Mis-sold? Mistreated? Misled? How to make sure your complaint is heard

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Have you recently made a complaint about sloppy service, a product that did not come up to your expectations, or a misleading advert?

If not, and you think you have good cause, you ought to ask yourself why not. Because, it seems, everybody else is.

Britain appears to be a nation of complaining consumers, and the ear-bashings show no sign of abating.

Last week, the Banking Code Standards Board (BCSB) revealed that it received 3,500 complaints in 2005, a 50 per cent rise on the previous 12 months. Penalties and excessive charges were the most common grievances, followed by fears of fraud.

Complaints made during 2005-06 to the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS), which investigates on behalf of dissatisfied consumers, are expected to reach a record 115,000. Here, endowment policies produced by far the most complaints (70,000), followed by protection policies such as critical illness cover (14,000).

What companies try to tell us about their products is also making many people see red. Last month, the Advertising Standards Authority revealed that some 26,236 complaints were made about 11,865 ads in 2005 - up by 16 per cent on 2004.

But rather than blame this situation on falling standards, many in the financial services industry see it as a result of consumers' greater awareness of the complaints process. Given the many scandals that have buffeted the industry in the past few years, this is perhaps no surprise.

The downside for individuals is that it's getting harder to be heard above the din of voices - particularly if they are seeking compensation. Hundreds of thousands of people write to companies only to be fobbed off with curt letters that either dismiss their complaint outright or leave them trawling laboriously from one department to another.

Tellingly, the BCSB's fifth most common complaint was about complaints-handling itself.

Sadly, it's often only dogged persistence or the threat of legal action or exposure in newspapers such as this one that yields results. To increase your chances of getting swift action, the golden rule is always to keep written records of each contact. If you phone a company or organisation, always ask for names and numbers, make a note of the day and time you called - and follow up with a letter. It may sound a chore but it will allow you to track the progress of your complaint- and rebuff companies' oft-heard claim that there's no record of your call.

Never send an original document through the post - only photocopies - and never lose your temper. When staff are unhelpful, ask to speak to a senior manager - preferably at head office rather than at a branch.

Thanks to the internet, there is now a great deal of help for anyone wishing to take up cudgels against a company. The government-funded Consumer Direct service (see right) offers advice on making almost any type of complaint, including templates for letters.

With manufactured goods, you have the law on your side: products must be free of defects, fit for the purpose and in a satisfactory condition. If you get nowhere with the company concerned, try calling your local trading standards office or Citizens Advice Bureau; the former can close down bad apples.

Failing that, you have recourse to the small claims court for redress of up to £5,000. You will have to pay a small fee (around £80 depending on the size of your complaint) which can be claimed back if you win - but be prepared for a potentially drawn-out process.

The consumer body Which? also offers a legal advice service costing £51 a year for the individual consumer.

With mis-sold financial products, any complaints must first be directed to the company from which you bought them before recourse to the FOS. Here, the rule is never to give up - persistence has recently forced large companies such as Abbey to pay compensation, after a large number of people complained about their rejected endowment claims.

If you're owed money and the guilty company has gone under, the Financial Services Compensation Scheme can offer up to £48,000 compensation.

Contacts: financial-ombudsman.org.uk; consumerdirect.gov.uk; adviceguide.org.uk, fscs.org.uk

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