1 April 2011 to 31 March 2012
Our customer-contact division runs our consumer helpline – for enquiries by phone, letter and email. In the financial year 2011/2012 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 a record 1,268,798 initial enquiries and complaints during the year – a 25% rise on the previous year and double the number we received annually five years ago.
This means that each working day during the year our customer-contact division responded to over 5,000 phone calls and front-line enquiries from consumers.
|phone enquiries||written enquiries
(including by email)
The consumer helpline is the first port of call for everyone who phones the ombudsman service on one of our easily-memorable “non-geographic” numbers. During the year 95% of people said it was easy to find out how to contact us.
Consumers can choose which number they prefer to call us on – 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 have not actively promoted our original 0845 number for over three years, because it can cost more for mobile phone users. This number is now being used less, as the many organisations who give out our contact details gradually update their records with our new alternative contact numbers.
During the year we extended the opening hours of our consumer helpline to include Saturday mornings. By the end of the year, up to 5% of the calls we received each week were on Saturdays. We expect this number to increase as more people hear that we are open for front-line enquiries outside standard “office hours”.
The next step is to extend our opening hours in the evening from 6pm till 8pm – something we plan to do during 2012. This means consumers will be able to contact us from 8am to 8pm on weekdays, as well as on Saturday mornings. This is in line with our commitment to make our service as accessible as possible for everyone – whatever their family and work commitments and lifestyle.
The proportion of calls to our consumer helpline from mobile phones and fixed-line phones remained almost the same as in the previous year – following a 13% rise in calls from mobiles during 2010/2011. 1,819 people phoned us from payphones (0.3% of all phone calls). We continue to remind these callers that we are happy to phone them back, if they are worried about the cost of calling us.
We aim 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. During the year we answered 65% of calls within 20 seconds – less than our target, largely as a result of the 46% increase in phone calls. 91% of consumers surveyed during the year said their calls to us were answered promptly.
Consumers who phone the ombudsman service hear a short automated welcome-message – recorded personally by the chief ombudsman – giving four options to choose from. This helps to filter the call to an expert in our customer-contact division with the relevant technical knowledge. This filtering is essential, given the very wide range of complaints we cover – from pet insurance to payday loans.
Peak times for phone calls are generally on Mondays between 10am and 2pm. During this period we often receive up to 400 phone calls an hour. We use call-centre software and planning tools to help manage surges of calls throughout the day. This means that the moment the volume of incoming calls increases – often in response to coverage on broadcast media – those of our helpline advisers who are dealing with written rather than phone enquiries are alerted to log-on to the phone system and start taking calls.
The busiest day in the year for our consumer helpline was Tuesday 26 April 2011, when we received 5,086 phone calls. This was during the peak period of enquiries about payment protection insurance (PPI), following the High Court’s ruling against the banks on the approach to PPI complaints.
The quietest day for our consumer helpline was Friday 23 December 2011 – the last working day before the Christmas break – when the number of phone enquiries fell to 1,379.
While many prefer to phone us and talk through their enquiry personally, growing numbers of consumers access the information they need straight from our website.
Each day during the year over 11,000 people logged onto our website – a 51% increase compared with the previous year. The busiest time on our website continues to be late morning on weekdays. However, people use our website round the clock, 365 days a year, to send us emails and register complaints online – including 8,413 people who visited our website on Christmas Day.
The busiest day on our website during the year was 21 November 2011 – when 15,595 people logged on, largely as a result of media coverage of the topics in issue 98 of ombudsman news that we published on that day. These topics included complaints involving cheques, storm-related insurance disputes, and an update on PPI complaint volumes.
445,979 complaint forms were downloaded from our website during the year – a 38% increase on the previous year when 323,582 were downloaded. This increase largely resulted from the rise in complaints about payment protection insurance (PPI) – which led to an eight-fold increase in the number of PPI consumer questionnaires downloaded from our website (1,726,447 compared to 214,140 in the previous year).
The PPI consumer questionnaire helps businesses, consumer agencies and the ombudsman service alike standardise and streamline the handling of PPI complaints – gathering and sharing as much information as possible in one place at the start of the process.
The other most-visited pages on our website were:
To help people find what they are looking for across the 4,000 pages of our website – from the tax treatment of compensation to how to apply for a job at the ombudsman service – we have a specially-tailored “Google-style” search facility. However, many people find the quantity and complexity of data that these types of online “search engines” produce increasingly confusing and overwhelming.
This is why we introduced a new simpler online tool during the year – called “what are you looking for?” This helps people who may not be sure about the exact terminology or words to use in a “search engine” – by prompting them with specific questions. The questions are generated automatically using “intuitive” software that learns from how people have previously looked for – and found – similar information.
