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ombudsman news

issue 63

July/August 2007

ombudsman focus - the ombudsman service - an insider's view

Peter, a senior consumer consultant in our busy customer contact division and Caroline, an adjudicator in one of our dedicated complaint-handling teams, tell us about their work at the Ombudsman Service.

Peter, what does your job entail-

Our customer contact division forms the front-line for all consumer enquiries to the ombudsman service - whether by phone, letter or email. In the course of a year we help tens of thousands of people with money-related complaints. Last year, for example, we dealt with over 600,000 initial enquiries and complaints. There are around 100 of us altogether in the team - and it's certainly a pretty busy place to work. As well as dealing with enquiries, I act as a mentor for some of my colleagues and help them with the more complex or difficult enquiries.

Because we receive such a wide range of calls, there's no way we could operate simply as a processing function or a call centre - where staff follow some kind of standard script. Every call is different, covering many different financial products and a vast range of different situations. And the people who contact us are often in real distress. They may be at the end of their tether, angry or upset - or simply very confused. They're looking for answers and solutions - not just someone calming them down and taking their details.

We need to establish what's actually gone wrong, and to assess as quickly as possible whether the problem is one that can be resolved at an early stage, or whether it's likely to need to go on for further investigation by one of our adjudicators. Getting to the heart of the complaint can sometimes be a real challenge. When a dispute's gone on for some time, the consumer may have got so caught up in it all that they've rather lost sight of the main issue. Then too we often get people contacting us where a problem's only just arisen. They feel something's gone wrong - but they're not at all sure how or why. And they're sometimes not even confident they've got the right to question the position they've ended up in.

are there similarities between your work and the work of the ombudsman's technical advice desk-

The service we offer consumers is really very similar to that provided by the technical advice desk, which offers help, support and guidance to businesses. Just like the technical advice desk, here in the consumer contact division we aim to be as accessible as possible and to provide useful, practical information to help settle existing disputes or nip potential problems in the bud.

what sort of practical help do you give consumers-

Once we've established what the problem is, there are a number of ways we can help. In some cases, once we've given consumers some basic information - perhaps about how a particular financial product actually works - it becomes clear that what they thought was a problem isn't something to worry about after all. It's always very satisfying when I'm able to put someone's mind at rest - to reassure them with a straightforward explanation. With all the jargon that tends to be used in so many areas of financial services, it's not surprising that quite serious misunderstandings can sometimes arise.

It's also not at all unusual to find that something relatively simple - an administrative error, say or some computer glitch - has led to a problem that's caused the consumer no end of worry. Maybe the business concerned has promised to sort things out but hasn't done so. Or maybe the consumer felt the business misunderstood their complaint - or brushed it aside. Armed with a bit of information from us about how things could be resolved - together with the confidence of knowing that the business really does have to take the matter seriously - the consumer may then be able to get things settled without any need for our further involvement.

It speeds things up for everyone when we're able to sort things out at this early stage. If we simply referred everything on to the adjudicators it would create unnecessary and time-consuming delays. In fact, because we are able to sort out so many problems at this initial stage, only one in every six of the initial enquiries we received goes on to become a "full-blown" case.

do the consumers who contact you understand that the ombudsman service is independent - and doesn't take sides-

Yes, generally they do, I think. Our role is not to be a consumer champion or to support one side against the other. We're here to stand back and take a fresh look at what's happened. Then if we think there's a problem, we'll see how things can be put right. If there isn't really a problem - we'll explain why there's no point in pursuing the matter.

you said callers can sometimes be distressed - how do you deal with that-

It's important to remember that if someone's got a problem with - say - their mortgage or bank account, or an insurance claim, it's often a big worry for them. And many people find the prospect of having to make a complaint quite scary. So it's important we're approachable.

Sometimes you find you're dealing with someone who's emotional - pretty angry or upset about what's happened to them. They may be a bit unrealistic, expecting us to provide an instant solution before we even have the facts of the case. But like everyone here I've got pretty strong customer service skills to call on. By remaining friendly and professional, I can usually get the caller to calm down quickly and to appreciate that - even if I can't make their problem vanish right away - I can offer practical and relevant help.

