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ombudsman news

issue 113

October 2013

the power of listening

I often go along to financial services events and conferences. It’s a really important part of my role at the ombudsman.

Getting out and talking to people gives me the opportunity to share observations based on what we’re seeing. But it’s also an opportunity for me to hear how people are feeling about the work we’re doing. To be honest, the feedback’s usually mixed – some positive, some not so positive. But I want to hear it.

I also think the “conference circuit” is a good barometer of the mood of the various sectors we have a relationship with. The themes, speeches – and the chat around the edges – inevitably reflect the spirit of the time.

And I’ve noticed a shift recently. I’m hearing more and more of the right words from the financial sector about what it wants to do to turn things around. Over the past year I’ve been hearing an increasing commitment to treating customers well – and restoring trust. It’s great to hear that.

But although financial services providers might have moved on – and are thinking about new products, better sales approaches and clearer pricing – I don’t think that customers have. It’s like any relationship where trust has been broken. It can take a long time to forget what’s happened, move on and be willing to accept promises at face value.  

In this context, most of my conference speeches at the moment focus on the power of listening – and rebuilding trust by setting new standards. It’s a drum I’m banging unashamedly. Because I believe it’s the only way to strengthen and rebuild relationships with a consumer base which – like the financial sector itself – has taken some hard knocks over the last decade.

So what does this mean in practice? I think it means stepping away from the stereotyped “complaints” label. Last year the regulator reported that over five million “complaints” were made about financial businesses. That’s five million comments and observations on the service provided by banks and other financial businesses. This feedback could inform new ways of working, new products, better services, and a new relationship with customers.

But too often, that doesn’t happen. These customers’ feedback gets subsumed by a complaints infrastructure that’s slow, bureaucratic and unlikely to “live the brand” of the business concerned. And which costs the financial services sector a lot – financially and reputationally.   

So at a time when financial institutions are looking to change perceptions and to stop the “cycle of scandal”, could the answer lie in the feedback that customers are giving – day in, day out, for free?  Study after study shows that customers are more loyal if something that’s gone wrong gets fixed, than if they had never had a problem in the first place.

If we listen carefully to what they’re saying, those customers written off as “complainants” might just be the key to matching marketing aspirations with customer reality.

Natalie Ceeney
chief executive and chief ombudsman

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