For a swan-song after nine years as an ombudsman, Christopher Hamer of the Property Ombudsman Scheme could hardly have asked for a better send-off than this week’s TPO Conference.
The brand-new, slickly-organised event attracted nearly 400 delegates to the superb conference facilities of the National Motorcycle Museum at Solihull in the West Midlands.
The theme of the conference was ‘Raise your standards’ and a succession of excellent speakers, introduced by skillful conference host Tim Wakelin, gave insights into dealing with legislation, adhering to regulations, and handling consumer complaints if things go wrong.
TPO chairman Bill McClintock opened proceedings and noted the increase in workload for the organisation. In 2007 when Chris Hamer became ombudsman there were 16 staff; today there are 75. The increase has been necessary to deal with the widening remit of TPO including, significantly, lettings.
Leon Livermore, chief executive of the Trading Standards Institute, gave an overview of TS work which has to deliver on over 250 different pieces of legislation. He advocated that agents use the ‘Mum test’ to judge their standards. Would they recommend a firm to their mum?
Presentations from Peter Stonely on the Consumer Rights Act, and James Munro, team leader of the National Trading Standards estate agency team, widened the overview of what was described by one speaker as ‘a tsunami of legislation’ affecting the property industry and market.
Stonely presented some worrying figures concerning an apparent lack of compliance by agents (see separate story today) and Munro highlighted that agents appear to have difficulty in understanding, and therefore complying, with disclosure of information about ‘connected persons’.
A highlight of the day was the opportunity for delegates to ‘become the ombudsman’ for an hour as the conference broke up into separate rooms to deliberate and rule on compensation in real-life example cases of consumer complaints in lettings and in sales.
There was lively discussion on the merits (or lack of merit!) in the individual cases and some of the actual ombudsman decisions caused some surprise. It would be fair to say that agents ‘at the sharp end’ took a slightly different view to the ombudsman on what was a fair settlement.
Chris Hamer led us to the lunch break by providing details of how agents can protect themselves against seeing a complaint escalate out of control.
Keep good records, communicate clearly (and not by writing to a complainant that ‘Your attitude stinks’ which is what one agent actually did), deal with the dissatisfaction. 74% of complainants would be satisfied if only their problem was dealt with. 44% would be satisfied with a simple apology. Only 27% go looking for compensation.
In previous conference reports I have been picked up for not detailing the catering arrangements. Therefore I am pleased to report that the chicken in a piquant sauce, served on a bed of perfectly cooked rice with fluffy and separate grains, was delicious. The dessert of a large slab of fruit-filled and iced cake dealt with any remaining hunger pangs.
The afternoon session got off to a lively start with the irrepressible Kate Faulkner presenting on ‘Agents under attack’ and exhorting agents to make more of the good things that they do so as to improve perceptions of the industry. ‘Be bold, be proud – you really do a good job – and tell everybody!’
Andrew Bulmer from RICS spoke on the application of industry standards in the UK and abroad and suggested that in the face of increasing penalties for transgressions, firms must ‘de-risk’ by making sure that protocols are followed.
Motivational speaker Guy Browning proved a huge hit with the audience and had the room in stitches with his tongue-in-cheek and very amusing presentation. Robert Bolwell from Dutton Gregory (always a fine source of tasty jelly beans) ran through the raft of new rules and regulations that are especially affecting lettings.
Mark Summers of conference sponsor Agency Pro detailed their compliance and case management system for complaints.
Then it was time for Chris Hamer to say his farewell to the delegates and to introduce the new ombudsman Katrine Sporle who takes up the role on November 1.
She pledged her commitment to the ombudsman service and warmly acknowledged the importance of the property industry which she described as ‘crucial to the country; those who live here and those who visit.’
And she complimented the work of the industry and delegates by saying: “I take my hat off to you.”
Gerry Fitzjohn of TPO closed the conference by paying tribute to Chris Hamer as ‘an outstanding ombudsman’ and delegates departed what by any standards had been a hugely successful event.