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EDITOR’S BLOG: Service (and fairness) with a style

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The trouble with us personal finance journalists is that we get fixated with the numbers, preoccupied with size and hung up on the hard facts.

Yes, sure, of course it’s important that when you compare savings accounts, for example, that you get a product that gives you a decent return on your money. Or when purchasing motor insurance you can rest assured that everything’s covered and you won’t end up forking out your own money on a hire car if someone punts into your pride and joy. The facts and figures of the case are important and the swarms of Best Buy tables buzzing around in the personal finance garden tell us just how important.

But surely it’s not the be-all and end-all of what we expect from commercial transactions, especially from providers we have chosen on the basis of personal preference or even deeply held convictions. That elusive, X-factor, much-discussed quality ‘Service’ also comes into the equation – a major element of which is fairness in the way we are treated.

But don’t just take my word for it because fairness is a concept apparently dear to the heart of this caring, sharing Government and its apparatus of State. You may argue that the Financial Services Authority (FSA) is not an ‘apparatus of State’ – some in the personal finance industry argue that it is a pain in the backside – but it’s no surprise that a semi-official body like the FSA has come up with an idea like ‘Treating Customers Fairly’ (TCF), which has the ring of Tony Blair’s social services-style sensibility about it.

But the FSA spotted a long time ago that people were being ripped off and missold to by some unscrupulous financial providers and in 2001 launched the ‘11 Principles for Business’, of which Principle 6 said: “A firm must pay due regard to the interests of its customers and treat them fairly.” Now this may have all the portentous veneer of ‘The Da Vinci Code’ to some, but in my opinion the FSA got it right and TCF – and good service – are vital parts of the experience of consumers when they go for a bank account, an ISA or an insurance policy. As vital a part as the hard facts of the case, come to think of it.

Take the example of Paul, who opened a savings account with a large High Street building society with branches up and down the country. He did this because he believes in mutuality – a concept that is taking a hammering in this plc age of shareholder returns and private equity buyouts. “I got my savings account, was happy with it for a year and then – pouf! – it all went pear-shaped,” bemoans Paul. “First, there was a major change of staff at my local branch and far from being made to feel welcome when I went to pay money into my account I was treated like an unwelcome stranger. That meant the service deteriorated in my eyes. Then, to add insult to injury, the building society cut the rate on my account, just as I’d imagined banks did every day, and that to me was being treated unfairly. I switched pretty soon afterwards.”

That probably is not what the FSA means by a breach of the TCF principle, but us consumers probably have our own definitions of what constitutes fair play – and we’re entitled to them. As for the service Paul got in his building society branch, there are still far too many financial providers that treat their customers poorly and they must remedy this deficiency as soon as possible. We are the customer and we demand no less.



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