Departing Banking Ombudsman's challenges included suicidal customers

Banking Ombudsman Deborah Battell steps down on Friday after six years in the role.
Jonathan Cameron

Banking Ombudsman Deborah Battell steps down on Friday after six years in the role.

One of the biggest challenges the outgoing Banking Ombudsman, Deborah Battell, faced was staff having to deal with suicidal and anguished bank customers.

But the boss of the disputes resolution scheme does not believe banks ever set out to rip people off.

Battell's term as Banking Ombudsman ends on Friday, after six years in the top job. 

One of the major ongoing changes during her term was the shift towards facilitation and away from paper-based judgments.

"When you pick up a telephone and talk to people, there's really nowhere to hide," Battell said.

"My aim was to ensure that customers felt they had really been heard, and really listened to."

Staff had to learn how to deal with people who could be under enormous financial stress, occasionally in "absolutely dreadful situations", Battell said.

"At one stage, we brought in experts from Lifeline and so on to help us cope with customers who were suicidal."

That in turn could take its toll on the team fielding the complaints, Battell said.

"Some staff at the end of the day just feel quite fatigued. You've got to have a really warm and supportive culture."

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Battell said that during her time at the top, she had not seen any evidence that banks deliberately tried to rip people off or treat them poorly.

"We generally find that they work quite hard with their customers, particularly if they're in financial difficulty," she said.

While there had been some high-profile issues, Battell said they were caused by bank staff failing to understand the complex products they were selling, rather than malicious intent.

She said one of the biggest areas of dispute was loan defaults.

"I think sometimes people expect that because banks ... have a lot of money, they should be more generous than they are," she said.

"The reality is that if a bank lends to you, it expects to get that money back, with interest."

Battell said there had been some initial resistance to her ideas from within her office, like moving from purely disputes resolution to also providing information and education.

That had included an overhaul of the website, a weekly case study, and a series of 33 "quick guides" explaining common areas of friction for customers.

Battell said her staff could now see the impact, with empowered customers and improved bank services expected to reduce the volume of disputes.

"There will always be complaints unfortunately, and things will always go wrong," she said. "But by and large, the smaller we are, the more successful we are."

Battell said an independent review of the scheme last year was affirming, and the recommended changes would be useful.

READ MORE: Bank Ombudsman changes mixed for customers

"During my term, it became quite evident we were a bit hamstrung, in terms of the way we were operating, by our current terms of reference."

The new rules would allow incoming ombudsman Nicola Sladden, currently Battell's deputy, to set up her own processes and systems, she said.

Battell said it was time for someone with fresh ideas to take over the role and make it their own.

She said she would do some consulting while she thought about her next move, but would ultimately like to take the next step into directorships and governance.

 - Stuff

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