Say what you mean, mean what you say: New research highlights challenges in the language used by ombuds

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A new report has been published on research on language used in complaints handling. The Language of Complaints, produced by IFF Research, was commissioned by the Legal Ombudsman to help understand how language affects consumers’ behaviour and choices and identify better practice in the use of language. The report highlights the use of jargon in complaints responses – including ‘remedy’, ‘premature’ and ‘out of time’ – which can cause confusion or appear meaningless and add to ‘the accumulation of technical language that the customer will have encountered in their complaint “journey”.’

The researchers explored the impact of language used in both written and oral communication by legal services providers and the Legal Ombudsman. They consulted with staff at the Legal Ombudsman and also carried out 15 face-to-face interviews and four focus groups with members of the public, both those whose complaint to the Ombudsman had concluded and those who had used a legal services provider but not complained.

Responses suggested that, generally, communications were clear and straightforward and that the Legal Ombudsman’s language is an improvement on that used by legal services providers. There were a number of areas, however, in both written and oral communications where improvements could be made.

Interpretations of commonly used phrases

Although it is clear that people interpret language in a variety of ways, it is useful to understand better how common phrases used by redress mechanisms can convey the opposite of what is intended. For example:

‘The phrase “we will look at the facts in each case” was felt to convey the Ombudsman’s impartial approach particularly well, while the idea of the Ombudsman “weighing up the comments” from the customer and the service provider meant that several non-customers interpreted the Ombudsman’s role as being like a pair of scales.’

Other comments include that the term ‘impartiality’ implies ‘sitting on the fence’ and being toothless to enforce recommendations, and that ‘premature’ (used in relation to a complaint that has not yet gone through the internal complaints procedure of the provider) is associated ‘with small babies or with a sexual context’.

Lack of clarity on ‘informal’ resolution

It is interesting to note that among the problematic language identified is ‘informal resolution’: the research identified that the steps involved in taking a complaint to an ombud are not as clear as they could be, and that for some interviewees:

‘…the word “informal” is jarring: taking their complaint to the Legal Ombudsman feels like a formal process to them, so implying that their complaint is informal feels to some as thought their complaint is being downplayed and that its importance is devalued by the term.’

The report explains the process of ‘informal resolution’ as follows:

‘Once a complaint has been accepted, it will be passed to an investigator who will listen to both sides, look at the facts, weigh up the evidence and take a view. If a case is resolved at this stage, it is resolved ‘informally’. The Legal Ombudsman aims to resolve complaints this way; currently, approximately 30% of cases are resolved like this.’

More insights on the language used around informal resolution suggest the need for more clarity about the process used in this informal stage, something we highlighted in our report on informal resolution approaches used by ombuds. 

‘…several of the calls were felt to be overwhelming and hard to understand. This was due, in large part, to their lack of structure which felt baffling to the customer: for example, the informal resolution with remedy call started with the staff delivering a decision, when later it became apparent that this was actually a first offer (“It began as a decision, then it became a bartering thing.”)’.

‘…there was a lack of clarity among participants about the different stages of the process, and, in particular, what the difference between a “preliminary” and “provisional” decision means in practise. Few customers were certain whether they had received one or both (with one or two believing that the preliminary decision was when the Legal Ombudsman assesses your case and decides to take it on, and one or two others believing that the preliminary decision they had received from an investigator on their case was in fact a ‘final decision’).’

The researchers quote a complainant whose complaint was not upheld, describing the informal process as ‘quick and dirty’:

‘A first round, they would have looked at a quick and dirty response that says, “Sorry, here’s £200, go away”.’

Remedy terms and job titles

In terms of redress, ombuds often use the term ‘remedy’, but this was seen by some interviewees as ‘medicinal’, as if a dose of remedy would fix the problem. These interviewees argued that, where a financial remedy is being recommended, ‘compensation’, ‘cash settlement’ or simply ‘settlement’ would be more appropriate.

Job titles within ombud organisations were also potentially challenging in that, although they appeared to confer a welcome right to escalate a complaint (from, for example, investigator to senior investigator to Ombudsman), it also felt to some like scaling a great height, and in doing so it implied that the investigator’s opinion is less valuable.

