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annual review 2009/2010

1 April 2009 to 31 March 2010

the complaints we received

our consumer helpline

Our customer-contact division runs our consumer helpline - for enquiries by phone, letter and email. In the financial year 2009/2010 the number of people contacting us - with questions, concerns and complaints about the way they had been treated by financial businesses - continued at record levels.

We handled 925,095 initial enquiries and complaints during the year - a 17% increase on the previous year. This means that each working day our customer-contact division dealt with over 3,500 phone calls and items of new mail from consumers.

initial enquiries and complaints from consumers

year ended
31 March
phone enquiries written enquiries
(including by email)
total enquiries
2010 448,140 476,955 925,095
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

The consumer helpline is the first port of call for everyone who phones the ombudsman service on one of our two easily-memorable "non-geographic" numbers. Consumers can choose which number they prefer - depending on which is more convenient for them personally and which is cheaper (or in many cases free - subject to their own phone tariff). We also publicise widely that we will phone people back if they are worried about the cost of calling us.

In our customer research carried out over the year, 97% of people said that they had no problem finding our contact details. The proportion of consumers who said we were "very easy" to contact has increased by 12% in the last two years. This reflects our continued initiatives to promote consumer awareness of our service, especially in areas where our research shows that knowledge of the ombudsman is weaker.

how do people phone the ombudsman service?

  • 82% from a "fixed line" phone
  • 15% from a mobile phone
  • 1% from "voice over internet" phone ("VoIP")
  • fewer than 0.1% of calls were made from a payphone
  • 2% from an overseas/untraceable phone

Our target is 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. We met this target during the year - and 97% of consumers surveyed during the year said their calls to us were answered promptly.

Peak times for phone calls are generally Mondays between 10am and noon. We use sophisticated call-centre software to help manage surges of calls throughout the day. This means that the moment the volume of incoming calls increases, our helpline advisers who are dealing with written enquiries are alerted to log-on to the phone system and start taking calls.

online contact

While many prefer to phone us and talk through their enquiry personally, a significant number of consumers access the information they need straight from our website. And around 250 people a month have registered their complaint with us using our online complaint-enquiry facility, a service we trialled during the year and which we are now looking to develop and promote more extensively.

Our website recorded a monthly average of 210,000 visits. The busiest time on our website is late morning on weekdays - although people use our website round the clock, 365 days a year, to send us emails and register complaints online.

438,760 complaint forms were downloaded from our website during the year (a 25% increase on the previous year). The other most-visited pages included our news page (with 169 news updates added during the year), case studies from the online version of our newsletter, ombudsman news, and the online video-welcome from the chief ombudsman.

Visitors to our website used the voting buttons on the site over 10,000 times, to rate how useful they found the information on various pages. 82% of these online ratings gave us top scores.

There is more information about the people who use our website further on in this annual review.

how we handle initial enquiries and complaints

We aim to blend the most effective call-centre technology with the best personalised customer service we can offer. The skilled advisers on our consumer helpline are empowered to decide what approach to take on each call - tailoring their response accordingly in each case. This means they can sort out most consumers' problems and concerns at an early stage.

This includes explaining the official complaints procedures, set out by the Financial Services Authority (FSA), which financial businesses have to follow - and confirming the details of the person consumers should complain to at a business, if they haven't already done this.

We can forward complaints direct to the relevant business - for them to deal with in the first instance, under the FSA's complaints-handling rules. And we regularly direct consumers to other appropriate complaints bodies, helplines and websites.

As part of our commitment to complaints prevention, we especially like providing the facts and information that empower people to resolve problems themselves. This might include offering practical suggestions on sorting things out informally - without needing to escalate the matter as an official complaint - or giving an early steer on the likely outcome of a complaint, from our informed independent viewpoint.

Where we do not believe it would be helpful or productive for a consumer to pursue a matter further, we explain why we think this. We also provide impartial guidance on any redress already on offer. But equally, if we think there is a genuine case to pursue, we will reassure anyone who seems intimidated by the formal process of complaining.

