When an abject apology is not enough: Bad service won’t improve unless complainers keep up the pressure

Rudeness is never justified. Icy composure unnerves customer services staff far more


I wish to complain about Channel 4’s new series The Complainers, which began on Tuesday with an episode set in the complaints department of Transport for London. It was billed as a look at “a new breed of super-complainers”, so I switched on hoping for a how-to manual for people like me who want to learn how to complain better. Since  I am a serial protester against rubbish customer service, some people might call me a super-complainer. Others, I dare say, call me a bitch.

Channel 4, meanwhile, portrayed most of their super-complainers as … let’s say eccentrics, at best. Are complainers “on the make, taking advantage of companies during a vulnerable time?”, the programme notes asked. Are we heck! (As you must say to call-centre complaints handlers, who may be entitled to hang up if you swear.) It’s hardly taking advantage to request that terrible service and mistakes that cost the customer time and money should be compensated properly and swiftly corrected. 

Unfortunately, one huge multi-national with which I used to bank seems to have concluded that it is cheaper to pay compensation to every single customer who asks for it than it would be to employ enough trained staff to run the company in a way that didn’t provoke compensation requests in the first place. Therefore, the first rule of effective super-complaining is: if you think you deserve compensation, ask for it.

As well as rules, the complaints hand- ling team at TfL is evidently keen on acronyms. The super-complainer should also have some handy mnemonics, such as the good old management-speak advice about “SMART” targets: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-Based. It is definitely not SMART to tweet TfL and tell them to “take your Oyster card and shove it up your arsehole”, for example.

In super-complaining, rudeness is never justified. Icy composure unnerves them much more, though it can be hard to maintain in the face of stonewalling customer service-speak. When a major electrical retailer kept saying that it could “only apologise” after repeatedly failing to deliver the fridge that I had already paid for, I pointed out that it could do more than apologise, it could reimburse me for all my wasted time. When I told them my hourly rate, they soon stopped wasting it, and I had my fridge.

Personally, I would replace any of the “SMART” words with “Fair”, but that would make them FART targets and you can’t go talking to call centre operatives like that. But another rule of the genuine super-complainer should be: “never take it out on the front-line staff”, who are probably paid the minimum wage to take the flak for their bosses, and may even be able to help you if you ask them nicely. I’ll never forget the ever-patient guy who manned the Twitter account for a large train operator, and whose timely intervention with customer services may have been instrumental in getting me a full refund and a pair of complimentary first class tickets after I complained about a packed, cross-country journey with no working toilets. I like to think it was because I sympathised with him on Twitter, but he may simply have just wanted to shut me up.

As a super-complainer, the internet is your friend if you use it properly. The most effective complainer on Channel 4 was the cyclist who calls himself Traffic Droid, who wears a helmet camera and posts footage of dangerous drivers on YouTube. His evidence has resulted in several prosecutions. The lady who tweeted dozens of times a day about her miserable bus journeys did not achieve any results, because she had no idea what where the results she wanted to achieve.

I try not to resort to blabbing on social media unless the official channels have been exhausted, but the mere threat of it soon perked up the exhausted customer services team of one multi-national hotel chain which had mistakenly charged my debit card and was refusing to refund the full amount. An internet search engine (preferably one which does pay its UK taxes) is also useful for finding the industry guidelines to which an errant company has signed up, in order to quote relevant passages in correspondence.

With great power, though, comes great responsibility, and your complaining superpowers should only be used for good. I can’t “only apologise” for asking a company with net annual income of more than $200m to refund the £45 that its own mistake has cost me, and amend its systems so it doesn’t happen to anyone else. But if you go to a restaurant and tell the waiter everything is “fine” before going straight home to bitch about it on Trip Advisor, that’s not complaining, it’s whinging – and it’s not cool.

Speaking of which, this week The Complainers looks at councils. I’m guessing it will feature some whingers who repeatedly phone a taxpayer-funded complaints line to moan that there isn’t enough money left to provide vital services. I may have to write a strongly worded letter. Not to the councils – to the complainers.

Twitter: @katyguest36912

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