Most of the people who contact us certainly don't want to make a fuss. They just think something's wrong and want to know how it can be sorted out. They're really thankful for the service we provide. It's often quite demanding - but it's good to have a job where you can put your experience to good use - where you really feel you're making a difference.

Caroline, you're an adjudicator, working in one of the dedicated complaint-handling teams. Tell us about your work.

Currently, I specialise in complaints involving smaller businesses. I've worked in a number of other areas here in the past, so I've a pretty broad knowledge base. But like most of my adjudicator colleagues, I've also developed particular expertise in certain topics.

The cases that come through to adjudicators from our consumer front-line are those that are more entrenched or complex and that need careful assessment. In fact some of them entail a huge amount of detailed study. As well as examining the documents the consumer has sent us to back up their complaint, we need to get all the relevant documents and other records from the business complained about. We check through them carefully, so we can get a clear view of the situation - and what has led to it. Where the problem has been going on for some while, that adds up to a considerable amount of paperwork to sift through.

I need to be sure I have all the relevant facts, so I can't afford to overlook any detail. Unless things are very clear and straightforward, I'll often need to contact one or both of the parties to the dispute for clarification of certain points - or to obtain more information where there are significant gaps. Where it's possible to do that by phone or email - and the business or consumer is happy to be contacted that way - then it obviously saves time. Where the issues are really complex, though, it can be more helpful to put them in a letter.

remaining totally impartial is a fundamental part of your work, I guess.

Yes, as an adjudicator I have to be totally impartial and objective. That said, I try and avoid appearing too detached as I don't want to come across as being unfriendly or uncaring. I need to help each side understand fully where the other is coming from - to iron out any misunderstandings and help them focus on the important issues.

A colleague once said it's rather like being a marriage guidance counsellor - and I think that's quite apt. Only a few weeks ago I had a case where the relationship between the business and its customer had broken down altogether. The problem had been rumbling on for some time before the complaint was brought to us. Attitudes had become really entrenched - emotions were running high and neither party was willing to see the other's point of view.

I needed to take the steam out of the situation before we could get anywhere. But then, as with most cases, by considering the issues from both parties' perspectives and finding where there was scope for agreement, I was able to move things forward. I'm pleased to say that - short of finalising a couple of small details - that case is just about resolved now. What's more, both sides have since written to thank me for my help.

Occasionally, despite my best efforts, I'm unable to get the parties to agree - and the matter is then referred on to an ombudsman. I'm pleased to say, though, that in the vast majority of cases I'm able to bring the complaint to a conclusion that both sides are happy to accept.

how do you ensure consistency in your approach to cases-

Every adjudicator has their own caseload - and each case is resolved according to the particular facts of the individual case. That said, we'll follow the same general approach when dealing with similar types of case. Consistency of overall approach is clearly important - though it doesn't mean a "one-size fits all" solution. Even the smallest detail can make a difference to the outcome of an individual complaint.

Each team of adjudicators has a casework manager, who monitors the team's work and helps ensure that all of us handling similar types of case are following established guidelines - so that the approach remains consistent even though the details of individual cases will clearly vary.

Very occasionally I come across a particular situation or issue that I've not encountered before - but you can be sure there'll be someone in the team who's dealt with that issue so often they've become the in-house expert in it. So we're constantly sharing experience and further developing our knowledge.

We also benefit from getting together regularly with the ombudsmen. This enables us to keep up-to-date with any policy developments and new issues. And it helps deepen our overall understanding. It's also another way of ensuring the approach that each of us is taking is consistent.

is it difficult - knowing that whatever conclusion you reach in a case, you're unlikely to please everyone-

It's in the nature of the job that - ultimately - one side or the other in a dispute will be disappointed with the outcome of a case - when it doesn't go the way they'd hoped it would. But like all my colleagues I ensure both sides have plenty of opportunity to ask questions and get a clear explanation - so they understand exactly why I've reached whatever conclusion I've come to.

And you'd be surprised how often I'm told - even by businesses and consumers who've not had the outcome they wanted - that they appreciate the care and attention I've given to their case - and the practical solution I've come up with.

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ombudsman news issue 63 [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.