We are committed to identifying and, wherever possible, removing barriers that may unfairly prevent particular consumers from using our service. As part of this commitment, we have put in place a team of specially-trained front-line advisers, to work with more vulnerable consumers who might otherwise struggle with forms and procedure.

This followed a successful trial project during the year - which established that helping to guide disadvantaged people through the complaints process did not affect the impartiality of the decision-making on the merits of their case.

A key challenge for our consumer helpline - and for the ombudsman service as a whole - is to emphasise our impartiality while at the same time working proactively to ensure consumers are not disadvantaged in bringing complaints. "Impartial" means we do not automatically "side" with anyone. This is a message that can be hard for some consumers (and even some financial services practitioners) to accept.

In clarifying the role of the ombudsman, an important part of our work is to manage expectations realistically by explaining the complaints-handling rules and restrictions on what we can and cannot do. This includes setting out the time limits and deadlines that may apply. We are also very clear that we are not the regulator - and that our work does not involve punishing or fining businesses.

the value of our early involvement

Feedback from our customer research shows that our approach to initial enquiries and complaints is clearly valued by the consumers who contact our consumer helpline. During the year, 97% of people who contacted the helpline said they were given a clear explanation of what would happen next with their complaint, and 98% felt that the consumer adviser they spoke to knew enough to answer their questions.

As a result of our focus on 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 a case needing the involvement of an adjudicator or ombudsman.

During the year we again commissioned independent research to find out more about what happened next to the five out of six consumers who contacted us initially on our helpline - but then never returned with a formal complaint. The latest survey shows that of these consumers:

  • 44% were subsequently able to resolve their problem themselves, without needing further help from the ombudsman service; and
  • 95% of these consumers felt it was our early involvement that had helped them to sort things out satisfactorily at this early stage.

Of the 56% of consumers who were not immediately able to resolve their problem themselves, after contacting our helpline for initial help and guidance:

  • 59% 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); and
  • 41% said they had let the matter drop - with half saying this was primarily because of difficulties in dealing with the financial business involved.

meeting different needs

Our service is for everyone. We aim to be accessible and to 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 Text Relay (formerly known as "TypeTalk") and sign language, and to suit individual customers' needs we regularly provide information in alternative formats such as large print, CD/DVD and "accessible text" (sometimes called "EasyRead").

other languages

During the year 2,078 consumers from 93 countries outside the UK brought complaints to the ombudsman service about UK financial services and products.

This is reflected in demand for our interpreting and translation services. This demand has increased, as the financial companies we cover do more international business with customers round the world - for example, money-transfer operators (who came under our remit in November 2009) working with customers globally.

0.75% of cases during the year involved working in 46 languages other than English or Welsh. Of these cases:

  • 52% involved Western European languages
  • 23% involved Asian languages
  • 18% involved Eastern European languages
  • 5% involved Middle Eastern languages
  • 2% involved African languages.
languages other than English and Welsh %
German 14
Polish 13
Spanish 11
French 10
other Western European languages 10
Urdu 6
other Asian languages 6
Italian 5
other Eastern European languages 5
Middle Eastern languages 5
Chinese 3
Hindi 3
Punjabi 3
Danish 2
Gujurati 2
African languages 2

new cases referred to our adjudicators

Where a consumer has already complained to the business they are unhappy with - and contacts us to say they are dissatisfied with the business's final response - our customer-contact division sorts out the paperwork and checks the details, before we 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 31% 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 39% of the cases we dealt with (a similar level to the previous year) - 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 18% of consumers said they were told about us by the business they complained to. This was 4% fewer people than in the previous year. 19% said they first heard about the ombudsman from a friend, relative or colleague.

number of new cases

year ended 31 March number of new cases
2010 163,012
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 financial year 2009/2010, our customer-contact division referred a record 163,012 new cases to our adjudicators and ombudsmen - out of a total 925,095 enquiries and complaints raised initially with our consumer helpline.

This is a 28% increase on the 127,471 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 in the year 2000.

