be appointed chief of the largest ombudsman scheme in the world-

The Financial Ombudsman Service isn't just large. It's also well respected globally. And that gives us a standard to live up to. I feel very proud to be appointed to lead the service.

What do you do in your current job as chief executive at The National Archives - and how will this be similar (or different) at the ombudsman service-

While there are clearly major differences, the job of chief executive of The National Archives does have many parallels with the Financial Ombudsman Service.

Libraries and archives can have an old-fashioned connotation to those who haven't worked closely with them. But what I have been doing for the last five years is running a national institution that provides complex services to over 20 million people a year. It operates across "multiple channels" (face-to-face, internet and phone), and serves a very wide range of customers, from informed experts to people who have never done research before.

Like the ombudsman service, The National Archives has a wide range of external stakeholders to work with and support - often with different views and competing priorities. Both organisations rely heavily on professional staff providing world-class services.

But every organisation is different. And I certainly won't be joining the ombudsman service assuming that the same solutions that I've used before will work here. Instead, I'll be using the skills I've learned in running a large, complex organisation to ensure we offer an excellent service to everyone we serve.

The press release announcing your appointment as chief ombudsman said you'd also been appointed as chief executive. Why two job titles-

Although the concept of having two job titles may appear strange, it's actually one I'm fairly used to. I've had a similar dual role for the last five years at The National Archives - where I'm both Chief Executive and Keeper of the Public Records.

The Financial Ombudsman Service is heavily professionally-based, relying on its expert ombudsmen and adjudicators to provide its services. From a professional viewpoint, being the chief ombudsman will therefore be key to my role.

But at the same time, my job will be to run the organisation effectively. The service has grown hugely over recent years, now handling almost 200,000 cases a year with a head-count of over 1,500 people. I will be responsible for managing the budget effectively, ensuring we have the right people in the right roles, and setting clear goals in terms of accountability, transparency and excellent customer service. These are all pretty classic jobs for a chief executive. So the dual title really does reflect the role of running the ombudsman service.

Will you be making decisions on complaints yourself-

I don't believe the leader of any team should try to replicate the jobs of their individual team members. It's not good value for money - and it can understate the level of expertise and experience that you need, to do a job like an ombudsman's. So I don't expect to get involved in many individual complaints from start to finish.

But at the same time, I don't have much respect for senior managers who don't understand their own business. So I expect to get very involved in the complex issues that arise from the complaints we handle - to ensure we draw the right lessons from what we're seeing, and to make sure we are appropriately consistent. You can rely on my keeping in very close contact with our ombudsmen on the issues we're facing. I'll be in touch with them on all the difficult issues.

What projects did you work on when you were at McKinsey, the management consultants-

Most of my work at McKinsey can best be characterised as "making organisations work better". I led quite a lot of work on customer insight and customer-service delivery. This included advising FTSE 250 and FTSE 100 clients on how to really understand their customers' needs - and deliver outstanding service.

I also worked on some major organisational-change projects. These frequently involved mergers and acquisitions (M&A) activity, particularly the organisational dimensions, as well as more general organisational re-design. My work crossed a number of different industries. But McKinsey works on a completely confidential basis, so I can't reveal which ones.

You have no previous experience of working in financial services. Is that an advantage or disadvantage-

Moving to a new industry is not a new experience for me. It's something I've done across most of my career. As an "outsider", I've found I can often see things in a different way. After a while, we all get used to the idiosyncrasies of the job and to the jargon we use. We can often forget how off-putting this might be to consumers and "new entrants".

As an "outsider", I'm often able to ask questions that are harder for people to ask if they're already within the industry. The ombudsman service is full of experts. I'm someone who trusts and relies on my team, so I see my skills as complementing theirs. I know I have a learning curve around financial services. And I've already started meeting people both within the ombudsman service and across the financial services industry - to ensure I understand the key issues and learn the language. But I've also found that the skills of running an organisation don't tend to change that much across industries. Managing people well, delivering excellent customer service, and running efficient and focused services are pretty generic skills.

What did you already know about the Financial Ombudsman Service before you applied for the job of chief ombudsman-

I've always considered myself a fairly well-informed financial consumer, so I was already aware of the Financial Ombudsman Service. And I had friends and relatives who had used the service, all with positive feedback about the way they were treated and the way their case was handled. I've never had to use the ombudsman service myself. I've been fortunate in always getting very good service from the banks and insurance companies I've used.

