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ombudsman news

issue 83

February/March 2010

'are you the complaints people-'

Paul Kendall, head of our customer-contact division, talks to ombudsman news about life on the front-line at the ombudsman service - dealing with a million enquiries a year from consumers with questions, concerns and complaints about their treatment by financial businesses

Isn't it tiring answering all those calls-

Fortunately, I don't do this job alone! I head up a department of 108 people who run our consumer helpline - for enquiries by phone, letter and email. Together we handled 905,337 initial enquiries and complaints last year. This means that each working day we dealt with some 3,500 phone calls and items of new mail from consumers - a 21% increase on the previous year.

We're the first port of call for everyone who phones the ombudsman on one of our range of easily-memorable 'non geographic' numbers - from which consumers can choose the one that is cheapest or most convenient for them personally (depending on their phone tariff etc). We also publicise widely that we will phone people back if they are worried about the cost of calling us.

In our regular customer surveys, 97% of people say that they had no problem finding our contact details. And the proportion of consumers who say that we are 'very easy' to contact has increased by 12% in the last two years - reflecting our continued initiatives to promote consumer awareness of our service, especially in areas where our research shows that knowledge of the ombudsman is weaker.

My department is also responsible for sorting out the paperwork and checking details on all new complaint forms that come in - before we can take them on formally as new cases. And we answer consumers' emails and deal with online complaints made through our website.

This all gives the consumer advisers working on our helpline a wide variety of complaints-handling tasks both on and off the phone. And although we're open for calls from 8am to 6pm, our front-line teams operate different rotas and shifts, so no one's on the phone for more than a few hours at a time.

calls and enquiries handled by the ombudsman's helpline

type of enquiry 2009 2008 2007
phone 447,553 380,606 443,338
written 457,784 368,421 357,332
total 905,337 749,027 800,720

What do customers hear when they phone the ombudsman helpline-

Some of the most positive feedback we get is about the message they hear from the chief ombudsman when they call us. Obviously, it's a recorded message. But the point is that we don't want people to feel we're just another faceless, automated call centre.

Consumers say they appreciate the chief ombudsman taking the time to record a message to welcome them. It shows he's interested and involved in what happens at the front-line. I know that in some organisations the people answering the phones can feel pretty remote and uninvolved - but that's definitely not the case here.

In his message, the chief ombudsman runs through the options that callers can choose from. There are just three options - and then you're straight through and talking to a real person on our helpline. The options help filter the call through to an adviser who has the particular technical knowledge needed for that call. This filtering is essential, given the wide range of complaints we cover - everything from pet insurance to payday loans.

Isn't increased automation the best way to deal with the growing volume of calls-

My aim is to blend the most effective call-centre technology with the best personalised customer service we can offer. Our target is to answer 80% of phone calls within 20 seconds. This is a widely-accepted standard for organisations dealing with the volume of calls that we handle - and 98% of customers surveyed during the year said their calls to us were answered promptly. We use sophisticated call-centre software to help manage surges of calls throughout the day. That means that the moment the volume of incoming calls increases, those consumer advisers who are working on other tasks are alerted to log-on to the phone system and start taking calls.

The person I spoke to was very understanding, asked good simple questions and, most importantly, listened.

Win or lose, you have given me the chance to air my views when I had nowhere else to go.

Helpful and caring. Put me at ease straightaway.

source: customer survey of ombudsman-helpline users, autumn 2009

Of course, we pride ourselves on handling calls efficiently - and that means being able to guide and control calls professionally, especially where the consumer may be angry, confused and emotional. But we recognise that each phone call is a unique conversation. It's the human touch that matters to most customers.

Our front-line staff don't read from scripts or automated prompts. We don't set targets or quotas on the number and length of calls we take. And we believe each consumer's individual needs are best met by ensuring our front-line consumer advisers are appropriately skilled and empowered to decide themselves what approach to take - tailoring their response accordingly in each case.

Feedback from our customer surveys shows that this approach is clearly valued by consumers. 97% of people who contacted the ombudsman 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.

This approach also means we're able to provide an individual, personalised service for consumers with different needs - for example, people with hearing difficulties or cognitive impairment, or people whose first language isn't English. Demand for our phone-based interpreting service is increasing, as the financial companies we cover do more international business with customers round the world - for example, money-transfer operators (which only recently came under our remit) working with customers globally.

What does handling enquiries and complaints at the front-line involve-

We deal with very large volumes of incoming paperwork - with thousands of new complaint forms and files arriving every week. And we log the details of hundreds of phone calls every hour.

