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annual review 2008/09

1 April 2008 to 31 March 2009

the complaints we received

our consumer helpline

Our customer-contact division provides our consumer helpline - for enquiries by phone, letter and email. In the 2008/09 financial year the number of people contacting us continued at record levels.

We handled 789,877 initial enquiries and complaints during the year. This means that each working day our customer-contact division dealt with around 3,150 phone calls and items of new mail from consumers - with questions, concerns and complaints about the way they had been treated by financial businesses.

initial enquiries and complaints from consumers

year ended 31 March phone enquiries written enquiries total enquiries
2009 399,918 389,959 789,877
2008 425,942 368,706 794,648
2007 341,455 286,359 627,814
2006 359,131 313,842 672,973
2005 328,999 285,149 614,148

We recognise the importance of being easily accessible by phone. This is the preferred method of contact for most of our customers, and our process at this initial stage is largely structured around direct personal contact over the phone.

During the year we launched an additional phone number - 0300 123 9 123 - for consumers contacting our consumer helpline. This is one of a new range of "non-geographic" numbers available only to not-for-profit organisations. Phoning this number should be cheaper for some of our customers than calling us on our other well-publicised number (0845 080 1800). We also stress the message that we will phone back consumers if they are worried about the cost of calling us.

Consumers who phone the ombudsman service hear a short automated welcome-message - recorded personally by the chief ombudsman - giving three options to choose from. This helps to filter the call to an expert in our customer-contact division with the relevant technical knowledge. This filtering is essential, given the very wide range of complaints we cover - from pet insurance to payday loans.

We aim to answer 80% of phone calls to our consumer helpline within 20 seconds. This is a widely-accepted standard for organisations dealing with the volume of phone calls that we handle - and 96% of consumers surveyed during the year said their calls were answered promptly. From April 2009 our consumer helpline has been open for two extra hours each working day - so its operating hours are now from 8am to 6pm.

online contact

Many people prefer to phone us and talk through their enquiry with us personally. However, a significant number of consumers access the information they need straight from our website. During the year we launched an online complaint-enquiry form, available round-the-clock, so that people can contact us at times when our consumer helpline is closed.

During the year an average of 5,300 people continued to visit each day - and 350,000 complaint forms were downloaded from our website (a 17% increase on the previous year). The other most-visited pages on our website included our news page (with 133 news updates added during the year) and the "my story" video clips, showing how we have been able to help people with different kinds of problems.

Visitors to our website used the voting buttons on the site a total of 9,008 times, to score how they found the usefulness of the information on various pages. 84% of these ratings gave us top scores.

how we handle initial enquiries and complaints

Staff in our customer-contact division are able to respond to most consumers' problems and concerns at an early stage by:

  • Explaining the complaints procedure that financial businesses have to follow.
  • Reassuring consumers who feel intimidated by the formal process of complaining.
  • Stressing that a business should have the opportunity to sort out matters with its customers, before the ombudsman can step in formally.
  • Confirming the details of who consumers should complain to at a business - if they haven't already done this.
  • Forwarding complaints direct to the relevant business.
  • Reminding consumers that they can ask us to get involved formally - if a business isn't able to resolve their complaint within eight weeks.
  • Clarifying the role of the ombudsman.
  • Directing the consumer to relevant helplines and self-help websites.
  • Providing the consumer with the facts they need, to resolve the problem themselves.
  • Giving an early steer on the likely outcome of a complaint - from our informed independent viewpoint.
  • Offering practical suggestions to both sides on sorting things out informally - without needing to escalate the case as a formal dispute.
  • In cases where we don't believe it would be helpful or productive to pursue the matter further, explaining why we think this.
  • Providing impartial guidance on any redress already on offer.
  • Explaining the rules of our jurisdiction - for example, on time limits that may apply.
  • Explaining the difference between the ombudsman and the regulator.
  • Suggesting other relevant bodies or ombudsmen.

the value of our early involvement

As a result of our involvement in resolving as many enquiries as possible at this early stage, only around one in six potential complaints raised with our consumer helpline during the year went on to become cases that required the involvement of our adjudicators or ombudsmen.

Independent research carried out during the year showed that, of the consumers who contacted our helpline for initial help and guidance:

  • 54% were subsequently able to resolve their problem themselves, without needing further help from the ombudsman service; and
  • 94% of these consumers felt that it was our early involvement that had enabled them to sort things out satisfactorily at this early stage.

Of the 46% of consumers who were not immediately able to resolve their problem themselves, after contacting our helpline for initial help and guidance:

  • 56% said they had continued to try to sort out the problem directly with the financial business involved (and might ask the ombudsman for further help later on);
  • 44% said they had let the matter drop - and around half of these said this was because of the unhelpful approach of the financial business involved.

meeting different needs

Our service is for everyone. We can adapt the way we communicate with our customers - to meet any particular needs people may have.

For example, we use an instant over-the-phone interpreting service to handle calls in languages other than English. And our website has information about the ombudsman service in over 25 languages (including video and audio clips in mpeg and mp3-format).

