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ombudsman news

issue 89

October/November 2010

ombudsman focus: getting operational

Simon Rouse started work as our new operations director in August. ombudsman focus catches up with him to find out what the job involves and how things have gone in his first weeks.

Welcome to the Financial Ombudsman Service. And straight in at the deep end - how does it feel to be operationally in charge of dealing with 750 new complaints and over 3,500 enquiries every working day-

I'm delighted to have joined the team here and I'm very excited about the operational challenges involved! The colleagues I'm working with are full of ideas on how we can continue to improve the service we provide. I certainly feel a huge sense of responsibility for this service - knowing that every year, tens of thousands of individual consumers and businesses rely on us to help resolve their disputes. It's true I've jumped straight in at the deep end, but I wouldn't have it any other way.

Before joining us you were director of strategic planning for NHS Hertfordshire. What did that entail - and how was it similar or different to the ombudsman service-

At NHS Hertfordshire my main aim was to lead major programmes involving organisational change, aimed at improving services - in a tough financial climate - across the whole range of healthcare, including GP, community and hospital services.

That was a pretty complex environment involving thousands of stakeholders. Of course, much of the health service environment is very different from the financial services world. But I do think there are similarities as well. We all need to focus on constantly improving services, while ensuring real value for money. And a key similarity is the sense of purpose that comes with being part of an organisation that's focused on making a broader difference to society. That was one of the big attractions for me of coming to work with the Financial Ombudsman Service.

The press release announcing your appointment said you'd previously held a number of senior posts at Barclays plc, including head of strategy and performance management for business banking. Doesn't this mean you'll be looking at everything through business eyes - rather than from the consumer's perspective-

I had a number of roles at Barclays, across both retail and commercial banking. But most of my work involved leading teams responsible for serving customers. So I hope that my financial services experience, working in a range of different customer markets, will be a valuable asset in my work here at the Financial Ombudsman Service.

I think I've succeeded in my career so far because I've always been passionate about understanding the diverse needs of the customers I serve. I'm determined that the same will be true of my time here. Looking at things from the perspective of both the business and the consumer is absolutely intrinsic to the work of the ombudsman service, as an impartial body that settles disputes. It's also at the heart of how I believe we can make our complaints-handling operations even more effective.

Were you ever involved in complaints handling at Barclays-

My very first senior-management role was as head of customer relations. I managed the relationship between Barclays and the then Banking Ombudsman (before the Financial Ombudsman Service was set up) and I led Barclays' complaints handling across the group. In my capacity as a personal banker, branch manager, area director and then regional director I had direct responsibility for leading the front-line teams providing services to customers - and I made sure I handled complaints in a way that helped me really understand the service we were giving.

I think anyone who's worked with me would tell you I believe passionately in the importance of handling complaints well - using them to improve customer service more generally. It's one of the areas I've already focused on in my first few weeks here. This means handling effectively any complaints about our own level of service, and using these complaints to help us learn from any shortcomings and make improvements.

How well do you think the NHS handles complaints about itself - and how does that compare with complaints handling in the financial services sector-

The NHS is a very big organisation so I wouldn't want to generalise. But in my time there, I saw some common themes that I think stretch across a number of sectors, including financial services. For me, the important themes are for organisations to react promptly and effectively to customer dissatisfaction; to stop issues escalating unnecessarily; to communicate in an easy-to-understand way; and to use the issues raised in complaints to improve services, rather than just focusing on handling the immediate complaint and then moving on.

How much did you already know about the Financial Ombudsman Service before you applied for the job of operations director-

With my financial services experience, I already knew a lot about the Financial Ombudsman Service. As I've just mentioned, I was responsible for helping Barclays prepare for the introduction of the 'new' complaints-handling arrangements and the 'new' Financial Ombudsman Service over ten years ago. But it's definitely true that when you come into an organisation you see so much more than you ever realised from the outside!

So what has surprised you about the ombudsman-

First, the range of complaints that the ombudsman service now deals with is vast. I had no idea about some of the areas the ombudsman covers. Secondly, I've been really struck by the wealth of industry expertise held by colleagues. This is clearly one of the organisation's key strengths. Finally, the level of pride and passion that colleagues have for what they do is very much evident - and part of why I feel so excited to be here.

What's a typical day like for you in your new job-

I don't think I've had a typical day yet - and I suspect that won't change a lot. My first month has been pretty packed - meeting colleagues and finding out what they do; getting to the heart of the operation to understand the real issues; sharing my initial observations; and then getting on with fixing the issues that can get in the way of delivering a great service.

In terms of where I plan to spend most of my time, it's out in the operation with colleagues who work directly with our customers. In my experience they, together with our customers, hold the answers to the things we need to do. My most pleasing success since being here came from a visit to the post room where they were frustrated by something that was cumbersome for us and inconvenient for the customer. With a little focus, we had it fixed in a week!

What do you think your biggest personal challenge is going to be in this job-

Part of what attracted me to this job was the scale of ambition to improve the service we provide - and help take the ombudsman service forward. Getting the right balance between focus on the immediate operational challenges - while building for the future - will be critical. That's what makes this job so exciting.

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

Well, recently I had cause to complain to HM Revenue and Customs, who refused to answer my query on the phone and insisted that their process required me to send them an email! I wasn't too impressed by that.

I also had an unhappy experience at a restaurant a few weeks back. As I'd organised the evening and chosen the restaurant, I felt personally responsible when the service and food turned out to be pretty poor. Actually, I think most restaurants are much better at handling these situations nowadays. And certainly on this occasion, they handled it well, taking the unsatisfactory meals off the bill, providing a complimentary bottle of wine, and most importantly, recognising why we were unhappy and apologising to us.

Googling your name brings up the actor who used to play DCI Jack Meadows in The Bill. So is acting what you do to relax after work-

No - the peak of my acting career was playing the shepherd in the school nativity play. Nowadays, as I have two young children, relaxation comes rarely. But when time permits, I enjoy being hit around a squash or tennis court by far better players.

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

I want to be able to say at least three things in a year's time. First, that I've built up a great operational team around me to work together on the challenges ahead. Second, that we've made a significant step forward in further modernising our operations, to maximise value-for-money and efficiency. And finally, that we're delivering an experience for our customers that we can be proud of and that our stakeholders tell us is constantly improving.

photo: Simon Rouse, operations director
photo: Simon Rouse, operations director

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.