BUILDING TRUST IN ONLINE CONSUMER REVIEWS : AN NCF SUCCESS STORY!

The National Consumer Federation (NCF) was delighted to be present on 6 September 2018 when the British Standards Institution (BSI) launched the international standard BS ISO 20488:2018 Online Consumer Reviews – principles and requirements for their collection, moderation and publication.

Timely and Global

This standard is timely and being international, recognises that online purchases are often cross border, thus needing a global approach to standardisation. It is vital that there is a rapid take up of the standard and every encouragement should be given to scheme providers to meet the requirements and accept the guidance given by the standard.

NCF Showed the Way

In 2013 the NCF commissioned a report Trust schemes for consumers: What ’good’ looks like which established a benchmark for what ‘good’ looks like for consumers and demonstrated that none of the trust schemes we looked at met all of our six key recommendations. We then initiated a meeting held at BEIS, London to bring all the businesses and other stakeholders involved in customer feedback schemes together with BSI. Our recommendation from that meeting was that there should be a standard to ensure that consumers could trust the feedback provided by customer feedback schemes.

feefo Review

feefo has undertaken reviews of the consumers’ perspective of online reviews. Their research indicates just how quickly the use of online customer feedback has developed since our report. In their latest report 94% of consumers said that they check reviews when looking for a product or service. This is a substantial increase on the 75% found in their research last year. Conversely their research indicated that 89% of those surveyed said they were worried about fake reviews, which again is a big increase compared with the 75% who gave the same response last year.

Not just seen but believed

These worrries underline the need for early and wide adoption of this standard.  A couple of blogs ago we were talking about banks having to display in-branch their customer satisfaction ratings and how the way they collected their data underpinned the credibility of the ratings. This sort of information for consumers should not only be seen – it must be believed.

 

 

 

 

 

‘Cutting EU Ties’ – NCF shares concerns spelt out by Trading Standards

A new report from the guys at the sharp end looks at how cutting ties with the EU affects all of us and in particular the work of Local Trading Standards Officers who are in day to day contact with consumers and businesses.  The CTSI (Chartered Trading Standards Institute) points out that transposing EU law into UK law is only the start of maintaining consumer protection.

Rules without Resources – Ineffectual

Rules without resources for application, advice and enforcement are rendered ineffectual. Trading Standards departments face new work loads, yet their resources have more than halved since 2010. Key networks linked to the EU will be lost and many regulations require reciprocal agreements and action from the EU 27.

Real Jeopardy

CTSI identify as a key threat the present lack of clarity in what will be required and the time to implement whatever finally emerges.  Life outside the single market alters many relationships across e-commerce. Without agreement there could be critical losses of information exchange on issues such as unsafe products. The Government has committed to enhancing product safety and standards but CTSI says that without continued co-operation from EU27 (bad deal or no deal) ‘our product safety system is in real jeopardy’, including agriculture and food products. UK exports to the EU will need to demonstrate continued conformity EU standards. Any divergence from EU standards by the UK may prejudice such trade and place a significant burden on inspections of imports, again down to TSDs.

The 2/3 of UK travel abroad is to EU countries, enjoying a range of protections. Reciprocal health care, compensation for delays, cancellation and insolvency and phone roaming rights are key when looking at consumer protection in the future.

Consumer rights have no value unless they can be enforced, either by actions against traders in the UK or through consumers receiving redress.  UK needs to retain clear processes for resolving disputes across the EU.  Similar issues apply to weights and measures.

Opportunities in Future?

There are opportunities in no longer having to apply EU law, provided trade with the EU is not compromised. Some consumer law is over-complex.  Some lacks clarity or is multi-layered. But as we have said before, we need both to hang on to what we already have for starters and make a contribution to keeping standards high in the future.

Better Consumer Future North of the Tweed?

The Scottish Government have launched a consultation on the role and remit of a body they are calling Consumer Scotland.
The reasons quoted in the doc for the exercise are

Evidence has shown that, in specific markets, Scottish consumers behave differently and have different needs from consumers in the rest of the UK. The reasons for this have not yet been fully analysed or understood as there is not, currently, a rigorous on-going assessment of Scottish consumer harm. There is no dedicated mechanism delivering improved, targeted outcomes for Scottish consumers.

