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Clare Francis: With the internet, many of us rarely speak to our banks, building societies or insurance providers. Often it's only if there's a problem or something goes wrong that we feel the need to make contact. But those instances are on the up.
Banks and building societies received more than 3million complaints last year and new figures from the Financial Ombudsman Service revealed a 46% increase in the number of complaints it received. It handled more than 900,000 enquiries from consumers and resolved a record 166,000 complaints.
Is this an indication that the customer service we receive from our financial providers is worsening and what should you do if you have a problem? I went to ask Natalie Ceeney, the chief financial ombudsman.
Q1: So Natalie, the latest figures that you've just published show that complaints have risen again over the last 12 months, why do you think this is the case? Is it because customer service is getting worse, or are there other factors at play?
Natalie Ceeney: Well we have seen an absolutely massive rise in complaints; in fact we're up 46% on this time last year. We think there are a number of reasons. If you bear in mind we've been through a pretty deep recession, so we've seen a rise for example in the number of financial hardship cases; we're also in a more consumerist society - people do know how to complain - and people are more aware of their rights.
But also you'll have been aware that very recently the FSA published a report on complaints handling in some of the major banks, so we do also believe standards of customer services could improve, and that is a reason we are getting more complaints.
Q2: And what are people complaining about, is there anything in particular?
Natalie Ceeney: We get a huge range of complaints across a wide range of areas! Basically the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) is a one-stop shop for anybody who's got an issue they can't resolve with their bank, building society, insurer, travel insurance, just about anything, so we see a huge range of issues.
We do see some big themes as well. This time last year it was bank charges, and of course the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) court case with the Supreme Court brought a decision which means we haven't got many bank charges any more. What we have seen instead though is a big rise in payment protection insurance cases - in fact 1 in every 3 of our cases last year where cases about payment protection insurance.
Q3: Why has there been such a big increase in the number of complaints about PPI?
NC: Well we have seen a big rise in the last year. The majority of the cases now coming to us are about mis-selling complaints, so people who didn't feel that they were explained very clearly when they took our a loan that they'd also be paying for payment protection insurance, or who feel that it was sold to them and they were never going to going to be eligible. We only have a very small number of people who have claimed on it and not been happy with the way it's been dealt with.
Q4: So can you just talk us through what somebody needs to do if they aren't happy?
NC: The first thing is actually to stay really calm! We see a lot of complaints where people confuse a lot of issues and have a lot of emotion - you have to be really calm and think very clear about what the issue is you're complaining about.
The next step is to go to your bank / your building society / your insurer, and say very clearly what the issue is. If you're putting it in writing, entitle it 'complaint'. If you're calling up, keep a record of who you've spoken to and when, and be really clear on what you're looking for, and that firm then has eight weeks to put it right.
If at the end of that eight week period you are unhappy with the response you've had, you can come to us, the FOS, and what we'll do is take your case, investigate it, talk with the financial service firm in question and we'll make a decision one way or the other about upholding or not upholding your case.
Q5: And once you've made a decision is that it or can you appeal against it?
NC: Well we actually have a two stage process. We will first look at the case at an adjudicator level, and will give a preliminary decision. For most cases that's good enough for the consumer or the firm and most of those are accepted. However if you don't feel that's good enough we'll take it on to one of our expert Ombudsmen. If you're not happy with us then, that's the end of our process but you can always appeal to the court.
We are here, as the Ombudsman Service, to make sure that disputes that can't be resolved with your financial product, lender, building society or insurer, do get resolved to your satisfaction and we try and make it as informal, as easy to use and as quick as we possibly can.
Q6: And all the information that people need is on your website?
NC: Everything you need is on our
website, and we've also got an excellent customer contact team, so you can phone up and they can talk you through any aspect of the process.
CF: Brilliant, thank you Natalie!
NC: Thank you!