Who has yet to tell their bank to get stuffed? Last week's demonstration of consumer power – thousands of students using networking site Facebook to put pressure on HSBC to drop overdraft interest charges on graduate accounts – is just the latest in a groundswell of unfavourable sentiment.
It follows the ferocious backlash by millions of bank customers against hefty penalty charges of up to £39 on ordinary current accounts. Aided by consumer champions including website Moneysavingexpert. com and Which?, people have challenged the punitive size of these fines in court and, in countless cases, won all their money back – often to the tune of thousands of pounds. A handful of banks, the Financial Services Authority (FSA) and the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) are now engaging in a test of these charges' legality in the High Court.
Or consider mortgage lenders and the furore over the size of the "exit" fee – the administrative cost of closing down a home loan. The FSA, the City regulator, has stepped in to order companies to stop the practice of sneakily raising the cost of this fee during the time that you're paying back your loan. Given that the cost varied between lenders from paying nothing to nearly £300, and that the transaction is almost identical regardless of the lender and how long you've actually been with it, this was a long overdue piece of corrective behaviour.
However, rather than being the culmination of a new consumerist movement, these recent turns of events are – hopefully – just the start of something new.
Much has been made of businesses' increasing awareness of the value of a pro-consumer attitude, but I still hear private comments from senior executives across a range of sectors – not just the financial services industry – that display a shocking disregard for, and arrogance towards, the customers.
"Treating Customers Fairly" might sound like a mantra of common sense but it's also a bona fide division of the City regulator: it has a phalanx of staff to make sure that businesses consider consumers at every stage of the selling process. That such a body has to exist speaks volumes about the way in which the financial services industry has long treated the generator of all its revenues and profits. But while the FSA's stance has won it many friends and much support, it's clear that, at long last, Britons are happier now to stand up and be counted.
Complaining has always been a great trait of our so-called national character, but it always tended to be done privately – often after the event – in a griping manner rather than in a confrontational style in public that put the shop/bank/ service provider on to the back foot and got something done immediately.
This attitude, although still largely prevalent among older generations, has withered over the past 10 years and been replaced by a much more aggressive mood. The thrust of this consumer power into the financial services industry has so far been limited to bank accounts – the basics of running our daily finances. But I think we'll see this mood affect more complicated issues such as pensions, critical illness cover and income protection.
Helped by regulators and watchdogs, consumers will slowly benefit from greater transparency on product fees, costs and returns – and get a greater understanding of what they're actually buying into. It's worked for bank accounts and it can work for every other part of the financial services industry.
We're clearly a work in progress: let's make sure the momentum isn't lost.Reuse content