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It's time for industry to think like consumers

3 Sep 2018

by Derek Mitchell, CAS Chief Executive

(This article first appeared in the Sunday Herald on 26 August 2018)

In my column here a few weeks ago I described my own experience of being a consumer let down by an airline company. As I explained then, it was a timely reminder not just of how disruptive and inconvenient such a let-down can be, but of how hard it can be in the moment for consumers to know what their rights are and how to seek redress.

While industries and service providers focus solely on their own fields, as consumers we use and are affected by different services at the same time on any given day. Such as taking a shower: we’re using both water and energy. Or setting off for the morning commute to work: we hope our train will be on time and that we have access to wifi (and coffee) to finish that all-important report we need for a 9am meeting. We are all dependent on services working seamlessly for us to support our busy and complex lives. So when things go wrong, what can we do?

Consumers need to be both aware of their rights and also confident enough to stand up for them. That’s why it’s critical for organisations like Citizens Advice Scotland and our wider CAB network to continue informing people of their rights, to work with public and private industries to represent the best interests of citizens, and where necessary, to push for improvements to the services they rely on.

Earlier this year we surveyed 40 of the companies that provide services across the three big regulated industries in Scotland: water, energy and post. We wanted to identify what frameworks these companies use, beyond claims or ‘box ticking’, to a public commitment to embed the interests of real people at the heart of their policy and practice. Though our findings suggested that some progress has been made towards being focused on what people really need, it was equally clear to us that more needs to be done.

So how do we change this, and ensure that service providers effectively support our busy lives to the standards that we all need?

At Citizens Advice Scotland we use a set of seven, internationally-recognised consumer focused principles (access, choice, safety, information, fairness, representation, redress). They help us assess new and existing policies and practices, and raise anything that may cause problems for consumers. We want to encourage every industry, service and business to use tools like these principles, to move away from thinking ABOUT consumers, and toward thinking LIKE consumers. That’s the real key to making sure services meet the needs of real people in a meaningful way.

Of course we recognise there are limits to a ‘one size fits all’ set of principles – the actual frameworks used could be tailored to fit the unique situations and circumstances that characterise each sector. But although these principles aren’t a silver bullet, they are a robust tool that could be essential to improving life for everyone in Scotland.

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