How to complain: From retailers to energy suppliers, it's easier than you think

When companies let us down, millions of us just take it on the chin. Simon Read shows how to make your voice heard
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The Independent Online

Fewer than half of all the problems we have with British businesses result in us making a complaint; instead we choose to suffer in silence. That's according to the annual Consumer Action Monitor published today by Ombudsman Services.

It reveals that the number of complaints made about products and services has almost doubled in the last 12 months to reach 66 million. But, shockingly, consumers have encountered a further 71 million problems – and chosen not to pursue them.

Why are so many issues simply ignored? The Independent talked to Lewis Shand Smith, the Chief Ombudsman, to find out. "The vast majority tell us that they think complaining is too much hassle – but it shouldn't be," he said. "People think it's going to take a lot of time and they're going to have to put a lot of effort into complaining – but that's not so.

"Companies have a regulatory responsibility to deal with complaints within eight weeks, and the ombudsman then has six weeks to deal with them, so it shouldn't take too long. If they're simple complaints, we can turn them around far more quickly – sometimes within 24 hours."

An examples of a simple complaint, he said, is when people get fed up with energy companies not providing up-to-date meter readings. "When those sorts of complaints reach us, we contact the energy company concerned and get them to respond within 24 hours, which they should easily be able to do."

Ombudsman Services looks after complaints in several areas, though it excludes the financial and legal industries. Over the last year, its research suggests that consumers have had the most issues with retailers.

There have been some 18.5 million complaints, split evenly between online and high street, but the total is twice as high as in the next most-complained about sector, telecoms.

The reason for this is probably that there's much more to complain about when shopping, with so many transactions taking place every day. It's easier, too, to complain about a product than a service.

The telecoms sector also provides plenty of causes for grievance, not least confusing charges. The same is true of the third most complained-about sector, energy.

While only 47 per cent of problems lead to complaints to the company concerned, more people are turning to social media to express their grievances. Around 20 million complaints have been made over the past year through Facebook, Twitter and consumer forums.

"I would encourage companies to pay attention to this growing trend," warned Mr Shand Smith. "Some ignore Twitter and social media, but they're ignoring real-time information about what people think of their company.

"We're learning to use Twitter to handle complaints and it can be very effective. For instance, we recently had someone in their 90s who had a complaint that was dealt with solely through Twitter and email."

The Chief Ombudsman has another message for businesses: "If a company handles a complaint really well, not only does the consumer think better of the company, but the consumer is more likely to complain again."

That's good news, he explained: "Getting more complaints is often a sign that a company is handling complaints well, because consumers think they will be dealt with properly. That's a much better outcome than people not bothering to complain and simply walking away, never to use that company again."

How can individuals become better complainers? "Consumers should make sure of their facts before starting a complaint," Mr Shand Smith advised. "If you're phoning to complain, know what you're going to say, have the facts in front of you, and know what outcome you want and state that clearly upfront ."

In short, keep things clear and simple. Tell a company what's gone wrong, offer some facts to back up your complaint, and tell them what you want them to do about it.

"Most crucially," says the Chief Ombudsman, "don't be fobbed off."

That's good advice.

Ombudsmen: Where to complain

If you have a complaint about a particular company that it hasn't resolved to your satisfaction, you can take your complaint to the relevant ombudsman.

However, you must have tried to resolve the issue with that company before moving on to the ombudsman, and you'll need to have evidence of doing so.

The Financial Ombudsman (for banks, insurers, and investment and finance firms can be contacted on 0800 023 4567 or at complaint.info@financial-ombudsman.org.uk.

The Legal Ombudsman (for complaints about lawyers) can be reached on 0300 555 0333 or at enquiries@legalombudsman.org.uk.

Ombudsman Services (for complaints about communications, energy or property firms) can be contacted on the following numbers:

Telecoms, 0330 440 1614; Energy, 0330 440 1624;  Property 0330 440 1634.

Or visit ombudsman-services.org.

The Property Ombudsman (for complaints about estate agents) is on 01722 333306.

For the Housing Ombudsman (for complaints about landlords and agents), call 0300 111 3000.

The Consumer Council for Water is on 0121 345 1000.

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