 

The findings give valuable insights into the perspectives of users of redress mechanisms, including but not limited to ombuds. They also give pause for thought for anyone involved in the design of grievance and complaint procedures.

 


New research: Kafkaesque and demoralising: how online critics perceive the UK’s public service ombuds — UKAJI

This post gives an overview of a recent study of ‘ombuds watchers’ and their online criticism of the public service ombud schemes, including the PHSO, LGO and SPSO. The researchers, Chris Gill (University of Glasgow) and Naomi Creutzfeldt (University of Westminster), have published a paper about the research: ‘The ‘Ombuds Watchers’: Collective Dissent and Legal […]

via New research: Kafkaesque and demoralising: how online critics perceive the UK’s public service ombuds — UKAJI


What research exists on complainants’ views of ombuds, and how can we learn more?

We often hear about the ‘user journey’ and putting users at the heart of the justice system. For ombud schemes, ‘users’ are both complainants and the complained about, and generally feedback is sought from both groups. It is complainants, however, who tend to be the most vocal about their dissatisfaction with their experience of ombuds – using Twitter and other social media to voice their concerns. (Complained-about organisations, such as those subject to the Financial Ombudsman Service and Legal Ombudsman, are also vocal but tend to use other mechanisms and channels.)

But what do we really know about complainants’ views? Most ombuds carry out customer satisfaction surveys to gain insight into how people feel about the process used to handle their complaint and the outcome achieved. Most also have processes for reviewing complaints about the service provided, and a few have a mechanism to review ombud decision when these are challenged. Much of that work remains in the shadows and little is in the public domain, making it difficult to analyse how these numbers reflect the experience of complainants overall and to ascertain the extent to which service complaints and challenges to decisions actually make a difference.

What does the research tell us?

There is little research on the systemic impact of customer satisfaction and service complaints. In Benchmarking the Legal Ombudsman, the Legal Services Consumer Panel compared the Legal Ombudsman with several other UK ombuds schemes using a series of indicators grouped under four headings: caseload, timeliness, quality and cost. In its section on quality, the Panel highlighted that although some ombud schemes publish customer survey results in full, the practice of most is to include only a selection of statistics in annual reports. That benchmarking survey also suggested that a mechanism for externally reviewing service complaints can have a positive impact on improving the quality of investigations, but this was anecdotal.

A very different type of study of complainants’ experience is the 2008 research by Sharon Gilad on case handlers in the Financial Ombudsman Services. Gilad explored the issue of complainant expectations from the case-handler perspective – enquiring what complaint handlers do, what they try to achieve, and what strategies they employ. She suggests that by enhancing complainants’ trust in, and satisfaction with, unfavourable decisions, an expectations management approach may reinforce rather than reduce the inclination to complain in future.

…rather than merely “cooling out” complainants, this form of legitimization may actually enhance citizen-consumer voice… Rather than provoking them to pursue their dissatisfactions further in the public sphere, off-putting bureaucratic encounters resulted in applicants’ apathy and withdrawal.

Gilad’s analysis suggests that complaint handlers perceived communicating adverse decisions to complainants in a sensitive and persuasive manner as one of the key challenges of their role. When complaint handlers and complainants had differing assessments of complaints, the complaint handlers focused on managing expectations – specifically managing what they perceived as the public’s excessive or unrealistic expectations from financial firms and the ombudsman.

In November last year, the Patients Association published a report on complainants’ dissatisfaction with the Health Service Ombudsman. The ‘People’s’ Ombudsman: How it failed us sets out what the Association perceives as major failings in the way the ombud works. Key among its findings are criticisms of the ombud’s approach to evidence and the overall poor quality of its decision making. It argues that investigations are not diligent, robust or thorough, evidence is ignored, and mistakes are made, leading to re-investigations.

‘We offered to send them the set of medical records we had so that the Review team could compare them with their own. The Review Team said this was not necessary as they would ‘only be looking at the complaint handling’ and not at the original complaint.’

The report’s case-study evidence is powerful but is limited; it’s unclear how indicative the experiences reported on are of wider experiences or what the scale of the problem is.

How to approach research on complainants?

