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ombudsman news

issue 123

January/February 2015

made to be broken

We’re probably far enough into the new year that some resolutions are already a distant memory.

Of course, it’s nice to have a fresh start. Setting ourselves targets - jogging before work or cutting out unhealthy habits - can motivate us, at least for a while. But perhaps cold, dark January just isn’t the best time to put in place punishing personal standards - or to cut out the comforts that can help cheer up the winter months.  

Understanding the standards expected of financial businesses - and the impact on people’s lives when they’re not met - is central to our work at the ombudsman. In this issue, we look at situations where, because of their customers’ particular needs, businesses have additional responsibilities. As a service that’s here to help everyone, we have these responsibilities too.

Problems created by rigidly-applied rules feature frequently in ombudsman news. And I think complaints involving equality issues highlight some of the worst things that can happen - from serious upset and inconvenience for consumers, to serious embarrassment and legal consequences for the businesses concerned.

For several reasons - for example, data protection - rules and procedures are a necessary part of providing financial services. They can also help to ensure that people are treated consistently and fairly. But they’re very unlikely to bring about fairness if they can’t be adapted to individual circumstances.

In many problems we step into - across the range of issues we cover - we identify a straightforward solution, which should have been clear to the business early on. Yet because of concerns about “compliance” - or because they didn’t know how to handle a sensitive situation - the business couldn’t see the wood for the trees.

And instead of really listening to what their customer needed from them - and taking a pragmatic, human approach - they defaulted to “standard procedure”.

Perhaps that’s the trouble with new year’s resolutions. They’re made with good intentions - and can give us a useful sense of direction. But by focusing on prescriptive goals and routines, we risk overlooking simpler ways of making things better.

So this year, I think a positive resolution - for financial services, as well as more widely - would be to listen to each other a bit more. Because it’s only if we listen - and understand where someone’s coming from - that we can also understand how our actions could affect them, and find practical ways to help.

And finally, on the subject of listening, we started consulting publicly on our plans and budget earlier this month. We’d really like to hear what you think - so we can factor as many different views as possible into the work we do this year.

Caroline Wayman

Caroline Wayman
Caroline Wayman
chief ombudsman

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.