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ombudsman news

issue 85

April/May 2010

ombudsman focus: the ombudsman's consumer-outreach work

Caroline Wells and Emma Parker lead the work we carry out to raise consumer awareness of the ombudsman service and of how it can help. In this month's ombudsman focus they tell us about this work and explain why it is key to ensuring the ombudsman service is open to everyone.

The ombudsman service is meant to be impartial - so why are you promoting it to consumers-

The ombudsman service is impartial - but we are also committed to ensuring that everyone who may need to use our service is aware of it. People often tell us that simply knowing there is a free service to turn to, should anything go wrong, gives them more confidence in financial services generally.

Raising awareness of the ombudsman service is particularly important in the light of the significant changes there have been, since we were first set up, in the ombudsman's remit and customer base.

For example, over the last three years we have been able to deal with complaints about consumer-credit - encompassing everything from debt collection and catalogue shopping to hire purchase and point-of-sale loans.

Changes like these have not only resulted in a significant increase in the number of disputes we handle, they also mean we now deal with a much broader range of complaints.

The majority of people who refer complaints to the ombudsman service say they first heard about us through the media. However, not everyone who has a financial complaint reads the money pages of the national press. We therefore use a range of different communication channels to raise awareness of our service among people who might not otherwise get to hear about us.

How aware are consumers of the ombudsman service-

The proportion of the UK adult population who can name the ombudsman service without prompting, when asked which organisation has the job of helping consumers sort out individual disputes with financial businesses, ranges between 5% and 25% - depending on age, region and socio-economic background. And when prompted, by being told our name, 74% of people said they were aware of us. Organisations with similar levels of awareness include the Greater London Authority (70%), Which- (75%) and the charity, Mind (73%).

While there is currently a reasonably good level of general awareness of the ombudsman service, consumer research suggests there is a need for targeted awareness-raising work with specific groups of consumers who tend to be less aware than others of their consumer rights - including their right to complain. These groups include Asian consumers, Black African and Caribbean consumers, young consumers under 25, older consumers (aged 65 and over), disabled people, and parents with young families.

So how do you act on this research-

We select a range of consumer shows and events that we can attend, around the UK, where we are able to make direct contact with individual consumers who are likely to be less aware of the ombudsman service.

Last year we attended 120 different events. These ranged from the Zee Carnival (aimed at Asian consumers) and the Caravan and Motorhome show to "drop-in" complaints-clinics for consumers in Morecambe and a stall at a Leeds shopping centre. 70% of the consumers we met and spoke to at these events were women, 15% were Asian and 15% Black African and Caribbean.

The mainstream media appears to be less significant to many of the people who attend events like these. 58% of the consumers we surveyed face-to-face at consumer shows and events say they first heard of the ombudsman not through the media but at the event we were taking part in.

Have you asked consumers themselves how they would prefer to learn about the ombudsman service-

Yes, we regularly carry out phone, postal, internet and face-to-face research. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most popular means of hearing about the ombudsman service is on television, with 55% of those surveyed saying this is how they would most like to learn about us. This rises to 67% among Black African and Caribbean consumers.

We work closely with TV researchers and producers and the work of the ombudsman service regularly features on a range of prime-time shows including The One Show, Watchdog and GMTV. We also forge close links with more specialist and targeted media such as Blacknet.co.uk, Able magazine (the disability lifestyle publication) and Family Life (a magazine aimed at parents in Scotland who have young children).

What about using the internet to increase awareness of the ombudsman-

48% of Asian consumers tell us they would prefer to hear about the ombudsman on television. But advertising on the internet comes a close second, with 43% of consumers from the Asian community citing this as their preferred means of hearing about the ombudsman (compared with 29% of consumers generally). These findings mirror research commissioned by other organisations.

For over three years now the ombudsman has been working in partnership with the Asian media group, ZEE. We are also now carrying out a trial to raise our profile on a number of websites most visited by Asian consumers in the UK, (including rediff.com, India Times and bollywoodhungama.com).

Figures in your last annual review suggest that men are much more likely to complain to the ombudsman than women. Is this still the case-

The ombudsman service continues to receive more complaints from men than from women. 62% of the complaints referred to us are from men, compared to 38% from women.

Many complaints relate to accounts and policies that are held jointly, where - conventionally - the first-named account-holder (the name recorded on our system) is a male partner. But research shows that women are still generally less aware than men of the ombudsman service, even though awareness levels among women have been improving, over time.

Our consumer research shows that women generally rate radio and magazines more highly than men do, as their preferred means of hearing about our work. 40% of women thought we should use radio to promote our messages, compared to 20% of men.

As well as appearing on mainstream shows such as Radio 4's You and Yours and Money Box, and on stations like Radio 5 Live, we work proactively with regional, community and commercial radio stations across the UK, from Radio Inverness to the local Welsh station, Tundo Fm.

And we continue to work with - and feature regularly in - a range of magazines that are read predominantly by women, including Reveal, Easier, Woman's Own and Good Housekeeping. We also work with female-focused websites like savvywoman and mymoneydiva.com.

Does age affect consumers' views on how the ombudsman should promote its services-

47% of consumers aged between 16 and 24 said they'd like the ombudsman to promote itself using social media and networking sites. This compares to 28% of consumers generally. We will be continuing to develop our presence on social media sites over the coming year.

But the young consumers we meet and consult about our social media strategy recommend that we adopt a measured and low-key presence on sites like YouTube and Facebook.

By contrast, 43% of consumers aged 65 and over said they thought the ombudsman should promote its services through newspapers and television, while 31% of them thought we should use magazines to highlight our service. We continue to work closely with key national and regional newspapers and we also have media partnerships with Retirement Today and with Choice magazine (a leading lifestyle publication for the over 50s).

And do people have strong views about ways in which they don't want to hear about the ombudsman-

Email appears to be the least preferred way to hear about the ombudsman service. We never send out unsolicited emails to consumers, nor do we "cold-call" them. This is not only because research indicates it would be a less effective way of raising consumer awareness. There is also a danger that it could give credence to the fraudulent emails that are sometimes circulated, claiming to be from the ombudsman service.

Has your outreach work made any measurable difference-

It can be difficult to pin down an exact event or a specific magazine article that has been responsible for increasing awareness of our service. However, we aim to evaluate the success of our targeted work wherever possible. For example, unprompted awareness of the ombudsman service among Black African and Caribbean consumers rose to 13% from as low as 5% - following our campaign focused on this community in autumn 2009.

And by the end of the 2009/10 financial year, the proportion of Black African and Caribbean and Asian consumers bringing complaints to the ombudsman service had come into line with the statistics for the UK population as a whole.

Our campaign aimed at older consumers in the Scottish Highlands and Islands led to a three-fold increase in consumers accessing the information available on our website in the Gaelic language. There was also a doubling of overall awareness of the ombudsman service in the region.

And following our targeted awareness-raising campaign work with younger consumers, there has been an increase in the number of complaints brought to the ombudsman by those under the age of 25. These younger consumers are three times more likely to complain about car or motorbike insurance than consumers in any other age group.

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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.