So how can we get a better sense of what complainants themselves think of ombuds? Getting access to individuals and to real cases is not an easy task for researchers – confidentiality, data protection, and ethical issues are all potential obstacles.

This week the UK Administrative Justice Institute published two blog posts about the issue, from different perspectives. One is from Della Reynolds, the co-ordinator of the PHSO Pressure Group, which works with complainants who are dissatisfied with the Health Service Ombudsman. The other is from an academic researcher at University of Oxford, Naomi Creutzfeldt, who has been exploring the issue of complainants’ trust in ombuds across the EU.

Reynolds lists a number of common obstacles faced by complainants:

  • delay
  • lack of communication
  • secrecy
  • manipulation of the facts
  • factual error
  • staff away on leave regularly or case passed between staff so you start again with new case worker
  • blanket statements from staff which do not address key points raised
  • acceptance of statements made by public body at face value
  • refusal to release details of clinical advisor used – report written by clinical advisor – questions asked of clinical advisor or evidence supplied to clinical advisor
  • no action taken if a service delivery complaint made
  • any complaint made about the decision will be met with suggestion to go to judicial review

She describes the feelings of helplessness and righteous anger that complainants experience when faced with a failure to obtain a remedy from the ombuds. She proposes that a case study approach would provide much-needed insight – following a number of cases from initial complaint to outcome, using questionnaires (and possibly interviews) to get a full picture of the ‘journey’ of the complainant.

‘Like a badly aggrieved child you approach your parent ombudsman with tales of woe and the evidence to prove it, only to be told that it is just your ‘perception’ of injustice.’

Creutzfeldt’s EU-wide project involves surveying complainants who used ombud schemes and has published her findings in country-specific reports. She writes that ‘Despite the significance of ombudsmen to our constitutional and civil justice landscapes, very little is known about users’ perceptions of the fairness of the procedures and practices and the significance of these perceptions for levels of trust in particular ombudsman offices.’

Her comparative study (she has published a number of country-specific reports) included work on five ombud schemes in the UK: two of its public-sector ombudsmen (Local Government Ombudsman and Parliamentary and Health Services Ombudsman) and three private ombudsmen covering five sectors (Legal Ombudsman, Financial Ombudsman Service and Ombudsman Services covering property, energy and telecoms). She has gathered and analysed data on complainants’ views at first contact stage and about the process and outcome, as well as overall satisfaction.

Among her findings is that, in both private-sector and public-sector ombuds, complainants’ expectations are too high from the outset.

‘I believed that they had the “teeth” to resolve what seemed to be a straightforward case of an erroneous transfer which I simply couldn’t resolve however hard I tried.’

She also found a marked difference in levels of dissatisfaction for those using public-sector ombuds: overall 57% of those in public schemes felt the procedure was ‘somewhat unfair’ or ‘very unfair’, compared to a quarter of those in private schemes.

The increased tendency of complainants to use social media as a mechanism to voice their dissatisfaction means that we know more about those who had a poor experience than those who had a positive one. This is an issue to be considered in another research project, currently being conducted by Creutzfeldt with Chris Gill of Queen Margaret University, on dissatisfied complainants who have set up online protest groups to highlight concerns about ombudsman schemes and campaign for change.

Ideas

We would be interested to hear of other research that has been or is being carried out on complainants’ experiences. Please get in touch using the Comments facility on this blog.


What do the parties think about informal resolution? Research needed!

We know a bit about what ombudsmen and other complaint-handlers think about using informal resolution approaches. In our mapping study, The use of informal resolution approaches by ombudsmen in the UK and Ireland, we asked ombudsmen why they use informal resolution. The answers tended to fall into one of two camps: because they are required or expected to do so by statute, or because it is simpler and quicker. The latter responses included acknowledging that speed can be a benefit for parties as well as for the ombudsman. Some also mentioned the added benefit of informal resolution helping to maintain or rebuild relationships between the complainant and the complained-about.

For the most part, however, views of what parties themselves think about the processes ombudsmen use to handle their complaints are conjecture or are gleaned from customer satisfaction research, complaints feedback, and other sources that have some limitations in terms of self-selection of samples and how robust the findings are.

