Sam Dunn: Let's hear it for the new breed of super moaners

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The Independent Online

Griping is stepping up a gear. "Supercomplaints" - the official mammoth moans lodged by consumer bodies to regulators on behalf of customers fed up with lousy service and poor value - are all the rage.

Energywatch, a consumer watchdog for gas and electricity, filed such a complaint to Ofgem on Wednesday, lambasting bill miscalculations and overestimates, and demanding an overhaul.

Two days earlier, the National Consumer Council publicly threatened to make its own complaint over risible service and standards from mechanics and garages. Whispers abound too that a brace of supercomplaints are soon to land on the Office of Fair Trading's doormat, possibly from the healthcare sector.

Supercomplaints were introduced three years ago thanks to the Enterprise Act 2002. They give consumer bodies a chance to grab the regulator's attention and force a spotlight to be trained on a particular problem.

And this isn't just a half-hearted exercise in pricking an industry's conscience. In each case, a mountain of evidence is needed, with clearcut examples of mis-practice threaded right across a given sector.

Until last week, six super-complaints had been lodged, and these have either been resolved or remain under investigation.

Consumer body Which? has been busiest, filing three on private dentistry charges, care-home choice and fees, and banking competition in Northern Ireland.

The Citizens Advice Bureau asked for a probe into doorstep selling, and the National Consumer Council requested one into "home credit" deals, where individuals offer loans to those excluded from high-street credit deals, at extortionate annual percentage rates (APRs) as high as 100 per cent.

The Postwatch watchdog also filed a complaint on behalf of businesses over competition in the mail sector.

Supercomplaints can expose bad practice, force industries to address their faults and strengthen the consumer's hand - for example, bringing greater fee transparency to the lucrative world of private dentistry.

If there was ever proof needed that moaning works, here it is. It's about time that industries realised what a menace the consumer can be.

In the past, much fun was made of (and money made out of) the great British social reserve and, when faced with a raw deal, our unwillingness to make a scene.

Thankfully, this stereotype has been stripped of its accuracy. Indeed, consumer bodies wouldn't have the clout they do without its demise.

What lies behind this cultural change - a probable mix of greater materialism, the rise of a "me first" social attitude and greater national confidence - is almost immaterial here.

What counts is that millions of consumers no longer accept anything less than value for money.

Yet this generally accepted tenet of good business practice - put the customer first - has sadly still to be grasped by too many companies.

Of course, no customer expects flawless service every time they step into a store or car workshop; as a rule, people don't mind mistakes. But it's when they're not handled properly that the misery begins and resentment builds up.

And unchecked, it can lead all the way to a super- complaint.

Of course, we shouldn't really be celebrating a burgeoning complaints culture in the first place, but things are getting better.

If you're not happy with what you've got for your money, have a (polite but firm) go: it's making a massive difference.

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