Published: 17:01 EDT, 10 March 2012 | Updated: 09:10 EDT, 11 March 2012
If Britain is a nation of complainers, Natalie Ceeney reigns as queen.
As chief executive of the Financial Ombudsman Service, she runs the world’s biggest consumer complaints arbitration scheme with a £200 million budget and an army of 1,900 staff. And her empire is about to become even bigger and busier.
Scaling up: Natalie Ceeney, in vertiginous heels,is preparing for a dramatic increase in cases referred to the Financial Ombudsman Service
The Financial Services Authority last week ordered banks to write to 12 million customers, telling them they may be able to claim compensation for mis-sold payment protection insurance. Even if only a small fraction of them respond, the result could be a surge in disputes arriving at the the FOS. PPI complaints already account for two-thirds of its work.
‘Each day banks are receiving 10,000 new PPI complaints and our office is receiving about 1,000,’ she says. ‘These volumes are staggering and likely to grow. Complaints are growing strongly elsewhere, too. We are scaling up as rapidly as possible.’
In the second half of 2011 complaints to banks totalled 1.4million, a rise of 27 per cent on the first six months. Following the PPI mailing, complaints could rise by anything from a further 20 per cent to 60 per cent, according to industry estimates.
The FOS can only deal with customer complaints once companies’ internal procedures have been exhausted, so the cases reaching its offices are only a small fraction of the overall number, and often the most intractable.
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One of the trickiest aspects of Ceeney’s job, she says, is anticipating volumes of complaints and planning accordingly. The FOS expects to receive 1.2million written and phone enquiries this year, which translates into 260,000 full-blown cases requiring adjudication. This is up 26 per cent on 2011.
Ceeney sees no slowing in this inexorable rise of angry, miserable complainants. PPI aside, complaints to FOS are surging across other types of financial business. One reason is economic.
‘More and more of our cases involve hardship,’ says Ceeney. This explains the 38 per cent leap in mortgage-related cases between the first and second half of 2011.
‘People are also more watchful of smaller sums,’ she says. ‘Someone complaining because a £50 insurance claim was turned down might previously have been motivated by principle. Now they need the money.’
Complaints volumes are also swollen by claims management companies (CMCs), a rag-tag army of firms of varying professionalism, which offer to seek redress on consumers’ behalf. Their fees can be as high as 30 per cent of any ‘win’.
Ceeney would like to see CMCs regulated more tightly and she urges consumers to use the FOS rather than rely on intermediaries.
‘Some people mis-sold PPI were the most vulnerable in society,’ she says. ‘Now they risk being misled again by CMC cowboys. There is no ombudsman service for CMCs.’
While banks revile CMCs, saying they trigger hundreds of thousands of vexatious complaints, Ceeney will not go that far. ‘There wouldn’t be a market for complaints handlers if there had not been systemic, widespread mis-selling by banks,’ she says. ‘First came endowment mis-selling and as soon as that died down, along came PPI. Banks have themselves to blame.’
Ceeney, 40, assumed the £225,000-a-year role in 2010, having been in charge of the National Archives. And efficient document management is important at the FOS – lorries groaning under the weight of mailsacks arrive in a steady stream at its offices in Canary Wharf in London’s Docklands, delivering the daily equivalent of 170,000 A4 pages. Conversion to electronic, paperless systems is under way.
Ceeney and the FOS face criticism from consumers and companies. Consumers dislike the FOS’s lengthy timescales, where only 41 per cent of complaints are resolved within three months and 16 per cent still unresolved after a year. Companies bemoan the FOS’s ‘unfair’ decisions and onerous, costly processes.
Ceeney is consulting on changing how the FOS charges companies for complaints. The service will remain free to consumers, but banks and other firms will pay more according to complaints generated and what they concern.
‘Currently, 66 per cent of our work is PPI,’ she explains. ‘What we are suggesting is a premium for certain complaints. If you are a bank resulting in a lot of PPI complaints, for example, you will pay more.’
Although the FOS covers thousands of regulated businesses, just ten account for 70 per cent of its work. Lloyds Banking Group, astonishingly, accounts for 20 per cent of FOS cases on its own.
Ceeney, who is married to a medical historian and has no children, moved from north-west London to Wapping in the East End at the start of her job.
A self-confessed workaholic, her Thames-side walk to work allows her to reflect on issues confronting the FOS. Will the banks ever improve? And will consumers’ hatred and mistrust of them ever melt?
Once at work, the petite Ceeney swaps her trainers for killer stilettos, such as the pair by Georgina Goodman.
‘I’m an optimist,’ she says. ‘My message to consumers is, ‘‘If you are unhappy, move.’’ And I say to the bosses of financial firms, ‘‘If you get better at customer service, treat them fairly and generate fewer complaints, the FOS will shrink.’’ ‘I long for the day that we don’t have to continually expand our operations. But that’s down to the financial industry, not me.’
Source : http://www.thisismoney.co.uk/money/article-2113186/Natalie-Ceeney-Financial-Ombudsman-Service-interview-Queen-complainers.html