England & Wales Personal and organisational development

Viewpoint: Millions sweep complaints under the carpet

Consumer Rights have been thrown into the spotlight in the last year more than ever before, but there are still significant gaps in the public’s knowledge when it comes to how to complain, writes Lewis Shand Smith, Chief Ombudsman at Ombudsman Services.

Our third annual Consumer Action Monitor shows that 52 million complaints were made about products or services last year. It’s a positive sign, but there are still many consumers who suffer in silence.

In fact in 2015 there were still 66 million complaints that were swept under the carpet, which is why we want to ensure that all consumers know their rights and the options available to them.

Consumers feel that complaining isn’t worth the hassle (45%) with many believing that businesses only care about money (31%). These perceptions need to be changed – consumers should feel valued, and be encouraged to complain when they’ve experienced a problem– the barriers aren’t always as challenging as they seem.

Our research findings, along with the feedback we receive from consumers throughout the year, show that people want the government and the legal system to offer consumers more support.

Consumers have the right to complain to a company if they’re dissatisfied with a product or service, but if that firm fails to manage their complaints effectively many people don’t know what they can do.

Small Claims Court is one option available to consumers, but it can be expensive, and one in 10 find the process too daunting to act – two factors that are significantly hindering consumer redress. Alternative dispute resolution schemes, like ombudsmen, are a free, easy to use, impartial and provide an alternative route to redress. .

In fact, Ombudsman schemes now deal with twice as many complaints as Small Claims Courts every year – but aside from the Energy Ombudsman and the Financial Ombudsman Service, few consumers know they exist. It’s concerning that so many people still don’t know that an alternative to legal action is available.

Consumers can be proactive and resourceful when it comes to making complaints, as the increase in complaining via social media has shown. It provides a platform for them to vent their frustrations, and start a dialogue with companies, but when it comes to taking a complaint further, other approaches are needed.

Most consumers just want be treated fairly by companies – most often, those complaining would be happy if the company puts the problem right, or apologises – and we’re committed to making sure this happens. Boosting consumer confidence in complaining is crucial, but it’s also important that people know where they can seek help.

Complaining effectively – the things you need to know

  1. Firstly identify what you want to achieve, have a clear idea of what it is you want to achieve from complaining
  1. Don’t get emotional – keep your anger in check and don’t get mad. Be assertive without being aggressive
  1. Don’t be embarrassed – it’s your right to complain if you’re not satisfied
  1. Admit your part in the problem if you have any fault
  1. Address one complaint at a time, ensure what you say is clear and fair
  1. Keep records of all correspondence, paperwork, bills and receipts, if asked to send them anywhere make sure you send photocopies and keep originals
  1. If you’re not getting results complaining directly to the company, identify the person or organisation who has the power to make changes and help

If your complaint has not been resolved quickly (normally within eight weeks), you can take your complaint to an organisation like Ombudsman Services. The new service, www.consumer-ombudsman.org is open for any complaint outside financial services and is run by Ombudsman Services, which already operates the popular government-backed complaints schemes in energy and telecoms