PPI claim | repayment | direct debit | debt | claim | cheque | how to
| charge | car insurance | inconvenience
During the year we also started using “QR codes” in our leaflets, posters and printed information. When people scan these using a mobile phone, they are taken straight to whichever part of our website is directly relevant to them. This helps to pinpoint and personalise the information they are interested in – and prevents people from being distracted by other information that is less relevant to them.
Around 600 organisations now link from their websites to ours – ranging from bbc.co.uk to leicestershirevillages.com, savvywoman.co.uk to ifaonline.
The front-line advisers on our consumer helpline deal with all initial enquiries and complaints – giving general advice and guidance on what to do if consumers have a complaint about a financial product or service.
Our advisers are trained to make their own decisions about how to handle each individual call – tailoring their response accordingly in each case. Their aim is to sort out as many enquiries, problems and concerns as possible at an early stage – without needing the more formal involvement of an adjudicator or ombudsman.
The work of our consumer helpline involves responding to consumers’ problems and concerns at an early stage by:
|payment protection insurance (PPI)||28|
|loans and credit||11|
|car and motorbike insurance||8|
|general insurance – including travel insurance, mobile phone cover, warranties and home emergency cover||6|
|other banking services||2|
|other financial products||6|
|other problems and concerns (for example, debt-related worries, money questions, and complaints we can’t help with about utilities and phone companies)||17|
Our day-to-day experience on our consumer helpline – and our wider research – suggests that certain groups of consumers are more likely to find formal complaint procedures off-putting. The range of people who contact our consumer helpline broadly reflects the diversity of the population at large. But some consumers are more likely than others to pursue complaints to the next stage (either against a financial business or as a dispute referred to the ombudsman service).
In particular, younger consumers and people from lower socio-economic groups are generally less likely to pursue a formal complaint following initial contact with us. This may relate to the type of financial products involved in these cases – as well as to a range of socio-economic and attitudinal factors. We continue to carry out research in this area.
We want to remove barriers that may unfairly prevent particular consumers from using our service. As part of this commitment, we have a team of specially-trained front-line advisers who work with more vulnerable consumers who might otherwise struggle with forms and procedure. During the year this team worked on cases involving:
The consumer explained to us that he could not bring himself to open any items sent to him through the post. His fear was that they had become contaminated when handled by people. He did not have access to a computer and so he had to wait till his brother came around to open post for him. As he only saw his brother once a month, this meant he was worried about any deadlines he would need to meet.
We completed the complaint form with him over the phone and amended our records so that we wouldn’t post any letters to him – but would always update him over the phone instead. When we needed to send him something in writing, we would call him first to let him know. We would explain what the letter said and arrange to send it just before his brother was due to visit. By arranging to accept over the phone the consumer’s agreement to the business’s offer, we also took away the stress that completing a paper settlement-form caused him.
A very independent consumer, completely comfortable and capable in dealing with her own affairs, explained to us that her short-term memory was not as good as it used to be. When we asked what we could do to help, she told us that frequent and familiar contact helped her to digest and remember information. We gave her a single number to call, so that she always had a direct line to her dedicated casework adviser.
The same casework adviser used a regular and consistent sequence of communication to provide information – starting with a phone call, following up with an email the next day, and posting a letter the day after that. The consumer felt reassured, knowing that she would be speaking to the same person – who treated her with respect and dignity and understood she may not remember deadlines or what had been said before.
Our outreach work across the UK with front-line community and advice workers has shown that some consumers are reluctant to phone us directly without someone from their own local advice agency taking part in the call – to introduce them and help explain their problem to us. So during the year we have worked with Citizens Advice on arrangements that allow three-way phone conversations between a consumer, their advice worker and someone from our own consumer helpline.
We now handle around 300 front-line calls a month that involve these three-way conversations. Given the success of this initiative, we are extending the arrangement to cover other consumer advice lines across the UK as well.
Our aim is to make our process as easy and straightforward as possible – and more accessible and user-friendly than the courts. But making it easier for people to tell us their side of the story – without feeling confused or intimidated – does not make us a consumer champion. We are just as concerned to reduce hurdles for smaller businesses – who also tell us that they want as little red tape and bureaucracy as possible.
This means making sure no one is disadvantaged in bringing a complaint to us – while also emphasising our impartiality. “Impartial” means we do not “side” with anyone.
This is a hard message for some to accept. But it is an important part of our work to manage expectations realistically – and to set out clearly what we can and cannot do. This means explaining time limits and restrictions 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.
