Readers send in dozens of emails each month to this column – sometimes seeking advice or information, but mostly complaining about financial services companies and other service providers. We cannot guarantee success, but we probably get a good result for the majority of readers who contact us.
Banks are the most common target for complaints. And it is noticeable that more criticisms come our way about Santander than about any other bank.
But it is not just the complaints that count: it is also how a bank deals with them. Santander has told us it recognises there are weaknesses in the customer relations systems at the banks they have taken over – Abbey and Alliance & Leicester – and they want to put this right. Santander's willingness to offer reasonable compensation terms to readers who contact us is a promising sign.
We are more disappointed with the two major banks rescued with public money: RBS and the Lloyds Group. Both tend to take a tougher line when it comes to settling complaints.
One customer of Lloyds and Halifax has been in contact with us for several years trying to get the banks to recognise that he had moved home to the Philippines. Lloyds apparently lost the original notification of change of address and it then became a saga to try to get the address details changed on the Lloyds' and Halifax systems. Eventually the matter went to the Financial Ombudsman – and then we had to get involved again to arrange for the compensation specified by the Ombudsman to be paid into the reader's account.
In another case, parents of a reader bought equipment from a company that has since ceased trading following media allegations of improper practices. The reader believes that the equipment supplied was not as specified. But his parents returned the goods saying they had changed their minds and the company folded soon after. Lloyds have taken the view that as the goods were not rejected as faulty it will not seek to recover the payment through the Visa chargeback system. We are encouraging Lloyds to change its mind – otherwise the case will go to the Financial Ombudsman.
Lloyds' HBOS division also performed very badly when it lost a reader's passport. Its mail office failed to make a serious effort to trace our reader before destroying her passport. Halifax has been more helpful when it comes to settling complaints about the administration of ISAs – and there have been several complaints during the year. Nationwide has also had more than its share of ISA grievances.
Fraud has been another cause of increasing criticisms of banks and building societies. These seem to have taken a tougher line, arguing that the onus is on customers to prevent fraud. HSBC is one of the banks that had told a reader she must bear the loss from a fraud, but relented after we contacted it.
HSBC impressed us more in a holiday dispute, when it provided compensation for a customer where it had no legal obligation to do so. The daughter of a reader paid First Choice for a holiday as part of a group. When the lead passenger dropped out and another lead passenger took her place, our reader's daughter found herself dumped from the party – despite paying First Choice for her holiday. First Choice was steadfast that as it had no legal duty to compensate our reader's daughter, it would not do so. Unable to find out who the new lead passenger now was, it was only HSBC's generosity that saved our reader's daughter from losing £386, as well as her holiday.
Grievances about holidays and flight delays have increasingly become a common reason for readers to contact this column. In many cases, this is because airlines have been slow to make repayments for flights cancelled because of the Icelandic ash clouds. Slow processing of refunds has been a particular problem for easyJet customers – it had a bad year with its IT systems.
But one company stands out for the number of complaints it generates: CarphoneWarehouse. Readers were especially upset at the way CarphoneWarehouse closed down its Fresh Mobile subsidiary: many customers had difficulty in recovering pre-paid credit balances, unless they transferred to a sister operator. There is nothing new about complaints about CarphoneWarehouse: it has been the butt of complaints to this column for year after year.
Sadly, even the demerger of the TalkTalk operation from CarphoneWarehouse has not reduced the flow of complaints. TalkTalk – which has taken over Tiscali, another company readers have been frustrated with – has proven less helpful in resolving complaints. We hope that the promise of TalkTalk's new chief executive to prioritise improvement to customer services is realised.
A few words of apology, though. Not every complaint can be successfully resolved by us. In particular, those adventurous travellers who end up on the other side of the world out-of-pocket may find they never get the compensation they deserve. Readers are frustrated when they find it impossible to communicate with small airlines that operate in out-of-the-way places, whose head office staff do not speak English and who ignore all written communications. So do we!
But the reader whose son's holiday was disrupted when an angry ticket inspector ripped up his international train pass should know that we have not given up – despite the language barrier.
This is one of many occasions where progress is slow. Sometimes it can take months, or even, unfortunately, years to resolve readers' problems. So please bear with us. Those readers (and there are many) who expect to receive full satisfaction within two or three days of contacting us are likely to be disappointed. If a solution were that easy, the reader would have had no need to contact us.
Questions of Cash cannot give individual advice. But if you have a financial dilemma, we'll do our best to help. Please email us at: questionsofcash@ independent.co.uk.