We use TypeTalk and sign language, and we regularly provide information in alternative formats such as large print, CD/DVD and "accessible text" (sometimes called "EasyRead"), to suit individual customers' needs.

other languages

During the year 1,700 consumers from 107 countries outside the UK brought complaints to the ombudsman service about UK financial services and products.

The range of languages in which we are asked to communicate reflects the extent of global business carried out by financial services companies that are covered by the UK ombudsman service. It also reflects the diversity of languages spoken across the UK, including more recently the growth of Eastern European languages.

During the year we worked in English, Welsh and 38 other languages - including handling correspondence in Sylheti, phone calls in Hebrew and emails in Hungarian. Around half of our interpreting and translation work involves Asian languages and the other half mostly involves European languages (of which two thirds are Western European languages and one third Eastern).

languages we worked in during the year

Afrikaans, Arabic, Bengali, Bulgarian, Cantonese, Chinese (simplified and traditional), Congolese Swahili, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Farsi, French, Greek, Gujarati, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Lithuanian, Malayalam, Polish, Portuguese, Punjabi, Romanian, Russian, Slovakian, Somali, Spanish, Sylheti, Tamil, Thai, Turkish, Urdu, Vietnamese

new cases referred to our adjudicators

Where consumers have already complained to the business they are unhappy with - and contact us to say they are dissatisfied with the business's final response - our customer-contact division sorts out the paperwork and details we need in order to take on the complaint formally as a new case.

Under the complaints-handling rules set by the Financial Services Authority (FSA), businesses are required to send a final response to a consumer within eight weeks of the original complaint. However, in 28% of the complaints we took on formally as new cases during the year, the businesses involved had not issued a final response - even though their customers had already been waiting longer than eight weeks.

This figure was higher for banking-related complaints where - in around 40% of the cases we dealt with - businesses had failed to send consumers a final response within the required timescale.

The complaints-handling rules also require businesses' final responses to include information about the consumer's right to refer an unresolved complaint to the ombudsman service. During the year 22% of consumers said they heard about us from the business they complained to and 34% told us they knew about the ombudsman through the media.

number of new cases

year ended 31 March number of new cases
2009 127,471
2008 123,089
2007 94,392
2006 112,923
2005 110,963
2004 97,901
2003 62,170
2002 43,330
2001 31,347

In the 2008/09 financial year, our customer-contact division referred a record 127,471 new cases to our adjudicators and ombudsmen for more detailed dispute-resolution work - out of a total 789,877 enquiries and complaints raised with our consumer helpline.

This is a 4% increase on the 123,089 new cases recorded in last year's annual review - and is the highest number of cases we have received in any year since the ombudsman service was set up.

This record level of new cases resulted from trends including:

Increases in the volume of complaints about these financial products masked the continued fall in the number of mortgage endowment disputes. These cases have fallen from a record high of 69,737 in the 2004/05 financial year - and 13,778 in the year ended 31 March 2008 - to 5,798 in the 2008/09 financial year.

who these new cases are from

complaints made by consumers themselves 65
complaints made on behalf of consumers by claims-management companies 26
complaints made on behalf of consumers by third parties such as Trading Standards and Citizens Advice 6
complaints made by smaller businesses 3

Most people who bring complaints to the ombudsman service do so in their personal capacity as individual consumers. However, we also look at complaints brought by smaller businesses, charities and trusts that have an annual turnover, income or net asset value of up to £1 million.

The proportion of complaints referred to us by smaller businesses increased slightly during the year. This may reflect the outreach activities we have carried out - including liaising more closely with smaller-business trade associations and networks, taking part in events such as Business Start-Up shows, and arranging targeted coverage in specialist business-to-business publications.

However, sole traders and people running small businesses may not always register their complaint specifically as a business dispute, as they often see the issues as essentially personal rather than commercial. So the proportion of complaints made by smaller businesses may, in practice, be slightly higher than the figure shown in this table.

People wanting to bring a complaint to the ombudsman service can appoint someone else to do this on their behalf - for example, a member of their family, a friend or Citizens Advice.

In a quarter of cases referred to the ombudsman service, consumers employed a commercial claims-management company to handle their complaints for them. The number of cases we dealt with where the consumer was represented by a claims-management company increased by 40% during the year.

cases referred by claims-management companies

payment-protection insurance (PPI) complaints 52
credit card complaints 25
current account complaints 7
mortgage endowment complaints 6
pensions 3
other types of complaint 7

The continuing rise in the number of complaints referred to the ombudsman service by claims-management companies - increasing annually from 19% to 26% of all cases - reflects the substantial increase in complaints about payment-protection insurance (PPI) during the year. 14% of cases brought by claims-management companies in the 2007/08 financial year related to PPI complaints - but this number has now risen to over 50%.

A high proportion of the complaints we received about credit cards were also brought by claims-management companies on behalf of consumers.

Six claims-management companies accounted for over half of all the cases we handled during the year where consumers were represented by commercial third-parties.

We continue to tell consumers that we do not think they should need the help of a commercial third-party - such as a claims-management company or solicitor - to bring a complaint to us. We decide cases by looking at the facts - not at how well the arguments are presented. We prefer to hear from consumers in their own words.

And we are a free service for consumers - while commercial organisations charge consumers to bring a complaint on their behalf.