Consumers who contact our helpline at the early stage to ask for initial guidance – rather than to refer an actual complaint to us – are:
Our customer research shows that our approach to initial enquiries and complaints is valued by the consumers who contact our consumer helpline. During the year:
As a result of our focus on resolving as many enquiries as possible at this early stage, only around one in five potential complaints raised with our consumer helpline during the year went on to become a case needing the more formal involvement of an adjudicator or ombudsman.
We continue to carry out research to find out more about what happened next to the four out of five consumers who contacted us initially on our helpline – but then never returned with a formal complaint.The latest survey shows that of these consumers, 48% were subsequently able to resolve their problem themselves, without needing further help from the ombudsman service (45% in the previous year).
Of the 52% of consumers who were not immediately able to resolve their problem themselves, after contacting our helpline for initial help and guidance:
The proportion of people who said they would continue to pursue a complaint that they had not initially been able to resolve directly with the financial business involved – and the proportion of people who said they would let the matter drop – both remained the same as in the previous year.
There is more information in this annual review about people’s attitudes to pursuing complaints – and some reasons why people say they do not do so.
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. This includes providing:
There is more information about our access and inclusion work further on in this annual review.
During the year 1,910 consumers from 104 countries outside the UK brought complaints to the ombudsman service about UK financial services and products.
This is reflected in the demand for our interpreting and translation services, which rose by 82% during the year – as the financial companies we cover increasingly carry out more international business with customers round the world.
2,282 cases during the year (around 1% of our overall workload) involved working in a language other than English or Welsh. In total this meant working in 46 languages. Of these cases:
|languages we worked in other than English and Welsh||%|
|other Asian languages||6.5|
|Middle Eastern languages||6|
|other Western European languages||5|
|other Eastern European languages||5|
The most frequently-requested languages during the year were broadly similar to previous years – with the exception of Chinese, for which year-on-year demand increased by over four-fold. Our work in Russian and Slovakian also increased noticeably – with demand in those languages doubling and tripling respectively.
The languages listened to most frequently during the year as audio-file downloads from our website – other than English and Welsh – were Chinese, Punjabi and Hindi.
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 – we ask them to complete and sign our complaint form. This gives us the basic information about their complaint – and their permission for us to look into it.
If consumers ring us up, we can guide them through the complaint form over the phone – and then send it to them to check and sign. This is generally more efficient, because it means we can encourage people to stick to the key facts.
During the year we worked on simplifying and streamlining our complaint form – in consultation with consumer groups and financial businesses – and we reduced it from four pages in length to three.
Working with the disability charity, Shaw Trust, we also re-wrote our consumer leaflet, your complaint and the ombudsman, reducing the amount of text by 20% and adding more colour and graphics.
We distribute around a million copies of this leaflet every year – to financial businesses as well as to consumer-advice centres, libraries and community centres across the UK. The leaflet is available in a wide range of languages and formats – from British Sign Language to mp3 sound-file.
We also updated our consumer leaflet – and other publications and pages on our website – to reflect the new higher maximum compensation (£150,000) which applied to complaints we received from 1 January 2012.
When we receive a completed complaint form, our customer-contact division sorts out all the paperwork and checks the details. If the complaint is one we can deal with, we accept it formally as a new case – and pass it to one of our teams of caseworkers to start work on.
Under the complaints-handling rules set by the Financial Services Authority (FSA), businesses have up to eight weeks to send a final response to a consumer’s complaint, before it is referred to the ombudsman service.
However, in 37% 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.
|year ended 31 March||%|
This figure was slightly lower than the previous year (40% in 2010/2011). For complaints involving payment protection insurance (PPI), businesses had failed to send consumers a final response within the eight-week timescale in 45% of the cases.
A large number of these PPI complaints involved banks that had applied to the FSA for special extensions to the normal eight-week timescale for responding to customer complaints. These extensions (formally called “waivers”) were intended to help the banks manage more effectively their large backlogs of PPI complaints – following their unsuccessful judicial review in early 2011 of the FSA’s and the ombudsman’s approach to the handling of PPI complaints.
In our discussions with financial businesses, we stress how important it is for a business to respond fully to a customer’s complaint within the period set by the FSA. We would like to see as many complaints as possible resolved directly by businesses themselves at this stage.
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 24% of people who contacted our consumer helpline said they heard about us from the business they complained to.
|year ended 31 March||number of new cases|
In the financial year 2011/2012, our customer-contact division referred a record 264,375 new cases to our adjudicators for further work – out of a total 1,268,798 enquiries and complaints raised initially with our consumer helpline.
This is a 28% increase on the 206,121 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.
The record level of new cases in the financial year 2011/2012 resulted from a 51% increase in complaints about the sale of payment protection insurance (PPI) – following a 113% increase in the previous year.
