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ombudsman news

issue 116

March/April 2014

complaints help keep things on track

It is not every day you get a chance to think about what you would do if you had a fresh start. So I was pleased to be asked by the Office of Rail Regulation to speak to their seminar on complaints handling, as they try to adopt a fresh start for complaint handling by rail operators.

I was inevitably tempted to draw attention to my own experience as a regular rail passenger. Perfectly fine most of the time in fact: but also some confusing pricing, bad advice and information, and a reluctance to explain what has happened when things go wrong. So, much like financial services then?

But I was really there to talk about how the rail industry can move away from a “process-based” approach to complaints handling towards a culture of customer service. To prompt people to think about how complaints can help improve services, help regulators tackle poorly performing businesses, and give customers confidence that if something goes wrong, it will be put right promptly and fairly.

Whether you’re a bank or insurance company, a pawnbroker or a rail operator, things can and do go wrong. Any organisation that offers a service to consumers will make mistakes. And not all businesses are saintly. Sadly it seems some businesses cannot resist the temptations to cut corners to earn short-term financial or competitive advantage.

So things will go wrong. But what can be learnt from complaints? And what does the way a business handles complaints tell regulators and consumer groups about that business?

Most of you are well aware of the business case for thinking about complaints and their root causes. Complaints drive dissatisfaction and provide a strong motivation for customers switching services (if they can). In contrast, if a customer’s complaint is handled well, it can increase that customer’s loyalty. And “big data” on complaints can help a business identify what practices and procedures cause confusion - the things that really get up people’s noses.

So it is great that many businesses in financial services are thinking about how to develop and maintain products and services that minimise the causes of complaint. That has to be the right way to re-establish trust in this industry.

But that isn’t necessarily the same as reducing the volume of complaints. Just as in the railway sector, the starting point needs to be whether customers are given the right opportunities to raise concerns and complaints. Indeed a lot of businesses and services might benefit from getting more complaints and feedback not less. Think about the NHS for example.

Of course we publish a great deal about how many cases we receive - and our uphold rate. And at some level, these metrics can tell you something.

But there’s a danger of becoming too fixated on this high level data. Complaints and feedback are qualitative judgements. One really serious case may tell you far more about a business than dozens of straightforward ones. So when you think about using complaint insights, it pays to think less about the quantitative and more about the qualitative judgements involved.

I suggested to the people responsible for our railways that complaints can help create a virtuous circle of service and cost improvement. It’s the same in our industry - and the ombudsman can help. We have no axe to grind. We can and do speak plainly about what we see. So talk to us. Come and see us at one of our events. Or tell us what you think on Twitter @financialombuds

Tony Boorman

image: Tony Boorman
Tony Boorman

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.