This consultation is seeking to gather views on the proposals for a new consumer body, called Consumer Scotland. This will be an investigatory body, tasked with carrying out a strategic review of consumer welfare to identify areas of harm that require in-depth inquiry to identify causes and recommend solutions.

If you are interested in responding you have until 28 September this year. Make this first job of the new term? As a source of inspiration for any comments you might have, Jeremy Mitchell has submitted his own thoughts circulated on the day he celebrated joining the infant Which? 60 years ago. His comments contain a very useful summary of the shape and structure of an independent consumer advocacy body that would make sure that the consumer voice is heard – a cause dear to NCF’s heart of course. These features will be familiar to our consumer readers – independence, a good and predictable (known three years in advance) level of funding, particular focus on vulnerable and more. One point Jeremy makes extremely strongly is that this new body will not be a forum for discussion between representatives of the consumer interest and business. Do you agree? Why not? Is this not a perfectly valid activity for a consumer organisation?

How Does Your Bank Rate?

 

Have you been and had a look round your branch for this vital consumer information ? I have not but then I have not set foot in a bank branch for many months now. However if you do then have a look for the customer service league tables. Are they lurking behind a pillar way back in the branch or proudly displayed as you come in? Ironically enough, you won’t see the winner displaying its info because First Direct does not have any branches. (Is there a clue there?)Two ‘Scottish’ banks Clydesdale and Royal Bank of Scotland come bottom. I had a look on the Barclays website and could not find the table anywhere – found the news about their Modern Slavery Statement. Good to know but not at the forefront of the retail customers’ routine day to day concerns.
Whatever you think of the individual rankings, I think this publication is a significant event when customer-based data and its importance is fully recognised. The institutions affected will have to learn how best to use this information for their own purposes and not just treat it as another poster in the branch. Many companies routinely display Trust Mark or similar ratings based on opinions volunteered by users. The bank league tables are based on a questionnaire sent to and answered by a random selection of current account and small business customers. More details about the survey and how it was done can be seen here

We welcome this becoming universal practice with robust and credible customer ratings for satisfaction and readiness to recommend routinely published in shops, on websites, where-ever. More please

Smart Meters: Could Try Harder?

Just as a Fitbit does not of itself make you fit, we are now learning that smart meters, those devices that are supposed to give consumers a live display of how much gas and electricity they are using, do not automatically make you smart or indeed save you energy.

A Minister and his Meter

Now that even Mike O’Brien, the minister who introduced them has admitted to ditching his own as he ‘hardly ever looks at it’ one has to ask: Why and how were they introduced, and do the benefits live up to the claims?

The National Consumer Federation has argued for years that ‘real world’ experience is often discounted when product and service regulations are being discussed.  Also, as the Grenfell enquiry is showing, too many technical ‘experts’, too much Panglossian thinking, too little common sense, is leading to costly and sometimes dangerous mistakes.  Without a strong, independent, consumer voice at decision-making level, it’s the ordinary person who loses out.

Life’s Too Short and Savings Too Small?

Mike O’Brien is typical of consumers who have more important things to do with their time than to constantly check the smart meter and analyse whether a saving has been made. In the consumer world we know that change only happens when we have the knowledge and tools to improve, not just knowing what’s wrong.  Like the Fitbit, the smart meter doesn’t help us use less power, it only shows us what our usage actually is.

We don’t need a smart meter to tell us that we need to switch lights off when we leave the room and a smart meter won’t stop us putting the kettle on when we want a cup of tea.  No wonder EU reports have indicated that savings from smart meters are quite small, European national reports putting them at between 0.6% and a maximum 4%.

Unlike other European countries where network providers run the schemes, the UK has put the top six energy companies in charge of the roll-out, spending £11billion pounds of public (our) money on a programme that is already over budget and behind schedule.  A move which has been described in an independent BEIS review as ‘a mistake with profound consequences.’  These are the very companies who have a commercial interest in maximising, not minimising, power usage.  The consumer voice in this decision-making is rarely and barely heard.

