Don’t complain if you don’t complain

So you feel like a business has ripped you off or has done something wrong – what are you going to do about it?

I see a lot of people whinging about things on the internet. Do not assume that will achieve much on its own – it very much depends on what you are trying to achieve – but I have seen people whinge about things on the internet but then not bothering to complain to the business concerned or to a regulator – so it is hardly surprising if nothing happens.

Don’t whinge about all the wrongs in the world if you are not going to do anything to change it.

In this post I am going to talk about making a complaint – to the business itself and to a regulatory body like Trading Standards (if necessary).

To the business

First of all – if you think a business has done something wrong you should always complain direct to them – chances are they will often sort it out. Depending on what happened it may still be worth complaining to a regulatory body like Trading Standards (see below).

There was an article in the Which? magazine a few weeks ago which looked at ways of complaining to businesses. They found that complaining in person was often the most satisfying and got quick results as the business usually had to respond straight away. They found complaining via social media (Facebook, Twitter etc) also often got very quick results. Complaining by letter was the slowest method.

Some businesses will have their own internal formal complaints procedure. So if you want to make a ‘formal’ complaint you should make it clear it is a complaint. I always recommend starting off with the word ‘complaint’ at the top. These types of complaints should be made in writing (e-mail or letter) as they allow you to you put in more detail, look more formal and allow you to retain proper records. If you are just having a ‘chat’ to a business via Twitter it is highly unlikely they will be treating it as a formal complaint.

Small businesses on the other hand probably won’t have a formal complaints procedure and will deal with things as and when they arise.

In some industries it is also important to make a complaint to the business first in case you want to complain to the Ombudsman. So in financial services if you want to take a complaint to the Ombudsman you need to complain to the business first. Therefore you need to ensure any issues and communication you have with the business is considered a complaint straight from the off. Just phoning up and whinging will not always be classed by the business as a complaint unless you make it crystal clear.

Once you have made a complaint to the business it may or may not resolve the issue. You then may wish to make a complaint to a regulatory body like Trading Standards – either because you want them to do something or just to make them aware a business is doing something you feel is wrong.

From a Trading Standards perspective, if a consumer has already complained to a business it can speed up our involvement – if the business has already been given a chance to resolve it the chances are they will have already looked into the issue and have some answers ready if we need to contact them.

In addition, if they are being investigated they cannot argue they were not aware that they had aggrieved customers. Whenever we investigate a business we will always look for records of previous consumer complaints to show that the business knew there was an issue and did not deal with it effectively.

There are some out and out rogue/illegal businesses who want to rip people off and they will just fob off any complaints. Although making a complaint won’t achieve anything for the consumer – for the reasons I have given above it is still worth registering a complaint with the business and Trading Standards.

To Trading Standards / other regulatory body

First of all – I do not want to create the impression that if you complain to a regulator something will be done about your individual complaint. On the other hand, if you do not complain then Trading Standards will not be aware so unless others have complained it is less likely anything will be done.

There are many reasons why an individual complaint may not be dealt with – here are some reasons I can think of:

–          The issue is not even related to any law Trading Standards enforce

–          We don’t have enough staff to deal with it

–          The issue is not a priority/serious enough

–          The complaint does not prove any illegal behaviour on its own

That being said, complaints data is very important to us carrying out our work properly. We need to know what the issues are and complaints are the best way of finding out. Even if your issue might seem minor if there are lots of others complaining about the same thing then it might identify a trend or something happening on a big scale.

In addition, with certain types of crime – such a rogue traders – compliant data can offer useful intelligence – such as where the traders have been, what they are up to, names of persons involved, vehicles and so on – so complaints can be vital in building a case.

Volume of complaints and action

The more complaints the more likely something will be done – but not always – it depends on the issue. A higher level of complaints indicates more people are being affected, the business should be aware of what is going on (as consumers will have complained to them) and the total financial gain will probably be high.

Businesses can sometimes do things or make mistakes that will cause a spike in complaints and although there may be a lot of aggrieved consumers it does not necessarily mean the business has committed any criminal offence that Trading Standards can deal with – the horsemeat scandal is a good example of this.

Often when a new product or service comes out there will be a spike in complaints but that does not always mean the business is doing something wrong – it may mean that consumers are not reading terms and conditions properly or don’t understand what they are buying.

It is also very much the case that action can be taken on just one or two complaints if they are serious.

I have written separate articles on how to complain and how to make a good complaint.

Young complainers

On a related note – I note that unless it is a particularly serious matter, many young people (say under 30) do not complain to us (Trading Standards). The vast majority of people we tend deal with tend to be 30+ – in fact probably 40+. If a young person complains it can often come via their parent. Obviously I do not know the age of every complainant – I am going off my own experiences.

It may be that younger people are more likely to brush things off, deal with things on their own or are just not as bothered but certainly it does not appear that they complain as much. Perhaps they feel naming and shaming on Facebook and Twitter will achieve a better result or they are just not as aware of the regulatory bodies that exist.

This is obviously worrying for the future if consumers are apathetic then businesses will get away with things.

I also receive messages on Twitter from people complaining about businesses but if they had bothered to do a few minutes of research they will have seen I am not an official representative of Trading Standards and cannot take complaints. I always advise these people to contact Trading Standards through proper channels – whether they bother – I have no idea.

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