Jeff Salway: Companies cut links with offline customers

A NUMBER of recurring themes emerge from the letters I get from readers, whether they’re complaining about shabby treatment or seeking a little help with their finances.

But nothing crops up more than the chronic inability of financial services companies to communicate properly with their customers.

Life and pensions firms – for they are typically the biggest culprits – have no idea how to demystify their world for customers. Instead they confuse, befuddle and bemuse.

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And it’s getting worse. In their haste to cut costs and move with the times, finance companies, energy suppliers and telecoms providers are now abandoning entire channels of communication, leaving large numbers of customers at a disadvantage.

The most obvious example is the increasingly exclusive use of online billing and statements and the practice of charging extra for paper communications, according to the Keep Me Posted campaign.

Many organisations are trying to phase out paper bills and statements altogether, using environmental responsibility as an excuse to cut costs at the expense of customers.

But more than three-quarters of Scots believe it’s unreasonable to have to pay for paper statements, according to new research by Keep Me Posted. More than a fifth of Scots deal only by post, the highest proportion in the UK, while more than a third prefer paper statements because they’re easier to view.

There’s no doubt that online banking has improved matters for many of us, making it easier to keep tabs on our cash and carry out transactions as and when we want.

Yet online access is far from universal. Some seven million UK households have never used the internet, according to the Office for National Statistics. That proportion increases among pensioners, and women in particular. Three in ten men and four in ten women aged 65 to 74 have never used the internet – percentages that climb rapidly again over 75.

For many organisations those people might as well not exist. In financial services it can be a matter of life and death. That’s no exaggeration: have you seen how much more expensive energy bills are for those who can’t take out online tariffs?

The research comes amid fears over the implications of the government’s bid to get more benefit applications online. Citizens Advice Scotland found that more than three-quarters of clients who are benefits claimants would lose out on benefits because they would struggle to apply online.

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But there’s nothing to stop companies from removing entire channels of communication. There’s virtually no protection for consumers left high and dry when a company refuses to send them paper bills and statements, even if they have no internet access.

This isn’t about being anti-progress and technology. It’s about choice and rights and not penalising people who through no fault of their own are excluded from a world that so many of us take for granted.