Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

October 11, 2013

Fightin’ Words on Consumer Complaints

By David Reiss

Deloitte has issued a report, CFPB’s Consumer Complaint Database: Analysis Reveals Valuable Insights, that provides valuable — but superficial insights — into the CFPB’s massive database of consumer complaints.

Deloitte’s main insights are

  • Troubled mortgages are behind the majority of the complaints – a growing trend
  • Customer misunderstanding may create more complaints than financial institution error
  • Affluent, established neighborhoods were more likely sources of complaints
  • Complaint resolution times have improved (2)

As to the second insight — customer misunderstanding may create more complaints than financial institution error — Deloitte notes that

Financial institutions have a number of options for resolving consumer complaints. They can close a complaint in favor of the consumer by offering monetary or non-monetary relief, or they can close the complaint not in favor of the consumer, perhaps providing only an explanation. The percentage of complaints closed in favor of consumers declined during the analysis period, falling from 30.9 percent in June 2012 to 18.0 percent in April 2013,6 a trend that was reflected in the monthly complaint [resolutions] for all products. (4)

The report continues, “In spite of fewer complaints closed with relief, consumers have been disputing fewer resolutions. In aggregate, the percentage of resolutions that were disputed fell from a peak of 27.9 percent in January 2012 to 18.6 percent in January 2013.” (5) Deloitte finds that “the data suggests that many complaints may be the result of customer misunderstanding or frustration rather than actual mistakes or operational errors by financial institutions.” (5)

This conclusion seems like a big leap from the data that Deloitte has presented. I can imagine many alternative explanations for the decrease in disputes other than customer misunderstanding. For instance,

  • the consumer does not see a reasonable likelihood of a favorable resolution and abandons the complaint
  • the financial institution can point to a written policy that supports its position even if the consumer complaint had a valid basis, given the actions of the institution’s employees in a particular case
  • in the case of a mortgage complaint, the consumer is moving toward a favorable or unfavorable resolution of the issue with the financial institution on another track (e.g., HAMP, judicial foreclosure)

To be clear, I am not saying that customer misunderstanding plays an insignificant role in customer complaints.  Nor am I saying that the reasons I propose are the real reasons that that complaints do not proceed further. I am only saying that Deloitte has not presented sufficient evidence to support its claim that “customer misunderstanding may create more complaints than financial institution error.” Given that these are fightin’ words in the context of consumer protection, I would think that Deloitte would choose its words more carefully.



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