It won't surprise you to hear that, every year, British financial services firms rack up thousands of complaints. It also won't surprise you to discover that these firms aren't particularly keen on telling people just how many complaints they receive.
What we do know, however, is that the Financial Ombudsman Service – which acts as an arbiter after consumers have had their initial complaints rejected by a company – deals with more than 100,000 cases a year. And that number has been steadily growing ever since the Ombudsman was formed back in 2001.
For some time, the Ombudsman has wanted to publish details of which companies are the worst offenders – an idea that the industry has naturally strongly resisted. They've claimed that naming and shaming won't necessarily achieve the Ombudsman's aims of getting complaints down, and have suggested that publishing the numbers will cause a feeding frenzy from claims management companies, who'll bombard the firms revealed to have had the most cases go against them.
While there may be an element of truth in this, such a feeding frenzy will only provide an even greater incentive for companies to keep themselves out of the list of worst offenders. And, as a result, it's likely that many more businesses will try to settle claims at an earlier stage so that they don't end up getting referred on to the Ombudsman, and don't show up in the numbers.
I think that naming and shaming will prove to be a real victory for consumers. There's nothing that hurts a company's business more than coming bottom of the customer service charts again and again. Furthermore, those who have had the most complaints upheld by the Ombudsman are truly the worst offenders – as these are the companies who have already missed their chance to do the right thing when they first receive a complaint.
I already have a pretty good idea who will be top of the pops in the Ombudsman's new charts. Abbey has long been among the worst at looking after its customers – and complaints about it have all too often ended up in our mail sack at 'The Independent'. Although Abbey is certainly trying to turn this around at the moment, it takes time with such large organisations, and I'm still not convinced that it is making all the right moves.
Although the company has spent millions of pounds updating the antiquated systems it has inherited in recent months, I fear that the takeovers of Alliance & Leicester and Bradford & Bingley will provide it with a new headache. Abbey may feel it is unfair for it to be highlighted as a villain after it rode to the rescue of the collapsing UK banking sector last year, but it took these businesses on because it wanted the market share and knew they would ultimately boost profitability. If complaints rise because they don't make the necessary investment in a smooth merger, then I think it's quite fair that they suffer some public humiliation.
A handful of large organisations – such as HSBC – barely feature in the complaints tables. And if they can manage it, there's no reason why others can't meet the same high standards as well.