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ombudsman news

issue 57

October/November 2006

getting off on the right foot

The ombudsman service customer contact division is our front-line for consumer enquiries. As the first port-of-call for most people dealing with the ombudsman service, it handles well over 600,000 phone or written enquiries a year.

Paul Kendall, who runs this area, tells us how his team deals with the deluge of new disputes arriving daily. He also explains the important role the team plays in helping to resolve as many problems and complaints as possible at this early stage.

what makes the role of the customer contact division so special-

The ombudsman service was set up to deal with a high number of complaints concerning a wide variety of financial matters. But we always knew we were going to get lots of general enquiries as well. Because of that, our front-line had to be more than just a processing function which issued and received complaint forms.

It's true that some callers are already at the stage where they're ready to register a full-blown complaint with us. They've complained to the firm, had their final response, been on our website, completed our complaint form - they know exactly what they're doing, and they probably just want to check who to send their form to!

But many of those who contact us want more in the way of practical help. Some may be confused about what has happened to them and are very unsure what to do about it. Some aren't really at all sure if (or how) we can help them.

If you don't have a well-designed, friendly and helpful front-line - then what may have started as a simple misunderstanding can escalate, and things can get blown out of proportion.

We're not dealing with a standard process where we just follow the same "script" each time. That wouldn't work because every time the phone rings it's something completely different. Having said that, because of the amount of contact we have with consumers - we do quite quickly have a pretty good idea what most complaints are going to be about. Then we can help callers understand whether they have a genuine complaint - and how to go about resolving it if they do. So that's what we're trying to achieve.

do you think the phone is still important in this age of email and internet-

I think it is really important, especially as the first point of contact. That initial contact should be made easy as possible. The customer is often not sure what to say to the firm, what the correct terminology is, or how to get their question across. The phone's a very good medium for instant reassurance if someone is worried or concerned.

Customers often just want to find out if they have a complaint or if "this is just the way it is". We can often nip potential problems in the bud just by providing a simple explanation or some reassurance.

Some callers are satisfied with an informal chat over the phone with someone who's impartial and at arm's length to their problem. Others need a more formal and in-depth investigation. Phone conversations allow us to provide those proportionate responses and to let people know immediately what the next steps are.

does it make it difficult when consumers misunderstand the role of the ombudsman service-

It's certainly true that some consumers assume we're here to act as their champion - and that our role is just to fight the industry on their behalf. If they find we're not in agreement with everything they say, we're sometimes accused of not being independent! So it's important to stress that our work is impartial. We can empathise with people and understand their frustrations, but that doesn't mean we share their opinions or "take sides".

Answering the reasonable question: "have I got a complaint here-" isn't easy. We have to remember there are two sides to every argument and what we hear at this stage is only one version of events. But an ambiguous answer might discourage complaints - or force people to pursue a complaint that has no real chance of success. We don't want to raise false expectations. So front-line staff have to tread a careful path.

how do you avoid raising false expectations-

We establish the nature of the complaint very quickly. The first thing we check is eligibility. Despite the fact that our remit is fairly broad, there are some money-related and debt queries and problems that are simply not for us. About 25% of callers are contacting us about matters that aren't covered by the ombudsman.

With the issues that are for us - we will always look for opportunities to resolve problems as early as possible. As I've already mentioned, sometimes we might only need to give a clear explanation of how a financial product or service works. The consumer may then feel confident enough to go back and reach a satisfactory resolution with the firm.

We have people here with extensive product knowledge and we try to settle disputes early on, where we're certain that a complaint is very unlikely to be upheld, or where the firm has already made a reasonable offer. We're careful only to do this where there is clearly no point in the customer pursuing the matter further.

do the calls come in quite a steady flow-

Monday mornings are always our busiest time. This is partly as a result of articles that have appeared in the papers over the weekend, but also because many people only get a chance to catch up on things at the weekend. On average, we handle somewhere in the region of 1,400 calls and 1,300 written enquiries each day - but at peak times these numbers can suddenly increase rapidly. We use resource-planning software to help predict and manage the number of staff we need to take calls.