But we don't really see ourselves as a data-processing centre. Our job is to sort and filter large amounts of information quickly and efficiently, to be able to get to the nub of the problem - and find out how we can help. As we're at the front-line, this can sometimes be quite a challenge - especially where the two sides are already in heated argument, trading insults rather than facts.

So the first task for us on the phone is often just to calm the customer down - and to explain our role. It's very important that consumers understand we're not on anyone's side. We're committed to making sure that consumers aren't at any disadvantage in making a complaint against, say, a large bank or insurance company. And we can help people bring complaints in a way that the courts don't - for example, guiding through the complaints process those people who might otherwise struggle with forms and procedure. But being impartial means we don't automatically 'side' with anyone. We don't have any vested interests - and we're neither an industry trade body nor a consumer champion.

Our work - and our decisions - are based entirely on the facts and merits of each individual case, and not on who shouts loudest or longest. Consumers (and even some professionals working in financial services) sometimes find it difficult to accept this. But most people really seem to value the opportunity to talk through their problem with an 'arm's length' third party - someone like our consumer advisers, with the knowledge and experience to look at a problem with a fresh eye and offer an informed, impartial view. This is the service we're proud to offer consumers on our free helpline.

What approach do you take to these initial enquiries and complaints-

The way we respond to each enquiry is as varied as the complaints we cover - ranging from spread-betting and self-invested pensions to motorbike insurance and (since last November) money-transfer operators. Our consumer advisers are able to handle consumers' problems and concerns with a range of responses and actions.

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 be able 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 we might give an early steer on the likely outcome of a complaint, from our informed independent viewpoint.

Where we don't believe it would be helpful or productive for a consumer to pursue a matter further, we explain why we think this. But equally, if we think they have a genuine case to pursue, we will reassure any consumers who seem intimidated by the formal process of complaining. We also provide impartial guidance on any redress already on offer.

In clarifying the role of the ombudsman, an important part of our work on the helpline is to explain the rules and limits on what we can and cannot do - so that we can manage expectations realistically. For example, we explain the time limits and deadlines that may apply. And we are very clear that we are not the regulator - and that our work does not involve punishing or fining businesses.

What difference does your handling of front-line enquiries make-

As a result of our focus on resolving as many enquiries as possible at the front-line, only around one in six potential complaints raised with our consumer helpline actually become 'full blown' cases that require the involvement of our adjudicators and ombudsmen.

We commission independent research annually to find out more about what happens next to the five out of six consumers who contact us initially on our helpline - but then never return 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.

Our customer surveys also monitor the level of trust that consumers have in the ombudsman service. Across the UK public as a whole, 69% of people say they would trust our service. This compares with 75% of people who say they would trust Trading Standards and 81% of people who say they would trust Citizens Advice. On the other hand, levels of consumer trust in financial services trade-associations appear significantly lower - between 40 and 55%.

Surveys of people who had been in touch with our consumer helpline show that this direct contact with us significantly increased their trust in the ombudsman service - with eight out of ten of these consumers saying they trusted us, and half saying they had complete trust in us.

how did consumers who contact our helpline first hear about the ombudsman-

  • 24% from a friend, relative or colleague
  • 23% were told by a financial business
  • 17% on the internet
  • 8% on the television/radio
  • 8% from a consumer-advice centre
  • 6% in the press
  • 6% other
  • 8% don't know

source: customer survey, autumn 2009

what age are consumers who contact our helpline-

  • 5% are under 25
  • 19% are aged 25 to 34
  • 25% are aged 35 to 44
  • 24% are aged 45 to 54
  • 18% are aged 55 to 64
  • 9% are over 65

source: customer survey, autumn 2009

what's the socio-economic background of consumers who contact our helpline-

  • 30% are AB 'white collar'
  • 42% are C1/C2 'blue collar'
  • 28% are DE 'manual'

source: customer survey, autumn 2009

what financial products do consumers contact our helpline about the most ... -

1. current accounts
2. credit cards
3. motor insurance
4. loans
5. payment protection insurance (PPI)
6. mortgages
7. hire purchase
8. mortgage endowments
9. other types of consumer credit
10. savings accounts

... and what financial products do consumers then go on to complain formally about the most-

1. payment protection insurance (PPI)
2. current accounts
3. credit cards
4. mortgages
5. consumer credit
6. unsecured loans
7. motor insurance
8. buildings and contents insurance
9. mortgage endowments
10. savings accounts

photo: Paul Kendall

photo: Paul Kendall, head of our customer-contact division

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.