It means that over the last ten years the ombudsman service has received a total of 966,598 cases - 31% of which have related to the sale of mortgage endowments, 10% about the sale of payment protection insurance, 6% about unauthorised overdraft charges and 4% about credit-card charges.

The record level of new cases in the financial year 2009/2010 resulted from trends over the year that have included:

However, other trends included the number of motor insurance complaints referred to the ombudsman service falling by 13% and pensions complaints down by 27% during the year. Numbers of new cases relating to credit cards, mortgages, buildings insurance and income protection insurance levelled off - and were similar to the numbers received in the previous year.

who these new cases are from

complaints made by consumers themselves 60
complaints made on behalf of consumers by commercial claims-management companies 28
complaints made on behalf of consumers by friends and family 3.5
complaints made on behalf of consumers by professionals (eg lawyers and accountants) 3.5
complaints made by smaller businesses 3
complaints made on behalf of consumers by free consumer-advice agencies (eg Trading Standards and Citizens Advice) 2

Over half of the people who used the ombudsman service during the year did so in a personal capacity as individual consumers. But people wanting to bring a complaint can appoint someone else to do this for them. During the year 5.5% of cases involved someone acting for free on behalf of the person with the complaint.

Around two thirds of these cases involved people referring complaints on behalf of friends and family. A smaller number involved a wide range of professional consumer representatives and advocates, acting for free on behalf of clients. These included Trading Standards and Citizens Advice, debt counsellors and money advisers, employers and union representatives, members of parliament and councillors, and community and charity workers.

In 31.5% of cases referred to the ombudsman service during the year, consumers paid for the services of someone to represent them. These included professionals such as accountants and solicitors. But most of these "represented" cases involved commercial claims-management companies.

The proportion of cases we dealt with where the consumer was represented by a claims-management company increased by 2% during the year.

We also look at complaints brought by smaller businesses. Up until 1 November 2009, we could help where a smaller business had an annual turnover of up to £1 million. From 1 November 2009, this threshold increased to 2 million euros for smaller businesses - but they must now also have fewer than ten employees. This change reflects European Union (EU) law relating to "micro-enterprises" (an EU term covering the smallest businesses).

The number of complaints referred to us by smaller businesses increased by 35% during the year - from 3,525 cases to 4,758. This reflects our continued outreach activities - such as working with smaller-business trade associations and networks (including our own smaller-businesses forum), taking part in business start-up shows and similar events, and arranging targeted coverage in specialist business-to-business publications.

Sole traders and people running small businesses do not always register their complaint specifically as a business dispute, as they often see the issues as essentially personal rather than commercial. This is evident from the fact that 13% of people who completed our customer-satisfaction surveys during the year described themselves as self-employed or running their own business - far higher than the number who formally brought a complaint to us in that specific capacity.

cases referred by claims-management companies

payment protection insurance (PPI) complaints 67
credit card complaints 15
current account complaints 10
mortgage endowment complaints 2
other types of complaint (including pensions and mortgages) 6

The proportion of complaints referred to the ombudsman service by claims-management companies on behalf of consumers continued to increase during the year - from 26% to 28% of all cases. However, this was a slower rate of increase than in the previous year, when the proportion of complaints represented by claims-management companies had increased by 7%.

Around half of cases brought by claims-management companies in the financial year 2008/2009 related to payment protection insurance (PPI) complaints - but this number has risen to two thirds this year. Claims-management companies were involved in around six out of ten PPI cases that we handled during the year.

Seven claims-management companies accounted for 52% of all the cases we handled during the year where consumers were represented by this type of company. The other 48% of cases involved a further 150 claims-management companies.

We continue to tell consumers that we do not think they need the help of a commercial third-party - such as a claims-management company or solicitor - to bring a complaint to us. We are a free service for consumers, while commercial companies charge consumers to bring a complaint on their behalf. And our procedures are designed to be simple for consumers to use.

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 in our experience there is no difference in the outcome of complaints - whether consumers bring them to us themselves direct, or whether they pay a claims-management company to complain on their behalf.