Consumer contact staff will normally spend about half their time handling calls and half dealing with written correspondence. This allows them to take complete "ownership" of front-line cases. Once they take an enquiry they are responsible for it, either until it is resolved early on (by us or the firm), or it goes through to our casework area for more detailed dispute-resolution work by adjudicators.

how do you deal with sudden floods of
phone calls-

Our response is pretty immediate. The moment there are phone calls in the queue, a message goes out asking those working on correspondence and other work to log-in to the phones. We answer 80% of our calls within 20 seconds. No more than 2% of calls are abandoned (where people ring off before we answer them) and we send a full response to any written enquiries within five working days. In five years of working here I've never heard anyone complain they couldn't get through to us.

I know that people who ring call centres are already expecting the worst - having to wait in a queue for a long time, listening to cheesy music, pressing lots of buttons to get through to anybody. We're reluctant to ask callers to press a button before speaking to a human being. But because we cover such a wide range of complaints - from pet insurance to stocks and shares - we do have to ask whether the caller's enquiry is about banking, insurance or investment before we can put them through to an appropriately-trained member of staff. But then they're in!

how do you find out how your customers rate you-

We carry out regular customer satisfaction surveys of our front-line work in the customer contact division. We generally receive positive scores of over 95% in response to questions about call times, staff knowledge, clear explanations and meeting expectations.

We also have a quality assurance system which maintains and improves the quality of our service. Random checks are carried out for both phone and written work and the results are fed back to staff and managers.

what experience do front-line staff come with, and how much training do you give-

We invest significantly in the people that work on our front-line. They generally have previous experience in financial services - for example in customer services or complaints-handling. Having high-quality, well trained and motivated staff handling our initial enquiries is essential for providing a good service to firms and to consumers. And also for the smooth running of the organisation as a whole.

We start with induction training - a four-week classroom-based programme covering systems, products and front-line call-handling in a certain area - banking for example. Each new starter has a "mentor" who eases them into the work and helps assess their progress.

After three months we can start training them for a broader range of front-line enquiries. Most people should be fully competent in all three broad areas (banking, investment and insurance) within a year.

Many of our adjudicators started life at the ombudsman service in the consumer contact division. The knowledge and skills they acquire here are an excellent foundation for that role.

what information about complaints do you log at this stage-

At this early point of the process, many of the consumers haven't actually started the complaints process with the firm they're unhappy with. That's because they're either not sure how to do so or they've not really decided what they want to do.

But we're often able to get the two sides "talking" and the issue resolved at this stage - especially if we spot that the problem stems from a simple misunderstanding that can quickly be ironed out. We also keep a record on our system of all the relevant information. That's another good thing about being on the phones. We'll have all the information in one place. And as I mentioned earlier, once we've dealt with a person on the phone, we "own" the complaint - the customer will have a case reference number and the name and direct-line number of the person here who knows about their complaint.

how can you help consumers who may have difficulties complaining-

It can be a big thing for someone who's been a customer of a firm for many years to suddenly have a complaint. They often really don't know where to begin, and we can help them with that. So it's important that we're accessible. I've already mentioned the minimal use we make of automated phones and queuing systems - which we know puts people off.

We are sometimes contacted by people who don't speak English as their first language - so we provide an instant interpretation service. We also use the TypeTalk service for those with hearing difficulties - and can arrange for the translation of written documents into other languages, Braille, large print, or audiotape. People with dyslexia sometimes find it easier to read print if it's on different coloured paper so we've arranged that in the past as well.

I think we do everything we possibly can to ensure everybody can use the Financial Ombudsman Service. There's an answer to most situations - you've just got to keep an open mind.

what do you think the future challenges will be-

We've got a several challenges ahead. Taking on complaints about businesses with consumer credit licences from next April involves a lot of planning. How are we going to deal with these businesses- How will they react to us- Are the complaints going to be what we're used to dealing with-

We are also reviewing our "telephony infrastructure". Although we have the latest software, our equipment is six years old and we need to think about replacing it. The other thing we're keen on moving towards is a completely "paperless" office.

When I joined five years ago we had to deal with about two and a half thousand calls each week. At our peak we're now dealing with over three times that. We've grown dramatically, we've implemented lots of changes. In fact, the structure of our front-line has completely changed. The last five years have been pretty hectic and we've achieved a lot. But if there was nothing on the horizon to look forward to, it would be pretty dull!

photo: Paul Kendall

Photo: Paul Kendall, head of customer contact division

ombudsman news issue 57 [PDF format]

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.