Banking Ombudsman Deborah Battell steps down at the end of this month after six years helping to resolve disputes between banks and their customers.

She shares her insights on where things can go wrong...

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Failing to ask the right questions

The kind of cases that come through the door of the Banking Ombudsman are ones where a customer has already complained to their bank and has been left unsatisfied by its response.

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Battell says a lot can come down to the quality of conversations and information that has gone between the bank and its customer and the questions and assumptions people make.

Her efforts have spurred an increase in enquiries from the public - up 100 per cent over the last two years - particularly driven through its website.

The ombudsman received 3250 cases in the last reported financial year (2013/14) - a 7.2 per cent increase on the previous year.

Of the big four banks, more disputes were completed with ANZ (257) than any other.

Westpac followed with 138, followed by ASB Bank (111) and BNZ (100).

At the same time complaint numbers - where people lodge an official complaint against their bank - have come down.

Disputes - where there has been a complete break-down between the bank and its customer - have remained stable, Battell says.

Battell says that is a good thing as it suggests banks are continuing to remind people they can use the service if they are not happy with the outcome of any problem they have had with a customer.

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"You would be surprised how many things can go wrong and how much people need to know in a banking relationship."

When things go wrong it then comes down to how problems are handled.

"Has the bank become entrenched, has it become emotional or has the customer become entrenched and unconstructive in the way they approach the complaint."

If it is handled poorly the situation can then snowball.

Deborah Battell, Banking Ombudsman
Deborah Battell, Banking Ombudsman

Battell says part of the problem is that people don't know the right questions to ask.

She says getting advice from a trusted source is key.

"People need to get some independent advice from someone they trust and whose knowledge is reasonable."

Don't assume the bank will manage your money for you

Battell says people often have misaligned expectations of what a bank will do for them.

"Some people are under the misapprehension that banks will manage their money for them.

"They expect a bank to move their money to an account where they will get a better rate of interest or they expect banks to do due diligence on a business deal.

"Banks are a business. If they lend you money they expect to get it back on the terms you signed up for."

She says banks do work hard to help people to repay their loans and at the same time people do try and repay them but banks aren't a charity.

Waiting can make it worse

Battell believes one of the biggest problems is that issues are not dealt with sooner leaving people's financial positions to deteriorate.

"That is part of dealing with the human factor. They are terribly frightened of the position they are in."

She says sometimes situations are so overwhelming people don't know how to deal with it and are paralysed.

"I think what we are often dealing with is people that are paralysed."

For those people there is often not much the ombudsman can do to help.

"They will often not like what we have to say because ultimately they are looking for a way out of their situation and we may not be able to provide that solution - having their debt written off or stopping a mortgagee sale."