By: James Daley, Which? Money
If you're shopping for a new car or a new washing machine, you probably wouldn't base your choice entirely on which model is cheapest. Although you might have a budget that you need to stick to, you'd want to know that you were getting good value for your money - and that your new purchase won't start breaking down after a few months.
But when it comes to shopping for financial services products, most British consumers are not nearly so practical. Finding a car insurance policy with the lowest premiums, or a bank account with the highest interest rate, tends to be much more important to most people than picking out a provider which offers good customer service. Yet if you end up needing to make a claim on your insurance policy, or find a fraudulent transaction on our bank account, good service will save you valuable time and money.
It's not hard, however, to understand why most consumers act like they do. When you take out a car insurance policy, making a claim is the last thing on your mind. Likewise, when you open a bank account, you might feel that a decent internet service and an extensive branch network is all that you need. It's only when things go wrong that you find yourself wishing that you'd gone for a provider which looks after its customers.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given this backdrop, customer service in Britain's financial services industry is generally very poor. At Which?, we carry out customer satisfaction surveys of all the main financial sectors once every six months, and the companies with the most customers almost always come towards the bottom of the pile.
The likes of Abbey, Natwest, Halifax, Lloyds and Barclays all score no more than 60 per cent across our credit card, current account and savings satisfaction surveys, with many scores down in the 40s. Yet at the top of the table, there are a few shining examples who show that it's possible for banks to offer both competitive products and good customer service. First Direct frequently receives satisfaction scores of over 90 per cent in our surveys, while the Co-operative Bank and Nationwide are other regulars at the top of our tables.
We've increased the number of times we run these surveys from once to twice a year in the hope that by regularly naming the worst providers we can encourage the stragglers to up their game, and give members the information they need to make informed choices about their provider.
A recent report from the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) exposed which providers are worst at dealing with customers' complaints. Over half of the complaints to FOS are upheld in favour of the consumer - proof Which? says that banks aren't doing enough to address customer concerns.
In new research, Which? has found that a year after the bailout there is still widespread consumer resentment against the banks. Two thirds of people are still really angry with the banks for causing the financial crisis, and three quarters think the banks aren't genuinely sorry for causing the financial crisis. Which? has just launched a major new campaign, 'Britain Needs Better Banks' (www.bnbb.org), to give people an opportunity to make themselves heard.
To really see a change in the industry, consumers need to be ready to vote with their feet, and to move their business elsewhere if they're not happy with the service they are getting. Better still, they should turn their backs on those companies that are not treating their customers with the respect they deserve.
Only if we put customer service at the top of our shopping list will financial companies sit up and take note.
James edits the UK's biggest-selling consumer finance magazine Which? Money and oversees personal finance content for the flagship Which? magazine and which.co.uk. To find out more about Which? Money, visit www.which.co.uk/money