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ombudsman news

issue 102

April/May 2012

ombudsman focus: how businesses handle complaints - feedback from our adjudicators

In issue 96 of ombudsman news last autumn we published comments and suggestions made by financial businesses in response to our regular business surveys. We published our replies to the fourteen issues that businesses raised with us most often - explaining how we had acted on their feedback and what we did next, and giving more details about the issues involved from the ombudsman service's perspective.

Following the positive feedback to that feature in ombudsman news, we're now looking at things the other way round - giving feedback from our adjudicators on how financial businesses themselves handle complaints.

These suggestions were all posted recently on our intranet casework forum - where case-handling staff and ombudsmen answer each others' questions, debate casework issues and share knowledge with each other.

The suggestions were in response to the following "thread", posted by Caroline Wells, our head of outreach and external liaison:

"Here in the outreach and external liaison team we're planning the events and seminars we'll be running next year for businesses large and small across the UK.

When we're deciding the content for these events, we look at the sorts of enquiries handled by our technical advice desk and the types of complaints coming to the ombudsman service. But are we missing anything? Let us know. It could shape the content of our future events.

  • What don't businesses know that they need to know?
  • What do businesses do well - and not so well - when handling complaints?
  • What more could we do to help businesses handle complaints better - and prevent complaints from escalating to the ombudsman service?"

Over the next few pages we've reproduced a selection of the comments and suggestions from adjudicators who had helpful observations about the way businesses handle complaints.

step in early

  • "If businesses took the time to contact a customer as soon as they received a complaint, to talk to them directly about their concerns, some of the entrenched attitudes we see months later could be avoided."
  • "It's so much easier to nip problems in the bud if you apologise early where it's clear something's gone wrong - rather than try to justify the mistake, which can look defensive."
  • "Explaining things over the phone in person is often much more effective - and human! - than trying to explain things in letters using business-speak."

putting the customer first

  • "What could businesses do? Engage and listen. Most customers don't bring complaints just for the fun of it. And most customers are far more likely to accept an unfavourable outcome if someone takes the time to explain things courteously, sympathetically and in plain English."
  • "We still see so many cases where the complaint is actually about something pretty simple - often just an administrative cock-up. All the consumer wanted was an apology - and some token compensation for the inconvenience they were put to in repeatedly having to contact the business to get the problem fixed. But instead, the complaint gets escalated to the ombudsman - and becomes a full-blown dispute."
  • "The default reaction of some businesses when confronted with a complaint seems to be to refuse to believe they could have done anything wrong. Even when they genuinely haven't done anything wrong, they give the impression that being proved right is more important than repairing the relationship with their customer."
  • "I've seen cases where a business actually agreed with the customer that it hadn't handled things well. But rather than just saying sorry, it retrenched into long complicated explanations and justifications that ended up sounding defensive."
  • "While we may agree with a business that broadly a complaint isn't justified, we might still find that the way the case was handled only made things worse for the customer."
  • "Consumers can sometimes see offers of compensation of less than £50 as quite insulting - especially where they've had to struggle long and hard to get a problem sorted or their complaint taken seriously. Rather than quibbling over ten or twenty pounds here or there - where it's the principle, not the sum of money, that's at stake - it might sometimes be worth thinking about alternative ways of apologising. For example, someone senior in the business might take the time to phone or write personally to the consumer, to explain how lessons have been learned."

where big's not beautiful

  • "I very often see cases where there's confusion within the financial services group about which bit of the business is technically responsible for handling the complaint. For example, where a complaint involves insurance or investments that a consumer bought in their local bank branch, the consumer can find themselves being passed from pillar to post between the "regulated entity" that sold the product and the one that managed or administered it. These regulatory and legal niceties shouldn't get in the way of someone taking responsibility centrally - and making sure all the parts communicate with each other - and most importantly, with the consumer."
  • "For large financial services groups, it can be difficult to co-ordinate different responses from different parts of the group - for example, where a single complaint involves both how a loan is being administered as well as payment protection insurance (PPI) issues. But should that be the customer's problem? The customer rightly expects that their complaint should be dealt with in the round - as a single issue."
  • "Some complaints staff at the larger businesses seem more interested in the official outcome codes their cases should be recorded under - rather than just putting things right for their customer. Perhaps their targets are based on these statistics - which can only put them under added pressure."
  • "It sometimes seems that senior management at some larger businesses unwittingly puts procedural obstacles in the way of their front line complaints handlers - who are reluctant to raise their practical concerns."

admin support

  • "Keeping up with the paperwork and managing files efficiently can help prevent so many basic administrative problems - at every organisation including our own! For example, we get so many letters from businesses telling us to refer to enclosures that aren't enclosed at all ... "
  • "It would be useful if businesses could provide us with a complete file - not just a copy of the complaint form and copies of our own letters to them. If we can get all the information we need in one go, it saves so much time for everyone involved. On the other hand, I think that consumers also sometimes need to make a greater effort to send us as much information as possible."
  • "Over-worked complaints departments sometimes send us pretty chaotic complaint files which we then have to sort out and re-organise ourselves - to be able to work out what papers we've got and what else we might need. This makes me wonder how the business itself managed to arrive at a decision on the complaint, if their paperwork was so illogical and disorganised."
  • "In cases involving financial hardship, the consumer often only gives us their current-account number - but the bank or lender will know from their system whether that customer has other accounts or cards that we will also need to take into account. It would be helpful if the bank could give us that information before we had to work it out for ourselves by going through the customer's current-account statements."

tailor the response

  • "Using jargon can make a difficult situation worse. If your customers don't understand what you're telling them, how can you convince them that you've listened to their problem and resolved their complaint?"
  • "Some businesses use so many internal abbreviations, acronyms and corporate jargon that sometimes even we don't understand what they're telling us. So it's hardly surprising that a lot of our time is spent trying to explain to consumers what businesses actually mean in their written decisions on complaints."
  • "We often see larger businesses making the original problem worse, by responding to the consumer using standard templates - which frequently miss the point of the original complaint."
  • "Busy complaints departments that deal with large numbers of complaints sometimes have a tendency to pigeon-hole cases - and to respond to them with standard letters. But even when a complaint may look "standard" in terms of the product or service complained about, there may be other issues round the edges - things that have particularly annoyed the consumer. Showing you've understood and responded to those issues, too, can really help in resolving the complaint with a personal touch."

learning from other complaints

  • "What can we do to encourage businesses to make greater use of the resources we have available for them - like our technical advice desk and the online technical resource of our website?"
  • "A good place to start is learning from earlier cases that have been referred to the ombudsman service - either your own cases or those we publish in ombudsman news."
  • "It's important that complaints-handling staff have enough time to look at the information we publish on our approach to complaints - to see how it might help with the complaints they're dealing with themselves."

do what you say

  • "Where consumers ask why things went wrong, businesses often respond by saying, "the relevant individual has been spoken to and training will be provided" - which isn't always the "putting things right" that the consumer wanted to hear."
  • "Promises not being kept is a constant source of irritation and complaints. It's generally not the deliberate intention to break a promise - it's often just that other things get in the way, or it turns out not to be as easy as it sounded. But making sure errors are put right - and administrative glitches are sorted - is a vital part of resolving complaints. This is something where most organisations can do better. In fact, it's why one of our own values here at the ombudsman service is doing what you say you'll do.
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