Simon Read: It's not just the banks that face issues of trust

Companies are causing people to lose trust by cold calling them
  • @simonnread

Barclays was this week branded a "rotten, thieving bank" by Labour MP John Mann. He threw the phrase at the bank's ex-boss Bob Diamond during his grilling by the Treasury Select Committee on Wednesday. The American had another view, of course. He claimed that Barclays is "an incredible institution".

Incredible is a good word to describe the revelations of recent days which have left customers of the bank reeling. Has their trust ever reached a lower point?

Coming so quickly after the computer cock-ups at Royal Bank of Scotland and NatWest that left millions unable to access their cash, it's easy to believe that it's time for the old order of high street names to be brushed away and replaced with institutions that we can trust.

I suspect that that's especially true for customers of RBS-owned Ulster Bank, who are still waiting to have their banking services restored. This week they were told to expect a return to normal service by the week starting 16 July. That'll be around a month after the trouble started, which is shockingly poor service.

At the heart of all this is trust. We need to trust our banks as we hand over our hard-earned to them. But it's not just a case of trusting them with our savings, we also need to trust that they'll treat us fairly by giving us decent interest on our money, or by not overcharging us for services.

In the past few years the banks have betrayed our trust again and again. They flogged us useless and expensive payment protection insurance, for instance. The ramifications of that scandal are still resonating.

On Thursday the Financial Services Compensation Scheme reported it paid out £347m in compensation to 86,000 claimants in the past year. The relevance? Some 84 per cent of new claims related to mis-sold payment protection insurance.

But this growing lack of trust among consumers isn't confined to banks. Figures released this week by the Financial Ombudsman Service revealed that complaints about payday loan firms shot up by a third in the past three months.

And the complaints appeared to be largely justified, with more than three quarters of them upheld. My postbag reflects a growing unhappiness with the actions of some payday lenders. The worst add extra charges or fees, hitting vulnerable people who may have trusted the lender to help them.

Regular readers of the section will know of the complete breakdown in trust that many have with the nation's energy firms. Rising prices have forced millions into fuel poverty while the Big Six energy companies continue to rake in hundreds of millions in profits.

Companies outside the financial sector are causing people to lose trust by continually annoying them by cold calling them at home. The Information Commissioner's Office revealed this week that complaints about cold calling soared more than 40 per cent last year.

The problem is worsened by the fact that some of the telemarketing firms used by companies have been ignoring the Telephone Preference Service. In theory by signing up to the service, as I have, the cold calling should stop.

In practice it continues. It's so annoying that I now make a note of any company that calls me at home trying to flog me something and add it to a growing list of companies to avoid.

The same is true of companies that announce sales or special discounts that are no such thing. I was in the market for some holiday money this week and noticed that one online site was holding a "flash sale" the following day so decided to delay my purchase.

But when I logged into the site the next day, the rate offered was worse than the day before. Exchange rates do go up and down, but you'd have thought that the special "flash sale" would have produced a better deal, not worse. Especially as the rival sites I checked still offered the same rate as the previous day, not a worse one.

It's another example of trust being eroded. When a company tells you something is half price, you assume that it was previously sold for twice as much. But often a little research reveals that the so-called bargain has actually been sold at the lower price for months or even years and may even be cheaper at another retailer.

In short, you can't trust a company's marketing. You can only trust your own research. And one good thing about the internet is that it's easy to research and shop around these days. That's also true of airlines and other organisations that add hidden charges to your bill. The budget airlines have been forced to stop the practice by the Office of Fair Trading, but debit and credit-card charge surcharges need to be outlawed.

We can only trust companies that are transparent and quote a price that covers everything. It's the only way to easily compare charges.

I've also become fed up with the charity muggers, chuggers, that accost me on the high street near the Independent's office on an almost daily basis.

Some are rude and hectoring, but all are annoying. I've taken to adding the charities that use them to my growing black list of firms and organisations to avoid.

How can I trust them to use donations wisely when they splash out our money on dreadful chuggers? I have raised the issue with charities and they say the street collectors are one of the best money-raising activities.

But if we collectively agreed to ignore them, then their annoying activities would stop. By the same token if all Barclays' customers withdrew their money and switched to a rival, then the bank would no longer be able to attempt to rig interest rates.

People power is growing. You just need to look at the growing shareholder protests at company AGMs to see how the rising tide of discontent can be turned into something positive.

The immediacy of social media, too, has helped give ordinary folk the power to force companies to treat them more fairly. The more we gather together and use that power, the better. Then, and only then, will we be able to start rebuilding our trust in the firms we use.