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ombudsman news

issue 127

August 2015

our work with consumer advisers

Each year the ombudsman’s outreach team meets hundreds of people working at the front-line of their communities’ problems and complaints - from national charities and local voluntary organisations, to trading standards, MPs and community leaders. In this ombudsman focus, we take a closer look at our work across the sector.

Rosh, why does the ombudsman work with consumer advisers?

It’s important we raise awareness of our service among individual consumers directly - talking to people at national and regional events, from the 50+ show in London Olympia to agricultural shows in Northern Ireland, as well as sharing our experience with local and national media. But we know we can’t reach everyone this way - and could risk missing some of the people who need us the most.

We also know that some people feel worried about contacting a business, or us, to make a complaint - perhaps because they’re uneasy about what to expect or what they might need to know. But they may feel more comfortable explaining what they’re going through - and taking the next steps - with someone in their community who they already know and trust.

So working together with consumer advisers - who have contact with millions of people all over the UK - is an important part of our work to help people understand things better and sort problems out earlier - without our direct involvement.

Where advisers have a closer understanding of our approach it means they can support people to sort things out with a business directly. And that understanding isn’t only important when things have gone wrong. By raising awareness of our independent service advisers help their communities to build trust and engage confidently with financial services day to day.

Of course, while our adjudicators and ombudsmen are trained to identify where people may need additional support - for example where someone’s experiencing poor mental health - we’re not always best placed to resolve these complex issues. But consumer advisers and others, like expert charities, can help us better understand what people are experiencing.

And where someone’s dealing with a number of problems that can’t be resolved in isolation - like debt and relationship breakdown - a consumer adviser’s perspective can be extremely valuable. They’ll have a wider view of what’s going on in their client’s life - including how our service fits in with the support of any other services and agencies that may be involved.

what does “outreach” look like in practice?

In the same way as we meet smaller financial businesses across the UK, each year we run our own practical workshops for consumer advisers. We’ll talk through what types of problems we can help with, what happens when someone contacts us, and how we decide what’s fair in individual complaints.

We make sure to tailor the discussion and case studies to the issues the advisers tell us are particularly pressing within their local communities. For example, in some rural areas we’ve been asked to discuss problems ranging from people having trouble with their mortgage or payday loans, to “rent-to-own” home appliances and travel insurance.

These hands-on events are always popular - and we ran 33 of them last year. But we also try to take advantage of existing networks and forums - to get an insight into what’s happening across particular regions, as well as nationally. So just as we visit local business groups and networks, we also visit consumer advice organisations, groups and forums. As well as listening to what they’re dealing with, we’ll share our own experience and discuss how we can work together to address wider problems more effectively.

Our technical advice desk is open to consumer advisers too. So even if someone can’t meet us in person - and we appreciate that taking the time out can be difficult - they can phone or email with their questions about how the ombudsman works or how we’d approach a situation they’re dealing with.

how do you use what you’re hearing from consumer advisers?

Our outreach is an essential part of sharing our insight - with the overall aim of encouraging fairness in money matters. In the same way as our work with the businesses we cover, we want people to be able to resolve problems themselves - and ideally, to stop things from going wrong in the first place.

To do that effectively, it’s essential that we pay attention to the issues within their communities that consumer advisers are telling us about - and share them with the rest of the ombudsman service. We’ll look at the complaints that are reaching our service “formally” - and compare them with the issues that frontline advisers talk about themselves. And any patterns and trends we see inform the conversations we go on to have with businesses and back out in local communities.

Where we don’t receive as many complaints as we’d expect based on what we’re hearing directly from consumer advisers, this may be because things are being resolved effectively without us. Or it could be that there’s a lower level of awareness of our service among certain communities or particular groups of consumers. Or it could be that, with a particular type of problem, there’s some barrier or stigma around making a complaint. Or it could be that certain businesses aren’t telling people about their right to get in touch with us.

Understanding things like this means we can really focus the support we give people on the front line - not only consumer advisers, but also the businesses involved. And if we’re doing that well, we’ll see fewer of those particular problems being officially referred to us.


how we’ve worked with …

Maidstone Financial Capability Partnership

Set up in January 2014, the Maidstone Financial Capability Partnership is a group of private, public and charity organisations, whose overall aim is to make Maidstone’s residents more financially savvy.

We joined the Partnership - along with members including credit unions, social landlords, water companies and Citizens Advice Bureaus - to talk through our role and our approach to sorting out complaints. They recently gave us an example about how they’d prevented a resident from being scammed out of £9,000.

Macmillan

The Financial Guidance Service offered by Macmillan Cancer Support provides tailored, telephone based guidance and support on all aspects of personal finance to anybody affected by cancer - patients, relations, friends or carers.

We work closely with Macmillan to ensure that the Financial Guides on their helpline have a good understanding of our role and approach.

A customer of the Financial Guidance Service contacted Macmillan after complaining to his insurer that his critical Illness claim had been turned down. He'd been given the all clear following an earlier cancer diagnosis - but was later treated for another unrelated condition. Following a second cancer diagnosis, his critical Illness claim was turned down because he hadn't mentioned the other treatment.

After contact with our technical advice desk, Macmillan's Financial Guidance team supported their customer through his complaint - and because he'd had no cause to believe his treatment was connected to the cancer, his complaint was upheld.

Hammersmith and Fulham Mind

It's estimated that one in four people will have a mental health problem at any time. So it’s essential we understand how this could affect someone’s financial position - as well as the support they need from financial businesses and services like the ombudsman.

Hammersmith and Fulham Mind have helped us to understand a range of mental health conditions, as well as communication considerations and reasonable adjustments relating to mental health.

In addition to helping us to recognise and respond to what people may be going through, this work helps Hammersmith and Fulham Mind meet their own objectives of decreasing mental health stigma and supporting people experiencing mental health issues.

what people say …

David Hawkes, Advice UK

Consumer advisers play a key role in raising awareness of the ombudsman and supporting clients with complaints. The ombudsman has done a great job of informing advisers through their programme of workshops, attending events and publications such as ombudsman news. Now that debt advisers are regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority the ombudsman has been extremely helpful in telling debt advice organisations about their responsibilities too. Dialogue is very much two-way, though - with the advice sector needing to keep the ombudsman informed of current issues being experienced on the frontline. These clear channels of communication have been of real benefit.  

Gary Greaves, East Midlands Housing Group

I’m a keen reader of ombudsman news and regularly use the technical advice desk for guidance. It’s always useful to be able to talk things through with someone. And having a discussion is a great way of finding out if you’ve got things right or not, particularly when the query relates to what the ombudsman can look at.

Carol Brack, Age UK

The ombudsman’s workshop that I went to in my local area gave me confidence that I can better help my clients with their money matters. The range of issues that the ombudsman can cover really surprised me, from catalogue loans to tractor insurance. We often don’t have time to speak to other advisers from different organisations so the day was also a great opportunity to share stories and knowledge, so that we can work together to solve problems more effectively.

photo: Rosh Johnson
Rosh Johnson, ombudsman outreach team

Rosh studied law and worked as a paralegal before joining the ombudsman as an adjudicator. She later joined the outreach team where she’s responsible for organising training events for consumer advisers and smaller businesses and for building relationships with consumer organisations, charities and businesses.

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.