Other trends during the year included the number of complaints about:
|payment protection insurance (PPI)||25|
|bank and credit-card charges||7|
Since the ombudsman service was set up in 2000, we have received a total of 1,437,094 cases, of which more than half have involved just three issues – mortgage endowments, bank and credit-card charges, and payment protection insurance (PPI).
The significant volatility in workload relating to these three issues – and the way in which financial businesses have themselves managed the substantial volumes of complaints involved – have presented us with major operational challenges over the last decade.
|complaints made on behalf of consumers by commercial claims-management companies||46.5|
|complaints made by consumers themselves||42.5|
|complaints made on behalf of consumers by professionals (eg lawyers and accountants)||4|
|complaints made on behalf of consumers by friends and family||3|
|complaints made on behalf of consumers by free consumer advice-agencies (eg Trading Standards and Citizens Advice)||2|
|complaints made by smaller businesses||2|
42.5% of people who used the ombudsman service during the year did so in a personal capacity as individual consumers – a very similar figure to the previous year.
People wanting to bring a complaint can appoint someone else to do this for them. During the year 5% of cases involved someone acting for free on behalf of the person with the complaint. Three fifths of these cases involved people referring complaints on behalf of friends and family. Two fifths involved a wide range of professional consumer representatives and advocates, acting for free on behalf of clients. These included Trading Standards, Citizens Advice and community workers.
In 50.5% 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 from 45% to 46.5% during the year – directly as a result of the 51% increase in PPI complaints, where claims-management companies are most active.
|complaints from smaller businesses||%|
We also look at complaints brought by “micro-enterprises” – an EU term covering smaller businesses. To be able to bring a complaint to us, a smaller business must have an annual turnover of up to two million euros and fewer than ten employees.
The number of complaints referred to us by smaller businesses increased by 39% during the year – from 3,093 cases to 4,304. This followed a 35% decrease in the number of complaints from smaller businesses in the previous year.
Almost seven out of ten cases referred to us by smaller businesses involved complaints about business banking – including disputes about charges and problems with administration.
The 28% of complaints brought by smaller businesses about insurance issues included cases involving commercial vehicles and property, and business protection insurance.
However, 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. For example, 16% of people who completed our customer surveys during the year described themselves as self-employed or running their own business – significantly higher than the 2% of cases where the dispute was formally registered with us as a business dispute.
During the year we continued our outreach activities with smaller businesses – to promote understanding of the circumstances where the ombudsman service can help with commercial disputes relating to financial services. This included working with smaller-business trade associations and networks (including our own smaller-businesses forum) and arranging targeted coverage in specialist business-to-business publications.
|payment protection insurance (PPI) complaints||88|
|credit card complaints||8|
|other types of complaint (including pensions, current accounts and mortgage endowments)||2.5|
The proportion of all complaints referred to the ombudsman service by claims-management companies on behalf of consumers continued to rise during the year – from 45% to 46.5% of all cases.
This increase reflects the growing volumes of complaints relating to payment protection insurance (PPI), where claims-management companies are most active. 69% of the 157,716 new PPI cases during the year were brought by claims-management companies. However, in the previous year 76% of PPI cases involved claims-management companies.
The decline in the proportion of consumers using claims managers to refer PPI complaints to us may reflect the fact that we have taken every opportunity this year to tell consumers that they do not need the help of a claims-management company.
Six claims-management companies accounted for 51% of all the cases we handled during the year where consumers were represented by this type of company. The other 49% of cases involved over 500 other claims-management companies.
Our research during the year suggests that:
We work closely with the Claims Management Regulator (a part of the Ministry of Justice), and we pass information onto them about poor practice we see in the claims-management sector. This is in line with the joint note that we agreed and published in July 2011 with the Ministry of Justice, the FSA and the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS). Each of these organisations has its own particular relationship with claims-management companies – and we aim to co-ordinate our approach and share information wherever we can.
The ombudsman service cannot handle complaints from consumers about claims-management companies. That is the role of the claims-management regulator. But we do everything we can to make sure that claims-management companies who refer complaints to us understand and follow our processes, so that our interactions with them can be as efficient as possible.
For example, we meet regularly with the larger claims-management companies and their trade associations, to identify practical steps that can be taken to avoid unnecessary complaints and delays when referring complaints to us on behalf of consumers. During the year this has included meetings and information published on our website about our approach to disputes between claims-management companies and financial businesses over whether or not PPI was sold in individual cases.
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. For example, in our information for consumers on our website we say:
... you don't need to use a claims company. Why pay someone else to do it for you, when you're just as likely to win by doing it yourself for free?
We are a free service for consumers, but 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 the outcome of cases shows there is no difference – whether consumers bring them to us themselves direct, or pay a claims-management company to complain on their behalf.