What do you think your biggest personal challenge will be in your new job-

Without a doubt, my biggest challenge will be getting to understand the details of the different sectors that the ombudsman service covers - from spread betting to hire purchase and pet insurance to payment protection insurance (PPI). I've already started getting briefings from the different teams within the ombudsman service. And I'm reading up like crazy - with my own copies of all back issues of Ombudsman news!

Part of your current title is Keeper of the Public Records - and you're responsible for the government's information management policy. How will you apply this area of work to the ombudsman service-

We live in an information society, with consumers' expectations of all organisations heavily influenced by their experience of getting the information they need online, 24/7, through services like Google.

It doesn't matter whether we're talking about government or financial services - the same applies. What that means for the ombudsman service, as with all service organisations, is that we need to raise our game to meet those expectations. This involves ensuring there is a high degree of transparency about what we do, that people can communicate with us at times that suit them, and that we'll protect and secure the information they entrust to us.

It also means that, as consumers' expectations rise, we need to keep raising our service levels accordingly. My first impressions are that the ombudsman service is already doing some of this but, like most organisations, it could do more.

When did you last complain about something- Did you get the problem sorted to your satisfaction-

I feel passionate about great consumer service. If I'm standing in a long queue, then I admit I'm one of those people who will mentally re-design the queuing process as I wait. I get really riled by poor service. And yes, I have complained in the past.

I remain staggered when large organisations deal with complaints badly. My most recent complaint was to an airline comparison website (I won't name it). It managed to send me to Gatwick for a plane leaving from Heathrow. I eventually got my money back, but only after complaining vigorously.

There was very clear evidence (a ticket) that they were in the wrong, but at no stage did they apologise for their mistake. I'm someone who knows my rights so I stuck to my guns. But I'm not sure that everyone would have done that. Of course I understand that mistakes happen. But if they'd just apologised when I first queried it - and offered me an immediate refund - I'd now be telling everyone about their excellent customer-service levels. Instead, I just won't use them again.

When did you last have an appraisal at work - and how did you fare-

I've had six-monthly appraisals for most of my working life. I had my last one just a few weeks ago. I firmly believe that the best way to improve is to know how you're doing. Getting regular feedback is the best way to do this.

I feel so strongly about feedback that I instigated "360-degree" feedback for me and for senior managers in my role at The National Archives. This means we all got the feedback we needed. I've also been known to hire a coach for a day, and send them around the organisation to interview people about how I'm doing - feeding it all back to me at the end of the day. I'm pretty open about my strengths and weaknesses - but I'll leave sharing details of my last appraisal to colleagues close to me!

The Times quoted a colleague of yours who described you as a "small tornado". Is this how you'd describe yourself-

I care strongly about doing a good job and I'm impatient for change. So I can see where the description might have come from. But unlike a tornado, I like to think I leave services better after my intervention, not worse! Measuring 5'2" tall, I've got used to the "small" part ...

Apparently you did your maths A-level two years early, you got a First in maths at Cambridge, and you know how big a terabyte is. Does this make you nerdy - or just scary-

Hopefully neither! I pride myself on being pretty approachable - and I try to do what I can to be visible and accessible (and human too). After starting in the new job, I'm going to ensure I get to know colleagues across the ombudsman service as soon as I can. I've already scheduled days to work with - and shadow - different teams, to see what everyone does and to learn how it feels to do the different jobs across the organisation.

The gym or watching EastEnders- What do you do to relax after work-

The nature of the job for any chief executive seems to involve a pretty full working week. I'm used to evening meetings most days - and I suspect this will be similar in financial services. So I don't expect to get home early enough most evenings to do either. But I always take weekends off. I enjoy relaxing by doing a lot of reading and - when the weather's good - gardening and walking in the Kent countryside.

And finally, in twelve month's time what would you like to say you'd achieved in your first year at the ombudsman service-

The ombudsman service has seen a massive rise in workload over the last few years. This has caused problems in not having enough people to deal with all the complaints as quickly as everyone would have liked.

The service is already working really hard to clear the queues, so that we can deal with new cases as they come in. Supporting and driving forward this work is my top priority.

As the new chief executive, it's a great opportunity to look at the service and ask "how can we do it better-" So this year I'll be talking with staff, consumer groups and the financial services industry, to ensure we've got the right strategy for the future. At the end of my first year, I'd like to say that we've already improved the service we offer, and have a strategy in place to deliver even more.

photo: Natalie Ceeney, chief executive and chief ombudsman

photo: Natalie Ceeney, chief executive and chief ombudsman

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