Verdict Now

On present performance our smart meter roll-out would not score too highly from a consumer point of view.  We are already paying the bill well before we seen the benefits (if any). So mid- term report card:  Could try harder?

Watch This Space

Stand by for a report from Colin Adamson who is getting his installed on September 17th. This is the second go since the last time the installers missed their own appointment. Stay in all day and nobody turns up! How was it for you?

 

These blogs reflect the views of members of the National Consumer Federation on consumer issues of the day . The views expressed are not the settled policy of NCF. Comments are welcomed. They will be moderated before posting.

 

 

 

30 Years On…

Yes, its actually thirty years since I chaired the Consumer Congress in Liverpool.  This was attended by over 300 delegates from a tremendous variety of organisations, addressed by Michael Howard, Minister of State for Corporate and Consumer Affairs, among others, and organised round six well- attended and lively workshops, plus nine fringe meetings. The final event was a debate between Edwina Currie, Michael Meacher and Charles Kennedy, representing the three main political parties of the time, which was broadcast as a BBC Radio 4 You and Yours programme.

So what has changed since then? What are the differences between 1987 and 2017 and what issues do they have in common?  I guess the answer, rather disappointingly, is that many of the subjects debated and discussed so forcibly in 1987 are still unresolved.  Workshop titles included Community care: a consumer view (concluding among other issues that more liaison is urgently required between the NHS, social services, local housing authorities, voluntary organisations, para-medical staff and GPs)

Credit: access or excess? (misleading advertisements were among the many problematic issues highlighted)

Rented housing: improving standards, improving choice (led by Shelter, who provided much evidence of problem areas, and recommended active Tenant Participation Advisory Services)

Access to information: participation in decision making (covered personal files, food and local government)

Getting about: problems and solutions in public transport (accessibility was a big issue).

Obviously, some changes have taken place in some of these problem areas….but much remains to be done. Let’s hope that Consumer Congress 2017 can make real progress, particularly within the framework of the changes which Brexit will undoubtedly bring about.

Driving consumer empowerment forward with the NCF

TrustMark, the only government-endorsed ‘find a tradesperson’ scheme in the UK, has been working with the National Consumer Federation (NCF) over the past few months to develop their name branding, website and taking a part in the organisation of congress in April. I’ve been involved in the new ‘look and feel’, and will be implementing a marketing campaign to give the NCF a fresh approach with what we hope to be far-reaching outcomes for consumers.

Working with the NCF to date has been a pleasure for us. The organisation has up until now developed some fantastic initiatives for consumers, but it’s been a struggle to build the brand identity and grow it. With our two organisations now working together, there are now greater industry expertise behind the NCF and we can use new ways of promoting them to the public.

In our industry, the drive to strengthen consumer protection and empowerment is never over. TrustMark get complaints day in day out from consumers who have been ripped off by firms pretending to be TrustMark Registered, displaying our logo when they aren’t a member of our organisation. As much as we try to safeguard against this and warn consumers to check the firm is registered with us before hiring them, we know that it can never be completely eradicated.

But what we can do is promote greater awareness of what goes on and protect reputable trades who are given a bad name by rogues. Partnering with the NCF gives us another channel to educate consumers, and allows us to promote our joint aims of protecting them against unfair practices in society.

We are really excited to continue our work with the NCF in future, and expand on it to tackle our joint aims and drive better consumer protection.

Follow the NCF on twitter: @NCFvoice

If you are interested in finding out more about the work that TrustMark do or hiring a TrustMark registered tradesperson, please visit www.trustmark.org.uk

Why are trade agreements important to consumers?

The NCF is considering the effect changes in trade agreements from the UK within the EU to the UK by itself could impact consumers.

  • Within the EU all the disparate safety laws and standards have been brought into a single system of laws and standards – One rule and one test applicable right across the EU meaning that consumers have consistently high levels of safety wherever you shop in the EU. This also saves businesses and hence consumers the costs of lots of different safety standards to be met and means that businesses can compete more fairly.
  • The EU also provides a high level of consumer protection (complaints, dispute resolution, returned items etc.) by taking the best attributes of the many different national laws and standards and bringing them into a single legislative framework that consumers can depend on wherever they are in Europe.

The EU as the world’s largest economic block currently ensures that trade deals with others meet these standards and regulation.

