Kick up a stink

Feeling sore about bad service? Then don't be so British - complain

The British are notoriously bad at complaining. In-stead of voicing dissatisfaction, we would rather not make a fuss.

The British are notoriously bad at complaining. In-stead of voicing dissatisfaction, we would rather not make a fuss.

Of course, we all know someone who does enough complaining for all of us just for the sake of it. But complaints are fully justified when a bottle of expensive wine in a restaurant is corked, or your insurance premium has been increased without warning. It isn't just important to complain from the consumer's point of view; how else can restaurant owners, bank managers or ombudsmen identify weaknesses to be rectified?

A survey from Which?, the consumer watchdog, reveals that one in five people does not bother to complain. Of those that do one in three gives up if the first attempt fails to secure a satisfactory resolution.

If you feel a complaint is warranted, it is worth persevering until you obtain satisfaction. What that means differs according to complainants: you may only require an apology, or want a refund or even compensation.

The nature of complaints is so diverse that it can be confusing knowing how to go about it.

The initial procedure remains the same whether it be a consumer or financial complaint: approach the company, bank, shop or restaurant. If you have a straightforward complaint - a jumper that shrank even though you followed the washing instructions, or a faulty toaster - the matter should be resolved fairly simply. Refunds or exchanges are not queried by most retail outlets. It may be worth checking the returns policy as the shop might set a deadline. Most stores allow the return of faulty goods "within a reasonable length of time". It depends on the product: you have longer to return a television or a stereo system than underwear or food.

If the initial complaint does not produce a satisfactory result, contact the head office. It is better to write a letter, as you can keep a copy and have a record of your complaint. If you telephone the head office, note down the details of the conversation and to whom you spoke.

If you are unsure where you stand, it might be worth contacting the Citizens' Advice Bureau, which will be able to clear up any queries. But be warned, getting advice from the CAB is not as simple as it sounds. As bureaux are locally funded and managed, many have limited trading hours and, even when they are open, telephone lines seem to be constantly engaged. They do have a website however, which provides a good starting point.

Complaining about a broken computer, a poor-quality jumper or a holiday from hell is straightforward compared with getting satisfaction from a bank or building society. If your approach to the bank manager does not bring a proper conclusion to your complaint, the next step is to contact the relevant ombudsman. But with eight different ones, plus other channels through which your complaint can be processed, it can be confusing.

The Financial Services Authority (FSA) has a helpline for consumers who are unsure about who to complain to. It is not difficult to get confused. If there is a problem with an investment, you will need to contact the Investment Ombudsman. But if it is your mortgage, it is the Mortgage Code Arbitration Service that can help - or is it? It may, in fact, be the Office of the Banking Ombudsman that you require or, if not, the Office of the Building Societies Ombudsman. When complaining gets as complicated as this, it is not surprising that so many of us are put off. Luckily, the situation is set to become less confusing as the eight ombudsmen merge into one body in November, which will be known as the Financial Ombudsman Service.

"Complaining has to be made easier," says David Cresswell, a spokesperson for the FSA. "The new Financial Ombudsman Service will be more than the sum of its parts and it looks as though it will be the biggest ombudsman service in the world. It will cover every aspect of financial services from general insurance to stockbroking to cashpoint machines."

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