I often hear from people how they think an ombudsman hasn’t been fair or impartial in their case. Most frequently I hear the criticism that the ombudsman always sees in favour of the trader because the trader pays for membership. What people don’t realise is that’s the only way an ombudsman can be funded! But more importantly what people don’t realise is that they pay for yearly membership but also pay per case when the customer pays nothing. So it is in the company’s interest for a case not to go to the ombudsman.
Sometimes, people approach the ombudsman with issues outside of their remit. Typically:
- The complaint has been made too late – complainants have 12 months from the date the supplier issues its final response (known as a deadlock letter) to raise the issue with the ombudsman.
- The complaint has been made prematurely (less than 8 weeks from the initial complaint or no deadlock letter received) – complainants need to raise the issue with the supplier and give them an opportunity to put things right before the ombudsman can become involved.
- The trader does not participate in the ombudsman’s scheme.
- The complaint is about a product or service which does not fall inside the ombudsman’s jurisdiction.
So, you have your issue, it falls within the remit and you still don’t get the decision you wanted so what do you do? I’ve asked Lewis Shand Smith the Chief Ombudsman at Ombudsman Services to share the traps people fall into and how to make a stronger case when submitting their issue. He looks at energy in particular but the points are valid for all sectors.
Lewis Shand Smith was appointed Chief Executive and Chief Ombudsman of Ombudsman Services in 2009. Ombudsman Services is a not for profit organisation which resolves disputes in the energy, communications, property, and copyright licensing sectors, amongst others. Lewis was also the Chair of the Ombudsman Association. Previously he was the Crown appointed Deputy Ombudsman and a member of the Executive Board at the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO). He is a priest in the Scottish Episcopal church and has served several congregations in Motherwell, Shetland and Dumfries. He was a Canon of St Andrew’s cathedral in Aberdeen. From 1990 to 1999 Lewis was a member of Shetland Islands Council, becoming Convener/Leader in 1994. He has served as a non-executive director or trustee with a number of companies and charities. He is a former Vice President of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, was a member of the Executive of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, and represented the UK on the European Committee of the Regions.
Submitting cases to an Ombudsman service
Ombudsman Services receives complaints in a variety of forms. There are complaints the energy supplier would have resolved if the right person had picked it up. There are complaints where the parties agree on the facts – but disagree on an appropriate remedy. There are complaints where the parties fundamentally disagree on the facts. And there are complaints where neither party has yet been able to understand what happened.
In the period November 2016 to October 2017, Ombudsman Services closed 49,117 energy complaints. Of those, it helped resolve 8% without investigating because the energy company was willing to provide the consumer with their desired resolution.
Of the complaints that Ombudsman Services investigated, it:
- upheld 66% (finding that the energy supplier had done something wrong and had not done enough to put it right).
- maintained 26% (finding that although the energy supplier had done something wrong, it had already offered a fair resolution to the customer).
- did not uphold 8% of complaints, (concluding that there was no substance to the original complaint and the energy supplier had treated the customer fairly).
These figures suggest that the majority of complaints needed Ombudsman Services intervention to ensure a fair remedy for the consumer. But many could have been resolved without Ombudsman Services’ help. In most cases, the complaints reached Ombudsman Services because of a failure in the energy supplier’s complaint handling; but some could have benefited from better complaining from the consumer – or the consumer accepting a resolution that was already fair.
So, below are some common reasons why consumer actions mean a complaint is not resolved with the energy company – along with some advice on how not to fall into the traps.
- Focusing on the problem, not the solution
It is very easy to focus on what went wrong and how it should never have happened. But a complaint normally only ends successfully when the wronged party focusses on what needs to be done to put things right. So, before you complain, think about what you would like your supplier to do to resolve your complaint – and let the supplier know.
- Disbelieving accurate responses
When things go wrong, people lose trust. So people often lack confidence in energy company’s answers. It can be worth seeking advice online or from friends and family. This can sometimes provide the reassurance consumers desire without the need for an ombudsman investigation. See All you need to know to make a complaint about energy for advice, tips, information and consumer rights regarding energy complaints and the Ombudsman website for Energy complaint advice and cases.
- Unreasonable expectations / asking for bills or balances to be wiped
Energy suppliers do offer financial awards – but they are normally goodwill gestures to acknowledge what went wrong. Energy suppliers rarely relate awards to the size of a consumer’s outstanding balance.
Ombudsman Services applies similar principles in our complaint handling. Customers should pay the correct amount for the energy they have consumed. If something has gone wrong and a financial award is due – the amount will be proportionate to the trouble the consumer experienced – not the outstanding account balance.
- Failing to engage with an energy supplier
Poor energy supplier responses can leave consumers feeling that the problem won’t be resolved without help. But Ombudsman Services can only help after a consumer has tried to resolve the problem with the energy supplier direct for several weeks. As frustrating as it is, consumers should plug away with the energy company. Be clear about what the problem is and what needs to be done to put it right. Check out 20 Top Tips for complaining effectively to increase your chances before needing the Ombudsman. Hopefully someone at the energy company will understand the complaint and correct the problem. This will mean a far quicker resolution than if you go to the Ombudsman.
- Becoming too invested in the complaint
If a consumer feels they’ve been wronged, they’re likely to tell people about it. Sometimes it turns out that the consumer is at fault, and in such circumstances, it can be difficult for consumers to admit their error to other people on the complaint journey. They can reach for excuses and/or change the substance of their complaint so as not to lose face. This rarely leads to success and escalating to Ombudsman Services can sometimes prolong and increase the disappointment. If a consumer realises that they are wrong, there is sometimes value in not continuing the complaint.
If consumers feel wronged they should always complain; but they should do so in a focused way and seek a proportionate outcome.
For tips on writing that initial complaint see Top 20 Tips How to Complain!
For information, advice, consumer law and template letters GET THE BOOK! How To Complain: The ESSENTIAL Consumer Guide to Getting REFUNDS, Redress and RESULTS!