When we go it alone in negotiations we won’t have that size on our side as we are the 9th largest economy in the world and the key deals will be with those larger than ourselves.  The USA is over 6 times larger than the UK and China is 4 times larger than the UK.

So in any new trade deals do we risk accepting standards that are worse than our own for our kids, our pensioners and ourselves?

How do you know who you can trust?

NCF has looked at how the internet has changed our approach to trust and the way we now make choices.

We started work on this by looking at ‘what good looks like’ Link from the consumer’s point of view. This paper analysed the issues arising from current practices where trust schemes use customer feedback. We have identified five key elements needed to support and maintain consumer trust in a trust scheme:

  • Creation and maintenance of a detailed code of practice for the operator of the scheme and those participating
  • Monitoring and assessment against the code
  • Complaints handling and escalation process available to consumers using the scheme
  • Consumer feedback and choice systems
  • Regular assessment of the trust scheme against the four preceding elements on behalf of consumers by the consumer movement.

Creating fairer regulation

The NCF has taken up the issue of fair and consistent consumer regulation.

Regulators such as Ofcom (for communications such as mobile phone services) and Ofgem (for energy, such as gas and electricity) exist to protect consumers in imperfect markets. But the understanding and interpretation of consumer issues across the recognised regulators is unclear and inconsistent. There is some evidence that businesses may pay more attention to the regulators’ requirements relevant to their business without the flexibility to meet true consumer needs. This can mean failure in fully addressing consumer disadvantage, discrimination and detriment.

The NCF supports the aims of ‘better regulation’ provided there is an effective legislative framework within which business and consumer needs are properly recognised and balanced.

Patients are consumers too….

The carer looked at me over the top of her glasses.  ‘I’m really sorry,’ she said ‘but we can’t help you.’  I looked at her in disbelief.  This was a private care agency, they had the capacity, I had the money, we needed help, what was the problem?
‘Your mother needs a proper assessment,’ she explained.  ‘She may have broken something.’  Something was indeed very wrong.  Over the last few days, Mum had deteriorated from being able to get up and down stairs – if slowly – to not being able to get out of bed without help.

I started with what I thought was the most sensible option, our GP.  Everyone in staff training.  ‘Call 111’ said the carer, ‘I’ll wait and speak to them.’  111 was duly called, the carer explained the problem and paramedics were next to arrive.  They diagnosed a broken pelvis.  ‘We could take her to hospital for an x-ray so at least you’d know what you’re up against, but there’s no cure…’

But I couldn’t move her and even private carers wouldn’t help without an assessment, so our next stop was Accident and Emergency.
A&E meant a corridor trolley wait, then, still on the trolley (no pillow, only a thin blanket), an overnight stay in a side bay and finally, the next d ay into an A&E annexe, which at least had a proper bed.

The next morning, I found Mum frail, dehydrated and incoherent, but nevertheless dosed up with morphine for the primary purpose of being able to ‘prove’ to the discharge co-ordinator that she could walk from her bed to the toilet and could therefore go home, avoiding the need for admission and a ‘proper assessment’ of her care needs.   One can only imagine the risk this posed – of making her fracture worse; of falling, or of creating further fractures.  I caught the eye of the nurse making up the bed next to Mum’s.  She rolled her eyes and whispered ‘it’s not right. I’ve told them, but…’

What can you do?  It’s a good question.  We’re told that it’s the fault variously of the GPs, the hospital management, and the patients who insist on coming to A&E but don’t need to be there.  It’s also said that we spend less than our European neighbours on healthcare, demand is rising, yet budgets are falling in real terms.

The Kings Fund has said that with NHS finances almost at breaking point, the system turns to deflection, delay, denial, selection, deterrence and dilution to cope, all of which impact on service users, or those who would use the service if only they could access it.
Mike Adamson, CEO of the Red Cross, was recently criticised for describing the NHS as a humanitarian crisis.  It may not be a war zone as such, but to the patients trapped inside and those who love them, it can sometimes feel like one.

The NHS may be free at the point of delivery but we all pay for it through our taxes.  Perhaps we do need to be paying more, but patients are consumers too and they deserve better.