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ombudsman news

issue 109

April/May 2013

ombudsman focus: on the future

Liz Brackley has recently joined the ombudsman service as our first service development director. Liz comes from a senior strategic role at Virgin Atlantic, and will be helping us meet the challenge of developing our services for the future - at the same time as running our operation to meet today's challenges.

ombudsman news caught up with her in her first week to find out about her plans - and to hear more about the challenges of being truly customer focused as an organisation that deals with over 2 million people every year - affecting lives and livelihoods ...

what did you know about the ombudsman service before you joined?

I've never needed to use the ombudsman myself, but I was definitely aware of the service. I knew it had a different job from the financial regulator and that it intervened in individual disputes. But I was really intrigued by the job advert - and once I started looking into what the ombudsman service does, I decided it was definitely somewhere I wanted to be.

what was it about us that attracted your attention?

I think it was the striking way the new role was positioned. It reflected an organisation that understood its values, took nothing for granted and recognised the importance of change. The information about the job also contained a compelling personal introduction from Natalie Ceeney, the chief ombudsman, about what she likes about working at the ombudsman service. So the fact that it wasn't just the standard "application pack" - with "role purpose", "objectives" and so on - made me realise just how fresh and unique the new job, and the ombudsman service itself, really are.

and what made you want to apply?

I was very much struck by the fact that the ombudsman's work matters to so many people. I'm used to dealing with customers who have high expectations - and for an organisation where brand reputation and trust are imperative. But what people expect of an airline is very different from what they expect of a service that's making a decision about their finances, their livelihood or their reputation as a business. I applied for this new job because I want to use what I've learned in other areas of business, to help shape the ombudsman service as it develops to reflect and adapt to the changing world around us.

so will this be a big change for you?

It'll be very different. It's always a challenge to get to grips with a new industry, and I know I'll be learning a huge amount very quickly. But there are similarities. I'm used to working in an organisation that's focused on doing the right thing for its customers - and that understands how fundamentally important that is to our reputation. I'm also used to working on challenges that start with quite an abstract, aspirational brief - where the job involves clarifying the objectives, coming up with options and then delivering them successfully.

how much do you already know about financial services - from APRs to Z-bonds?

I started my career with American Express - so I am certainly familiar with APRs and some aspects of consumer credit. But looking across the huge range of products and services the ombudsman covers - from pet insurance to spread betting - I've obviously got a lot to learn. Thankfully, I've already discovered the vast resource of expertise and experience available to everyone at the service - there seems to be someone here who you can turn to for every query, however obscure the abbreviation!

you're our first ever service development director. Why do you think this role is so important to us, and why now?

As the world around us continues to change, and as everyone's expectations of us shift, it's important that we keep on changing - to make sure we are delivering our services in the best way possible for all our customers.

My role will allow us to focus on being prepared for the future. I'm pretty sure that the ideas about how we should evolve are already here. Everyone I've met at the service has done a great job of dealing with some major challenges - PPI is obviously the big one - as well as innovating through continuous improvement. It's important to me that I'm part of an organisation that embraces change and improvement, even when the going gets tough.

I know the ombudsman's been doing some experiments in different areas of casework over the last year or so. I can see that getting people answers to their problems ever more quickly and with minimal process is going to become increasingly important - and this will be more do-able in some areas of complaints and dispute resolution than others. My job is to help the team define what changes need to happen, what's possible, how to make it happen - and then to actually get on and make it happen.

what do you think is the key strength of Virgin Atlantic - that other organisations could learn from?

The Virgin brand is all about challenging the status quo, reinventing things and asking "why not?" rather than "why?" It's all about innovation and staying relevant.

so how does Virgin Atlantic go about doing that?

Having the right people is key. This means making sure that everyone who works for the company, in whatever role, is truly customer focused and has a real passion for making a difference. That became harder to do over the years, as the number of employees grew. But it remains central to the experience the customers receive. In terms of the values, and people's commitment to them, you often heard people saying "you either got it, or you didn't".

what was your biggest achievement while you were there?

I led the project to develop the "terminal within a terminal" at Heathrow's Terminal 3. This was to try and make sure Virgin Atlantic could compete with British Airways, who'd been given a brand new terminal all to themselves!

what do you think our customers and Virgin Atlantic's have in common?

Trust is clearly central to the relationship that customers have with both organisations. In the case of the ombudsman service, businesses and consumers obviously need to trust that their disputes will be handled fairly, impartially and to the highest standards. But I can see that this could be a double-edged sword - because many customers won't get the outcome they will have hoped for if they don't "win" their complaint - which must make meeting their expectations all the more challenging.

what's the best customer service you've ever experienced personally?

Strangely enough, my best ever one-off experience was a flight. Unfortunately, it was with Emirates Airlines, not Virgin Atlantic. As far as consistently good service is concerned, I have had many years of great customer service from my online bank. I also love my village bookshop, deli and fish shop for their friendly and incredibly helpful service.

... and the worst?

Disappointingly, I recently ordered a lamp from a department store that's usually famous for its customer service. When the lamp arrived it had a damaged base - and each time they sent me a replacement lamp the base was damaged. This was in spite of me getting in touch with them repeatedly to tell them that the packaging was inadequate - and that was what kept causing the damage.

did you complain about that poor experience?

Yes - I phoned them and I emailed them. Eventually I gave up all hope of ever receiving an undamaged lamp. Although I eventually got a refund and a voucher, I still felt disappointed in a company I had really expected more from. It was made worse when the "rating" I gave them on their website magically refused to appear - which undermined my faith in their customer review mechanism and their transparency.

have we become a nation of complainers?

I think we have grown in confidence. We are far less accepting of mediocrity - and increasingly we vote with our feet or with our wallets. The power of a shared view is being understood more too, especially by the more tech-savvy generations. But whether we regard this as "complaining" or just "being heard" is certainly something very important to think about. More customer-focused businesses are already seeing "complaints" as all about insight and customer service - not as "regulatory compliance". Looking on Facebook or Twitter reminds us just what power customers increasingly have if they're unhappy with something - even though they may not be registering "complaints" in the conventional sense of filling out forms and writing to "complaint departments".

what do you think the biggest challenge will be for the financial services sector in the year ahead?

Becoming trusted again.

what are you most looking forward to about your new role?

I'm looking forward to working out how my experience and what I've learnt elsewhere can translate into the ombudsman's world. It'll be a real challenge. And to building on what others have started.

... and what do you think the most difficult part of your job will be?

Initially just getting up to speed with the new world I've entered - understanding the subtleties and the complexities. Longer term, I want to demonstrate the value of this new role - and to bring people with us as we move forward and develop.

if you could achieve just one big thing in your first year, what would it be?

Working with colleagues to create a vision for the ombudsman service that reflects the changing world around us - and that people can really get behind. And a plan to get there. And parts of that plan well underway. That's three. But we need to aim high - and I do love a challenge.

image: Liz Brackley

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.