Sam Dunn: Treat our customers well? Now come on

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The Independent Online

You customers are a source of terrible trouble in the financial services industry. You want too much. Not content with handing over your money in the hope of returns or security, you want to be treated fairly too. This is outrageous.

Or, rather, the companies that have to cope with you think so.

Clive Briault, the managing director at the Financial Services Authority (FSA), spotted this sentiment among the results of research by the City watchdog into how companies should raise standards for consumers buying financial products.

Companies feel our demands can be a dreadful hindrance, he told an industry audience last week. "We hear comments that treating customers fairly should be less of an issue for certain types of products or services," he said.

Other businesses, confident in their ability to look after their customers, have "questioned the need to do anything more", he added.

Happily, he gave short shrift to both industry attitudes.Good job too:the idea of companies being allowed to bleat on about the expense and manpower required to make sure they comply with the FSA's drive to improve standards is nauseous.

The FSA initiative is called Treating Customers Fairly. It's not the snappiest of titles but at least it spells out its vision of "capable and confident consumers" able to buy any financial product using "simple and understandable info".

This is hardly the toughest assignment in the world but, clearly, it's proving a head-scratcher for many businesses.

Why? How onerous can it be to make sure that consumers buy carefully designed products that are properly sold? How hard can it be to see to it that they are given decent support and care afterwards, and can get redress in the event of a problem?

Mr Briault's speech touched on reports of expensively hired consultants telling financial businesses that looking after customers properly was "all about setting up costly systems and extensive governance processes".

What vain nonsense. Happily, Mr Briault didn't accept this view either.

But why do companies have this blind spot? Why don't they seem to understand the value of a contented customer? That's person who starts a virtuous circle by coming back to buy more products, telling friends and family and spreading the word - for free.

If that's not enough of a commercial incentive to bother with genuine customer care, I don't know what is.

Better protection for consumers was also being addressed by the Office of Fair Trading last week.

It unveiled the national launch of its code of conduct for traders and businesses which, it hopes, will help consumers to "buy with confidence".

Companies that comply will be able to use a new logo on their advertising which will tell consumers that they can expect a clear and fair contract; a straightforward complaints channel, and their money back if the business goes bust.

Individual companies can't apply for it, though; they can only secure approval through an industry trade body that passes the OFT's test.

Several sectors have already made the grade, including travel agents and, controversially, the Ombudsman for Estate Agents, which represents only about half of the industry. The OFT would like more sectors to join the scheme.

If the code proves popular, customers will be able to check whether a company is approved before buying its services, and if not, ask why not?

I hope I live to see the introduction of such a scheme for the financial services industry. But judging by some of the comments at last week's meeting, it's unlikely.

s.dunn@independent.co.uk

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