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ombudsman news

issue 76

March/April 2009

the price of cut-backs in customer service

One of the common features of all ombudsman schemes is that we are - and should be - the last resort for people's dissatisfaction, not the first one. In the first instance, consumers should make their complaint direct to the organisation about whose services they are unhappy.

So the complaint of every consumer whose grievance we investigate here at the Financial Ombudsman Service will already have been through the complaints procedure of the financial businesses concerned. And the size of our workload is very largely influenced by how well - or badly - that procedure has been operated.

Many businesses take their complaints-handling responsibilities seriously - and clearly do their best to resolve their customers' complaints promptly and professionally. Regrettably, however, we are seeing a growing number of cases where customers who have complained to a financial business appear to have experienced treatment that is nothing short of dismal.

The way some businesses are handling these complaints suggests that a weary cynicism is setting in. Some in the financial services industry - currently facing significant business challenges - appear to be taking the jaundiced view that having a large number of complaining customers is just an unfortunate fact of life. So they seem to be geared up simply to dispose of complaints at minimum cost - and with minimal attention to the individual facts and circumstances.

Inevitably, when some of these consumers then turn to us, they feel angry, ignored and let down by the financial institutions they have dealt with. And we find ourselves having to play the part of emotional shock absorbers.

Poor complaints-handling by businesses can also mean that a case may not even be properly looked through until it reaches the ombudsman service. This is clearly not how things should be. We are caused additional work when we have to spend time and resources chasing files and gathering information that the business itself should have put together and considered when it first became aware of the complaint.

And of course, other unhappy customers never make it through the complaints-procedures of the businesses concerned. Our research suggests that almost half of consumers who had an unresolved complaint against a financial business were deterred from pursuing it further by the fact that the business had such an unhelpful approach.

In the current climate, high standards of customer service may not seem the top priority to businesses battening down the hatches. But when markets pick up and these same businesses look to attract new customers, they may well discover that consumers have long memories of how well - or otherwise - they were treated in the past.

Walter Merricks
chief ombudsman

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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.