Don't let financial services firms get away with poor service

Even when faced with lukewarm soup in a restaurant, muddy footprints through your home, or a slapdash repair by your garage, it's not really in the British nature to complain. But it's time this changed. Putting up with shoddy service and poor-quality products is frustrating, wastes money and, worst of all, means standards slip across the board.

Making a complaint doesn't have to be complicated either, especially if your complaint is with a financial services company. The financial sector has procedures in place to make it easy to stand up for your rights. First though, Martyn James, a spokesperson for the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS), says you need to think about your complaint.

"Before you contact the financial services company, be clear in your mind what the problem is and how you would like it sorted. This will make it easier to set out your complaint," he explains.

Keep a record

Once you've thought this through, gather together any relevant information such as policy documents, statements and details about when the problem occurred to support your complaint. Armed with all this information, contact the company that has caused the problem.

It doesn't matter whether you kick off your complaint with a letter or phone call but try to keep details of whatever you decide to do. "Create a complaint diary," says Michele Shambrook, operations manager at Consumer Direct.

"This lists what happened, who you spoke to and when you spoke to them. It will help to jog your memory when you're discussing your complaint."

If you don't have all this information, don't be put off making a complaint. Most firms record details when you contact them so they should have this information too.

Don't lose your rag

The manner in which you complain can influence the outcome, as well as helping to keep your blood pressure under control. If you're nervous about confronting the company on the telephone or you know you'll blow your top, it might be better to put your complaint in a letter.

But, if you're happy to phone the company, Sarah Brooks, financial services expert at Consumer Focus, recommends being assertive without being aggressive. "Stay calm and try to be unruffled and polite," she says. "It's important that you explain things clearly, so if you're complaining by phone, it may help to make notes for yourself first."

James also recommends asking to take things further if you don't feel the person you're dealing with is able to sort your problem out. "Financial services companies will have a complaints procedure, including people trained to deal with complaints. If the person dealing with you is unable to help, be firm and ask to speak to someone who can help," he says.

However you lodge your complaint, the financial services company has eight weeks to look into it and give you a final decision on any action it will take to resolve it. Depending on the nature of your complaint, you might receive one letter or phone call or a series of communications during this eight-week period. You may be offered compensation during this time and it is completely within your rights to decline it, or ask for more, if you think it is insufficient.

Use the Financial Ombudsman Service

If you're not happy with the final decision – or you don't receive one, you can take your case to the FOS. You'll need to complete and sign a complaint form and you have six months (please note this deadline period has been temporarily waived concerning payment protection insurance complaints) from the date of the final letter, or the end of the eight- week period if you didn't receive a letter, to do this.

"We do a lot of work with financial services companies to ensure that as many complaints as possible are resolved without the consumer needing to come to us," says James. "But last year we had more than one million initial enquiries, of which just over 200,000 became formal disputes. Of these, half were upheld."

Once your complaint is with the Ombudsman it will be assessed it and you will be given a verdict on how it thinks it will be resolved. Where it believes you have a case, it will contact the company on your behalf to resolve the matter.

This investigation may take several months, depending on the volume of complaints the ombudsman is dealing with as well as the nature of your complaint. When the investigation is complete it will provide you with details of its findings. These are legally binding on the company but not on the individual, so if you still feel you have a complaint, you can pursue it through the courts if you want. 

The power of the press

As well as using these channels to assert your rights, you could also pull in the power of the press. Moneywise's own Fight for Your Rights section tackles readers' unresolved issues with financial companies.

Sadly, some firms are quicker to respond to press queries than general customer complaints. Sometimes all it takes is the threat of some unpleasant publicity for your insurance claim to be paid or a compensation cheque signed.


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Your Comments

I have no problem about complaining whenever I feel necessary. For example, I regularly have run-ins with my energy supplier (British Gas) but am hesitant to move as I'm not sure that any of the others are better.
If something I order by mail order does not meet my expectations, as shown in the catalogue, back it goes without hesitation with a terse note as to why.
One of my favourite hptel chains recently pulled a fast one - pity as it's a group I rather like. Letter to the Chief executive. Got a letter back from his PA (pity it was the monkey rather than the organ grinder) with at least some satisfaction by way of a voucher.
A financial company twice ignored my emailed request for information. Emailed the Complaints department. Nothing in over a week so another email, with the suject line 'How do I complain about the complaints department. That got their attention in double quick time.
And so on.
The worst situation is when people just don't respond at all - the height of discourtesy - so, a letter saying that I won't be using them again - and why. Sometimes it gets a grovelling apology - sometimes it goes into a black hole.
The thing is when complaining by letter - stick to the point and tell the offender what you want - you might not get it but it does let them know how you are thinking. When complaining by 'phone, don't take it out on the poor operator but explain the situation and, if necessary, give them time to sort it out and ring you back.
On the other side, my bank regularly gives good service and is quick to rectify things when they go wrong so I always thank them.
Restaurant and pub staff have improved immeasurably in recent years so I always thank them personally and have a word with the chef, where practical, as well as leaving a tip (always in cash as even now it's not always passed on if added to a card.)
Let's keep on with the figth to drive up service standards

Appreciate your comments as it seems companies are far more willing to hold onto your money than give it back !