A closer look: legal complaints

An interesting view of how informal resolution can benefit complainants and complained about in different ways appears in the Annual Report published yesterday by the Legal Ombudsman (LeO). The report states:

We prefer to resolve complaints by brokering an agreement between the lawyer and the complainant. Therefore, our investigators attempt to settle complaints as amicably as they can, while bringing both parties (both the lawyer and the client) to a swift and mutually beneficial resolution. We call this “informal resolution”.

Where an informal resolution cannot be reached, either party may ask an ombudsman to make a final decision. At this stage the resolution will be based less on resolving the complaint amicably and more on what is deemed fair and reasonable.”

LeO reports that last year it resolved 39% of complaints informally (a slight decrease from the year before). Almost the same number (38%) were resolved by ombudsman decision. (The remaining 24% were either withdrawn or dropped by the complainant or discontinued by an ombudsman.) LeO expresses its disappointment that more complaints are not resolved informally:

This is not the outcome we had hoped for, but as we have said in previous Annual Reports, the complexity of legal complaints means that often people want to exhaust all options before accepting a decision.”

The figures suggest there are more financial remedies agreed at the informal stage (67%) than recommended by ombudsman decision (40%). Most financial remedies are less than £1,000 (30% of ombudsman decisions, and 40% of informal resolutions).

The difference between outcomes of the two processes is most marked in the remedy ranges of £1,000 to £19,999: 9% of ombudsman decisions were in this range, but 17% of informal resolutions were.

LeO states:

In our view, these figures suggest that complainants do as well when accepting an investigator’s recommendation and opt for an informal resolution as they do when insisting on an ombudsman’s decision. It may also reflect an increase in the number of lawyers offering reasonable remedies at the first tier, which, if true, is a positive development.’

Good for complainants – what of the complained-about?

But for lawyers the opposite might be true. As Legal Futures has pointed out, in the report LeO urges

lawyers to think twice before pushing for formal decisions rather than accepting informal resolutions to complaints, even though the figures showed that the outcome of the former was less likely to result in the lawyer having to pay the client some money.’

LeO suggests that for lawyers, the advantages of informal resolution are in saving time and avoiding reputational risks. The report states:

While lawyers might be tempted to hold out for an ombudsman’s decision, they should factor in the additional time and resource they will have to put into managing the complaint and accept that the customer is likely to walk away feeling even less positive about their firm with the increased risk to their reputation that this entails.’

Yet another risk to informal settlements for parties complained about has been highlighted in relation to the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS). An article last autumn in the financial press highlighted a loophole arising from court ruling on a FOS case, relating to whether a complainant can pursue further redress against a financial firm after a FOS decision:

The problem lies in the word “award”, which specifically applies to final and binding orders issued by an ombudsman reviewing a case.

In order to go before an ombudsman, a Fos complaint will first be reviewed by an adjudicator which would recommend a resolution. It is only passed on if either party rejects the recommendation.

The article suggested that if parties agree to an informal settlement (by adjudicator recommendation), the complainant could still be free to pursue more redress in court. It advises financial advisers (those complained about) to insist on either an ombudsman decision (so getting a final award that doesn’t leave them open to being sued for more, but risking being ‘named and shamed’) or a settlement via adjudicator that makes it clear it’s in full and final settlement.

Seeking parties’ views

Our mapping study found that very few ombudsman schemes ask their users for feedback specifically about informal resolution, though one reported that its ‘customer satisfaction research consistently shows informal investigations are the most popular type of investigation’ with both parties. Service complaints from users can also provide feedback on the processes used to handle complaints. Another ombuds reported that feedback on its informal resolution processes is generally positive, although some complainants question whether it treats the respondent service provider too softly.

The lack of information is striking when, as we found, most ombudsmen use informal resolution processes, and some for as much as 80% of the complaints they handle. We note in our report of the mapping study that there are calls for greater consistency in customer satisfaction reporting among UK ombudsmen. We also note, however, that the EU ADR Directive does not appear to contain any specific requirement to introduce customer satisfaction surveys or to gather feedback on case-handling processes.

It seems clear that research is needed on what users of ombuds schemes – both complainants and complained-about – think of processes used for complaints, and the outcomes they achieve.