Rebecca Marsh has today taken up the role of Ombudsman at The Property Ombudsman, taking over from her predecessor Katrine Sporle CBE, whose five-year contract came to an end last Friday.
Marsh was previously chief ombudsman at the Legal Ombudsman and was also the deputy ombudsman and executive director of operations and investigations at the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman.
She brings an extensive range of senior level experience and understanding of complaint handling and investigation spanning 17 years, and so how is she planning to use her new role to influence stakeholders and raise standards in the property industry?
To help us understand more about her vision, Marsh has taken time out of her busy schedule to talk exclusively to Property Industry Eye about the new new role she starts today.
How will your previous experience help you in your new role at TPO?
Professionally, I am an Ombudsman – but the largest area of complaint at the Legal Ombudsman, my previous organisation, was in conveyancing and property related matters, especially leasehold, so I have real insight into issues in the sector. The issues and challenges the sector faces are sufficiently well known to me and what actually enticed me to the role in the first place.
Whilst my key strength is driving sector improvement, over my career I have run successful commercial organisations, worked in local government – indeed on strategic planning issues and economic development – and in regulation, so the landscape is familiar to me from so many perspectives.
On a personal level, at various times in my life I have been a tenant, a landlord, purchased property with residential leasehold management and naturally bought and sold houses on numerous occasions – indeed I am currently selling my parents’ home for them!
With my wider experience and the standards and regulation agenda that flows from ROPA, I am confident that I can add value, as well as a new perspective to the work that is underway.
Having previously overseen complaints against a range of industries, including the nuclear, police and health sectors, how do you think property will compare?
Property is the first unregulated sector for me, although I know that Trading Standards colleagues would remind us it is not entirely unregulated. It is not the first commercial sector, nor indeed the first professional sector I have worked in though; nuclear and legal services are both profit driven, not state or public services.
Working in heavily regulated sectors, you can see the commercial advantages of effective regulation and redress in both confidence and competitive fairness, as well as the difficulties when they are not effective, outcome focussed or driven by risk.
The property sector has professional people in it who operate in accordance with standards and good practice. I suspect it will be the divide with those that do not that creates a less than level competitive playing field for agents that will be notable.
With more sales and letting agent branches than ever before now signed up to redress schemes, how has the TPO adapted to ensure agents are able to access the service and have their disputes resolved?
There has always been a misconception that agents can access TPO to raise complaints against other agents. TPO is approved by Government as a consumer ombudsman scheme and our role is to resolve consumer complaints. When we receive complaints from agents about other agents, we will always signpost them to the appropriate body, such as the National Trading Standards Estate Agency Team.
However, if the question is how do we intend to continue to provide a good ombudsman service for TPO members, then the answer is in the same way as any other good business. We understand what is needed in effective redress and we constantly scan for opportunities to improve ourselves. We speak to complainants and agents, ask about their experience and use feedback, including any complaints, to improve how we deliver our service.
It is also a good question to ask when considered against a backdrop of a global pandemic! When lockdown happened TPO was able to move to remote working with almost no loss of service within 24 hours. Unfortunately, the impacts we saw related more to furloughed agents and practicalities around agents access to physical files more than any issues with our ways of working. We saw a drop off, as did all ombudsmen, in the numbers of enquiries in the early days of the pandemic, but they did not translate into a reduction in our resolution and adjudication work. In fact, we are seeing a continuing increase in that work over time. We also anticipate pandemic issues, such as complaints regarding virtual viewing and delays or communication failures, to begin to hit the system now.
Whilst I appreciate that people are keen to earn what they can as the market has picked up, in advance of any further impacts, I would encourage agents not to lose sight of the need to deal effectively and quickly with complaints – our tools and support products (such as our codes and complaint handling toolkits) are available to help agents and it will save them time, resources and energy in the long run.
Do you think the government will implement Lord Best’s RoPA report, which recommends a single regulator for the whole property industry?
When you consider the challenges in the sector, both those now and those coming down the line, industry and consumer groups all feel the need for a regulator – it seems the ideal time for Government to consider the practical steps for moving forwards. The level of expectation on the property sector to support economic recovery, whilst also dealing with the impacts of recession, means clarity, transparency and a level playing field are more important than ever for agents.
A sector regulator is arguably long overdue. The sector itself has been calling for this for many years and Lord Best’s report sets out very comprehensively how this can be implemented to the benefit of the industry and its consumers. I appreciate that at this time dealing with Covid is the priority and this means the recommendations in the RoPA report are not at the top of the Government’s ‘to do’ list. This is why the Government has yet to officially respond to the report. However, with ongoing initiatives such as the RoPA Code Steering Group, the report and its recommendations will remain on the table for some time to come and we will continue to support and work with the sector and others to take this forward.
What are your views on the idea of a single regulator that oversees the provision of redress?
At present TPO is approved by no less than three different bodies to provide redress. This involves multiple reporting, audits and other actions which could be simplified if there was a single regulator that oversaw us. However, you will be unsurprised to hear that from my experience as an Ombudsman that I believe, and the evidence supports, the fact that independence adds value for state and for the sector, particularly in generating higher degrees of public and consumer trust and confidence.
Do you think a single, mandatory and legally-enforceable Code of Practice for property agents will lead to a reduction in consumer complaints?
Yes. The value of operating Codes of Practice is one which is not lost on TPO. If the following of a code was a mandatory requirement to obtain a licence to practice, then it follows that a licence could be revoked if that Code of Practice was not adhered to. The effect of this would be greater compliance and, by association, a longer-term reduction in consumer complaints.
It would also mean that learning from those complaints that did escalate would be more focussed and be quicker at identifying those system wide issues that impact consumer confidence in the sector, including issues with regulatory frameworks.
What can be done to improve relations and reduce disputes between agents and consumers?
Understanding customer expectations is perfectly summed up by this quote from the ex-vice president of British Airways, Donald Porter “Customers don’t expect you to be perfect. They do expect you to fix things when they go wrong.”
Being honest about when things go wrong, addressing the issues quickly and taking steps to stop the issue happening again will improve trust and confidence. Furthermore, when you consider that studies show that around 75% of consumers would be likely to return to a company if a complaint had been well handled, there is likely to be significant benefits to the agent in the form of reputation and repeat business.
It is understandable that agents can sometimes take complaints personally, as they often have direct relationships with the consumer and things can get emotive. However, the best advice is to try to diffuse the emotion and understand what triggered the complaint. Even if you think someone is unreasonable, seek to understand what is driving them so you can work out how you can avoid the situation arising again – it will make your life easier going forwards.
What is your message to agents?
It is always “embrace complaints”. They are free customer insight – into both your customers themselves and into your service and they can make life easier and businesses more profitable in the future.
Remember, property is emotive so you will deal with the whole range of human behaviour. Be prepared for it and prepare your service to deal with it, as it is your market. We as humans are territorial and naturally our homes are vital to us, so whilst property is your job, when there is an issue, for most consumers it will be a really big issue.
And finally, remember that you don’t have to agree with the other party, but take the time to listen and make them feel heard and life will become simpler.