Putting things right: the Banking Ombudsman Scheme turns 25

Nicola Sladden, Banking Ombudsman
Putting things right: the Banking Ombudsman Scheme turns 25

As the Banking Ombudsman Scheme celebrates its 25th anniversary, the adage comes to mind: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Banking has changed enormously in recent years – whether in technological innovations, consumer expectations or the regulatory landscape. Apps have replaced cheques, and banks are effectively open round the clock.

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Our population as a whole is ageing. Younger New Zealanders, the snapchat generation, are perhaps not as trusting of large institutions, whether private sector or governmental. Real-time banking and “robo-advice”, or advice from robots are the order of the day.

Through all of this, the Banking Ombudsman Scheme has been a credible and constant presence, helping customers to sort out problems with banks. The scheme was visionary back in 1992 and remains a vital player in the sector today.

Its vision, to make banking better for New Zealanders, is as relevant as it ever was.

Long-time board members Sir John Anderson and David Russell helped to lead the way, alongside many other eminent New Zealanders, well before the government required all financial services to belong to an independent dispute resolution scheme.

There were rocky moments in those early days. At least two banks threatened to withdraw their membership in response to adverse decisions. They struggled to get past their indignation at being held to account. This is a far cry from banks’ supportive attitude today.

Banks now recognise that an independent ombudsman service builds trust and confidence in the sector. Complaints are even seen in a positive light: as a valuable source of customer insight.

We’ve been busy over the years, helping more than 78,000 people and arranging payment of almost $40 million in compensation.

Remember passbook accounts? In the pre-internet days of the early 1990s, a lot of the disputes we dealt with were about missing passbooks and cheques. As cheque usage has dramatically declined, disputes with banks are now more likely to be about online payment issues. We’ve accumulated a trove of data and insights along the way.

Prevention has become our mantra in recent times: nipping things in the bud. We give customers advice they can use, on subjects as diverse as switching banks, responsible lending, and the tell-tale signs of phishing and other scams. This approach has paid off, with disputes on a fairly steep decline, although the number of enquiries remain strong.

The lessons from casework are fed into our website, social media and education activities. The net result is that bank practices and customer behaviour alike have changed.

There have been colourful stories, too. One grateful customer was so pleased with the service our office had provided that he offered to pay us – with a side of venison.

The tasty offer was politely declined. The service we provide has always been free of charge. New Zealanders can turn to us for help and know they won’t be charged for doing so.

Banking is becoming increasingly automated, but it will always be people who design and use banking. New technology gives rise to new problems. There will still be things that go wrong from time to time.

The scheme has been, and remains, a trusted part of New Zealand’s consumer and banking landscape. For 25 years and counting, customers around New Zealand have turned to us for help with their banking problems, and we’ve responded by delivering fair outcomes. Whatever the next 25 years may bring, it is still the putting right that counts.

That’s an achievement worth celebrating.

9. BOS 25