We know from speaking to businesses that there’s a very real feeling of uncertainty when it comes to knowing what’s the best way to avoid falling foul of regulations either now, while we’re living through Covid-19, or later on when things get back to some normality (whatever that looks like…). So we’ve had a look at what’s out there, to give some insight on what you could do to try and prevent preventable complaints.
So let’s start from the top and have a look at what the FCA has said in terms of its expectations for businesses during this time. On its website page about Covid-19 (clickable link) it has said:
‘We expect firms to provide strong support and service to customers during this period. They should be clear and transparent and provide support as consumers and small businesses face challenges at this time…’
And in terms of complaints specifically:
‘We still expect firms to deal with complaints promptly. However, where the pandemic prevents this firms should contact us, we understand the pressures firms will be under. Firms are reminded that they should aim to resolve any complaint within 8 weeks (15 days for payments firms). If they cannot, they should write to the customer explaining why they have not met the deadline…’
So, from this information it’s a clear message that it’s business as usual for regulated businesses and the FCA expects that the usual complaint handling timelines are maintained. Scant consolation for those on the front line of dealing with complaints, but there are things you can do to help your business and your staff during these incredibly trying times.
Communication is key
You know the old saying ‘prevention is better than cure’, well never has that been more apt than now. We know from speaking to businesses that numbers of complaints were initially slows to climb for some, while others had an immediate impact from the number of people calling them to complain. To some extent this is because of the type of products you have or the sector of the industry that you’re working in – some will have more customers that are vulnerable. But a good portion of this has also been linked to how a business communicates. We’ve seen some amazing examples of businesses telling their customers important information, but in ways that minimise the need for the customer to contact them for follow up information.
There are a number of ways this can be done, such as FAQs or email updates, but the aim of this is to 1) help the customer feel reassured about what’s happening with your business, 2) manage expectations, especially if you’re running reduced hours due to staff shortages and 3) to minimise the amount of contact that is instigated by a customer.
That’s not to say you should be ignoring your customers, but if you can you want information to go out that means they don’t need to contact you at all. This helps to take the pressure off of frontline staff in terms of the number of customers contacting you for information, but it also reduces the risks of generating complaints about customer service, rude staff or delays. All very simple complaints, but they clog the system when you have people that have more pressing concerns and complaints, making it virtually impossible for you to abide by the DISP rules.
And let’s not ignore the elephant in the room here, because businesses are worried about having to contact the regulator to admit that they aren’t able to abide by the rules. Not for any other reason than not knowing what the fall out is for them. No-one actually knows what happens if they do need this help, but we would urge businesses to contact the FCA if they are struggling, rather than trying to bury their heads in the sand.
So, what does this all mean in terms of the FOS and how they will view complaints? There is information available on the FOS website, but the key phrase we’ve picked up on is this:
‘Businesses should be fair in their assessment and handling of complaints involving coronavirus, and follow guidelines and advice from the relevant government and regulatory bodies…’
You could be forgiven for thinking that it’s no help whatsoever in practical terms. And yes, if you take this statement in isolation, we can understand that. But, let’s compare the FCA and the FOS, because the regulator is there to be proactive and come up with solutions and guidance, while the FOS is there to react when things go wrong. So, knowing what we know about how the ombudsman works, it’s going to be a question of it reacting to what comes through the door, because there will inevitably be a time lag in terms of it seeing complaints that businesses are facing now.
What proactive steps can you take?
So, let’s talk about some key steps that you can take in terms of your complaint handling, because we believe there are a few quick and easy things you can do proactively to help yourselves:
Tell the customer when you’ll be contacting them, what hours you are open and how it’s best if they don’t chase up, because it will use valuable time and resources that would be better used in you being able to investigate the complaint.
Include a FAQ, if you’ve spotted that customer are tending to chase up for the same reasons. Yes, it highlights an issue, but it also shows you that your communication hasn’t quite plugged a gap for your customers, so use that information.
The Ombudsman’s mantra has never been more relevant, when it comes to looking at complaints at the moment. We know from working with businesses before the virus hit that complaint handlers were too focused on the complaint and not the customer. So what’s gone wrong, rather than the impact on the customer.
But looking at complaints in the here and now, people are dealing with exceptional circumstances and some of those customers have never experienced vulnerability before. We’re dealing with ‘survival anxiety’ on a scale that has never been seen before and so they’re finding themselves with very real and very scary issues around having money, finding food and supporting themselves and their family.
This means that a missed payment on a mortgage, for example, holds a lot more emotion for a customer in the current context, than it may have done a few months ago. Key questions need to be asked in terms of their circumstances and then filtered through what’s fair and reasonable now. Because customers need support, understanding and unique solutions at the moment. If you can provide that as a business, you satisfy the ‘strong support’ the FCA is looking for and it would be hard to argue that you’ve not tried to support and help your customers when things haven’t gone to plan.
Feedback at the moment is key, not just in terms of complaints, but in terms of how customers are viewing and reacting to your brand. You’d had to have been living under a rock to have missed the wave of pushback from people where businesses have been seen to be profiting from the crisis. People have long memories and brands will suffer if they don’t play this period of time very carefully.
And for that reason, businesses need to make sure they pay attention to any feedback they’re receiving from their customers. Whether that’s through Root Cause Analysis or asking for feedback, spotting those issues and responding to them will prevent future complaints, take the pressure off of frontline staff and help you show that your business is willing to learn from mistakes.
One business that we’ve been impressed with in terms of doing this has been Sainsbury’s. It’s under intense pressure at the moment, but that hasn’t stopped its CEO acting on the feedback it’s been receiving to right the wrongs that people feel are happening.
It’s a tough time out there for businesses at the moment. A constantly shifting landscape, worries over how they should be responding and no end in sight makes for a complex set of circumstances to be working in. However, taking proactive steps to try and prevent complaints, as well as handling complaints the right way, should be a priority.
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