By Samantha Hargreaves, Financial Ombudsman Service

In the last six months of 2014 alone, over 161,000 people were so fed up with the way they’d been treated by a financial business that they brought a complaint to the ombudsman service. Around five times as many people called us to ask a question or for some help in dealing with a problem. But what pushed these people from being unhappy with a business to actually making a complaint about it? When did their problem stop being one that they’d simply share with friends, family and social media and become something that evolved into that big, time-consuming word “a complaint”?

A friend recently told me about an experience she’d had with her mobile phone provider. She’d been having a bit of trouble with her phone, and even though it seemed to sort itself out after a couple of days, she rang the company to find out what had happened. She wanted to be able to stop it happening again.

But try as she might, she just couldn’t get the person on the helpline to appreciate her problem. She was repeatedly offered £50 compensation – when what she really wanted was an explanation. Ultimately, she went away feeling more bewildered than she had been before she called. And she still had no idea why her phone had been playing up.

For my friend, the consequences weren’t serious in the grand scheme of things. But at the time, it was incredibly frustrating – she felt really fobbed off and it turned what should have been a quick chat with the business into a full blown complaint that took much longer to get to the bottom of than it should’ve done.

For me, this is where a lot of the problems lie – simply not listening. Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens far too commonly within the financial services industry as well. Confusion instead of clarity – or “fobbing-off” – continues to drive what often starts out as a relatively simple problem into a complaint.

But does this always have to be the case? Well, in many problems we step into – across the range of issues we cover – we identify a straightforward solution, which should have been clear to the business early on. This could be something as simple as dealing with the consumer by letter rather than by phone. Yet because of concerns about “compliance” – or because they weren’t really listening to what the customer was unhappy about – the business wasn’t able to reach the solution at the time.

All too often we see a business applying a one size fits all approach, assuming that they know exactly what the consumer is unhappy about, based on previous experience of dealing with customer complaints and following the “usual protocol” for dealing with what they think the problem is. This might involve throwing £50 at the problem when all the customer really wants is to understand what went wrong in the first place. Crossed wires and miscommunication have a lot to answer for in that respect.

Taking a step back from the bureaucracy or any personal prejudice and taking the time to listen to customers could help not only understand what the problem actually is but also means that something can be done about it at a much earlier stage. It would be great to see cases dealt with before they escalate, before communication breaks down and before the ombudsman has to get involved. And who wouldn’t agree that dealing with a problem in two phone calls across a day or two, would be much nicer than several weeks, numerous calls, a lot of hold music and several letters back and forth.

There’s an onus on both sides as well, as customers have to be clear with businesses what the problem is and what they want doing about it. Not being focused in your conversations with the business, or expecting it to do something unreasonable, will only serve to speed up the breakdown in communication and turn a problem into a complaint.

Having trouble with your bank and wondering whether you should be leaving a complaint? Take a look at our public complaints pages:

Allianz complaints

Aviva complaints

American Express complaints

Bank of Scotland complaints

Barclays complaints

Capital One complaints

Citibank complaints

Cyldesdale Bank complaints

Co-operative Bank complaints

Direct Line complaints

HSBC complaints

Lloyds Bank complaints

MBNA complaints

Nationwide complaints

NatWest complaints

RBS complaints

Saga complaints

Sainsbury's Bank complaints

Santander complaints

Tesco Bank complaints

TSB complaints

Wonga complaints

Work in complaints? Check out our Complaints Summit, happening in September 2017 in London.