How to complain effectively

Sunday is International Consumer Rights Day, so we’ve asked customer complaints expert Charlotte Dunleavy to give us the lowdown on what happens when things go wrong.


There is an issue Gatwick Airport spend more than £8,000 a month resolving. What is it? Customer service.

In a customer service survey commissioned by Which?, John Lewis and Lush sat at the top of a 100-company list while Easyjet was at the bottom.

If you study the list you quickly begin to see patterns forming with banks and airlines clustering together. Most companies employ a team of people to deal solely with matters relating to complaints, rectifying errors, convincing customers to stay and spending (often vast amounts of) money to compensate mistakes. But what can you realistically achieve by making a complaint? What grounds warrant a complaint and how do you best set out doing it? Here are some tips.

Be Polite.

That’s easy to say when you’ve taken time out of your day to wait in for a delivery that fails to turn up. It’s also easy to become irate, demanding, critical and unreasonable. If you are angry and it becomes clear that nothing is going to change, leave it a day and call or write when you are calmer. The best starting point is to get names, dates, times and, as far as possible, any agreements in writing from the company involved.

By way of example, picture the following scene. There are nine adults and four children going for a meal. You go to a reputable chain and are unable to pre-book as such but have called ahead to explain. You are seated in three separate groups within the same area, unable to converse with the whole group.

The food is all ordered at the same time but comes out so irregularly that some finish their main course before others have been served. A rare steak is blackened and the chicken with sweet and sour sauce turns into a Caesar salad as the better alternative is no longer available.

I sent in a polite-but-firm and highly detailed explanation of the restaurant’s failings and 24 hours later I had a call from the area manager and a £50 gift voucher waiting to be collected.

Be Realistic.

If a complaint becomes necessary, be realistic about your expectations. If a delivery was an hour late you can’t expect compensation to run into a full day’s wage no matter how valuable you believe your time to be.

Last week I was expecting a fridge to be delivered on a two-man delivery. When it arrived the driver was alone and had to be helped by my partner to remove it from the van and carry it up the stairs to our flat. I called the company involved and explained that I found this unfair to the driver as well as to my partner. I was polite and constructive in my criticism and was immediately refunded the £25 delivery charge.

Not all companies will give financial compensation as some consider an apology to be enough. If you can prove out-of-pocket expenses you can request that the company refund these but they may be in the form of a credit to your customer account rather than physical cash.

Know Your Rights.

Be aware of the distance selling regulations which give you a 14-day cooling off period in which to change your mind if a sale is made by phone. Sales people will often catch you off guard; ringing or visiting when you are busy. Even if you do sign up you are entitled to cancellation.

Keep It Local.

My partner recently issued a cheque and realised if it was cashed when it arrived with the vendor it would bounce unless they waited an extra day.

He contacted his local branch of his bank and asked if they could help. They said they would dishonour it and suggested it be re-presented as this would avoid charges. But  oh dear  when he checked his statement they had not carried this out and he had a bank charge of £35.

The bank told me that if I put my complaint in writing to their branch rather than head office they would deal with it. I suggested to my partner that if he got all or part of the charge back he could take me out for dinner to thank me for fixing it. A week later he called and asked where I wanted to go for dinner. I assumed he’d got the £35 back but no, he’d got back £380: every penny he’d ever paid in charges in the 10 years that he’d had the account.

Take it Further.

It’s important to remember that companies want happy customers, not complaints. They have a need, as a business, to retain you. They may also have governing bodies such as FSA or ATOL that they are also answerable to.

The best advice for these varies by company type but a brief guide would be as follows.

Banks: put it in writing to head office. If after the stated time-frame of six weeks there isn’t a resolution you should then ask for an ombudsman letter. This simply states that they have not been able to resolve your complaint for you. The Financial Services Authority then have eight weeks to resolve it.

If your complaint is with any utilities company ask for a resolution letter and pass the details to OFGEM who ask for up to 10 weeks to resolve an issue. In case of telecoms, ask for a deadlock letter to pass on.

Vote With Your Feet.

In terms of complaints there are particular companies that will never acknowledge their wrongdoing or compensate failings. If you are entirely dissatisfied with a company the best advice I can give you is to exercise your right to choose, research the alternatives and vote with your feet.

However, do ensure an alternative is set in place (i.e a new phone provider or bank) before you cancel your current service; if that goes wrong you have no grounds for complaint.

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Written by Charlotte Dunleavy

Charlotte Dunleavy runs Complaint Success. You can contact her on [email protected]