Sarah talks about businesses biggest issues when it comes to complaints being referred to the ombudsman

When I managed the technical desk at the Ombudsman Service, I was conscious that I was speaking to a subset of regulated businesses that were willing to engage with the Ombudsman Service. I know that many try to distance themselves, or just want to make sure they don’t have to deal with the Ombudsman Service, even when a complaint has been made.

For the businesses wanting to be invisible

It’s this group that really worries us. Both Caroline and I have been adjudicators during our careers at the Ombudsman Service (Caroline at a predecessor scheme) and we have come up against businesses of all shapes and sizes, with different levels of experience when it comes to complaints and also, various attitudes to the existence of the ombudsman.

The attitude that has come up isn’t reliant on the size, shape or the experience of the business. I’ve had businesses that were happy to engage, some that were fearful, some that were non-communicative and others that were just all out aggressive. None of it fazed me because I had a job to do, but sometimes I did question motives based on the attitude:

  • Fear – have they dealt with us before and had a bad experience? Have they never dealt with us before and don’t know how we work? If it’s a smaller business or a one man band, is the fear because of me or because of their PI insurer?
  • Non-communicative – have we got the right address? What are they hiding?
  • Aggression – why are they so angry? What’s the real issue, is it they’ve been caught out with this complaint or is it that they have taken it personally? Or do they have an axe to grind?

And these questions will colour the judgement of the investigator when it comes to looking at the complaint. I mean, complaints are all about interactions and if the business is being one of the above, you have to question what actually happened around the events that have been complained about…

Obviously there were no such questions going around my head when the business was happy to engage. To me, there was no reason to start questioning the motives, because ‘happy to engage’ suggests openness and a willingness to learn and listen.

So, which businesses, do you suppose learned the most from working with me at the Ombudsman Service? Yes, it’s the ones that engaged and would be open to the questions we asked. Often, these businesses were also curious to know why I was asking the questions I asked. I had no problem sharing my thought process or explaining where I was going with something. It was a skill that I used to good effect on the technical desk.

For those that do engage a bit

And speaking of the desk…the businesses that did call the desk weren’t really looking to learn how to solve the issues going forwards. I mean not really, because it’s so much easier to call someone on a helpdesk and get the answer or some pointers. Putting it bluntly, they just wanted to know how the Ombudsman Service would look at that particular complaint. Not for any other reason than they wanted to reduce the likelihood of it becoming a complaint and therefore having to deal with the Ombudsman Service. 

And that works for that one complaint and there might be pointers that can be taken away and looked at for that complaint and that member of staff, but it’s not a long term fix to a real problem – how do businesses learn from the Ombudsman Service and how can they make better use of the experience? Well OK, two problems.

How do businesses learn from the ombudsman?

This is a big one to break down if I’m honest and bigger than this blog post can really delve into, but here are some key points to think about:

  • Be inquisitive

If a complaint is escalated to the Ombudsman Service, speak to the investigator on your case. Ask them why they want to know the information they have asked for if you’re not sure. Get to understand their thought process and you can help yourself in terms of learning.  

  • Know the process

Get to know how the process works, how you can escalate the complaint if you disagree with the investigator, and what steps you can take to make sure you’ve been heard

  • Keep it professional

Oh yes, both Caroline and I have been on the sharp end of businesses’ wrath. And that’s fine, as it’s part of the job and we can understand why this happens. But I do find that it’s easier if you park your emotions for everyone concerned.

It’s easier to get to the crux of the complaint if you’re not having to walk on egg shells or all communication is carried out in writing because no-one wants to deal with each other over the phone. It also means that judgement remains clear of emotion and people become less entrenched meaning the process can progress rather than stagnate.  

Making better use of the experience with the Ombudsman Service

If you engage with the process, it makes it easier to get through and it means you can learn from the person you’re dealing with at the service. This is all depending on the outcome they reach being sensible of course.

But, you can also learn a lot in terms of the process itself, just by seeing what happens on the complaint. This’ll pay dividends if you have to deal with the Ombudsman Service in the future.

You can also use the other ombudsman resources to better understand stances – one being Ombudsman News. It doesn’t go into masses of detail, but it does give you an idea of what the ombudsman is seeing and what it is putting under the microscope.

We’ve also talked about this before – make good use of your root cause analysis and use the Ombudsman outcomes you receive alongside it. Again, you might not agree with them, but if you take the time to scrutinise the information it could help with future cases on the same products.

There you have it

So, for those businesses out there that are hoping never to have to work with the Ombudsman Service, we genuinely hope that this happens for you. But, without wanting to rain on your parade, we think a more realistic way to deal with not having to engage with the Ombudsman Service in the future is to look at your complaints handing process and make sure it’s as good as it can be.

But, and this is a big but, we also think it pays to know what you’re dealing with, should there ever come a time that you hear from the Ombudsman Service informing you that a complaint has been escalated. And the easiest way to do that is to learn the process that’s followed, read the information contained in Ombudsman News about what the Ombudsman Service is seeing and watch this space for the next month to get clued up on the inside knowledge.

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