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ombudsman news

issue 117

May/June 2014

stories behind the numbers

This is the first ombudsman news since we published our annual review of 2013/2014 - and my head is still packed with facts and figures about our unprecedented year of activity. If you’d like to see for yourself, the information is all available on our website - together with the complaints data we regularly publish about individual financial businesses.

All helpful stuff, statistics. But they don’t show the full story. Indeed, what we do at the ombudsman service can’t be readily represented by a string of numbers.

Mindful of this - and hoping to set the balance right - I recently spent a day working on our consumer helpline. My day, I was assured by my excellent colleagues, wasn’t unusual. People phoned in from across the UK - some worried about a few pounds, some about their livelihoods - but all looking for practical help and assistance.

Many were extremely upset and worried about the difficulties they were facing. Others were angry. Many more seemed resigned in the face of a financial services bureaucracy that they couldn’t navigate, however hard they tried. And all wanted the matter sorted out without further delays.

My colleagues answered more than two million of these initial enquiries and complaints last year. 6% of calls to our helpline are about motor insurance - and 23% about payment protection insurance. All this and more is in our annual review. But that isn’t really the point.

And it certainly isn’t the point for each of the consumers and businesses that get in touch with us. Rather, each phone call, each “case”, is its own story of specific facts, circumstances and disagreements.

That’s where ombudsman news steps in: to give readers a feel for the real-world implications of those quotable facts and figures, and the inevitable pie-charts. Because whether it’s health insurance or PPI, mortgages or pensions, our job isn’t about numbers - it’s about individual people, their individual lives, and the very individual consequences of something going wrong.

Many consumers tell us they feel they’ve been treated by their bank or insurer like a number - a seven-digit account or policy reference. Perhaps that’s a consequence of “tick-box” compliance.

Or perhaps it’s inevitable given the size of the big service providers - and the scale of their operations and procedures. But in my experience, good case-handling looks beyond the numbers to the story. What happened to that customer, and how did that feel for them?

So I always worry when a financial services executive presents me with spreadsheets and graphs. Useful and necessary, granted - but far from the whole picture. What’s more telling is whether that executive can recount a story about a case they tackled - and what it told them about the service their business provides.

Tony Boorman

image: Tony Boorman
Tony Boorman

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.