Sam Dunn: No prizes for guessing this was not a fair contest
Companies often fail to take their commitments seriously
Sunday 21 January 2007
In any list of character traits that constitute being British, "a sense of fair play" is likely to crop up.
This noble sentiment is one I personally believe in - and try to apply daily - but it's often difficult to discern amid the rise of the "me" generation and a society much less community-oriented than in the past.
And letters from Money readers that turn up in my postbag often make me think that fair play has been all but extinguished in the UK's financial services industry.
Maltreatment at the hands of their insurer/lender/bank/gas company/broadband supplier/building society/pension company/electricity provider prompts the same refrain: "I can't understand - why am I being treated so unfairly?"
Examples of poor practice abound: consumers mis-sold endowment policies; the elderly ripped off by unscrupulous salesmen hunting commission payments; families left struggling financially after income protection policies fail to pay out on a medical technicality.
Many other complaints are founded on administrative errors, or poor customer service from companies that really should know better. Having, in good faith, paid over a lot of money for an important service, people are often left bewildered that the company has not taken its commitment to them as seriously as they have taken theirs to it.
All these examples of unfair treatment make depressing reading, but occasionally, a really outrageous case crops up.
Take, for example, consumers prepared - again, in good faith - to part with their money in a TV quiz that requires them to phone premium-rate lines that can start from 75p per call.
The telecoms regulator Ofcom published details last week of a dispute between viewers and a show presented by Debbie King called Quizmania, which was mostly watched late at night until it was dropped from the ITV Play channel.
On the night in question, viewers were invited to guess a number of items that might typically be found in a woman's handbag. A cash prize was on offer for each of the 13 possible correct answers, among which were "contact lenses" and "driving licence".
However, at the end of the show, six cash prizes had still not been won and so the remaining answers were unveiled. They included "Rawlplugs" and "balaclava".
Not surprisingly, some viewers complained to the regulator. After an investigation, Ofcom has rightly decided that the competition was "not conducted fairly", and hence breached the Broadcasting Code.
ITV Play acknowledged that some answers were inappropriate and said its producers had taken steps to avoid any reoccurrence.
"When [companies] are involved in broadcasting content which involve a significant amount of financial transactions, it is essential that they observe the highest possible standards," Ofcom concluded.
It's impossible to argue with this, and especially reassuring to see - as we report on page 22 - that the Financial Services Authority and the Office of Fair Trading are clamping down on equally unfair practices.
The lengths to which companies will go to increase their profits never fails to amaze me. Yes, competition is fierce between providers; yes, companies can charge any price they like in a market if enough buyers are willing to pay up; and yes, mistakes are bound to happen in fast-moving businesses.
But trampling over consumers' right to a fair deal leads, in the long term, to a loss of trust and - ultimately - custom. And what business wants that?
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