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Companies – stop leaving complaints for ombudsmen to sort

Man holding up card saying 'answer'

How often do you complain when a train’s delayed or you receive terrible customer service? If companies took these complaints seriously it would save us the hassle of getting ombudsmen involved.

I’m turning into a serial complainer. I’ve taken NatWest to the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) and complained to the Information Commissioner’s Office about Experian’s ineffectual handling of my complaint.

Then there’s all the feedback emails I’ve sent to companies that had given me shocking customer service (yes I’m looking at you, Next, ASDA, Marks & Spencer and Caffe Nero). I just won’t put up with poor service and products.

And now I can add First TransPennine Express (FTE) to the list. My patience finally broke earlier this month when my train from Grimsby to Doncaster was delayed by well over an hour due to ‘signal failure’, meaning I missed my connection back to London and only arrived home in the early hours.

We want refunds, not excuses

I used the sparkly new Which? train delay tool to claim my money back from FTE. However, I was shocked by their response:

‘The disruption was the result of a deliberate act of vandalism. A length of signalling cable was cut causing all signals on this line to revert to danger. […] As I am sure you will appreciate, such conditions are clearly outside our control. The railway by its very nature is very open to trespass and it is impossible to monitor and police every mile of trackside. […] I regret that our Passenger’s Charter and the National Conditions of Carriage exclude compensation in such circumstances.’

My own response was predictable: this ridiculous excuse was a clear case of a corporate worm trying to wriggle off the hook.

My contract with FTE was to get me from A to B at a particular time. They broke the contract. As a passenger, I really don’t care about the cause – if copper theft is such a problem, do something about it and increase security.

Why don’t you deal with our complaints?

Which brings me circuitously to my point. The various ombudsman services and consumer watchdogs play a key role in ensuring consumers get a fair deal from companies that just don’t care about their customers. I contacted Passenger Focus who, within a couple of weeks, had secured Transpennine Express’ agreement to send me a refund.

But there would be no need if companies weren’t so happy to either ignore their customers or fob them off with weak excuses, intransigence and flat denials of responsibility.

The 200,000 complaints received by FOS alone last year suggest that the financial services sector in particular still doesn’t get it. That the banks had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the high court over PPI speaks volumes.

My own experiences of taking a complaint further have been mixed – FOS and Passenger Focus were efficient, friendly and, most important of all, on the consumer’s side. The Information Commissioner’s Office on the other hand came across as ineffectual and unengaged.

Which companies have you found to fall short when it comes to complaints handling? And what are your experiences of using the various consumer watchdogs and ombudsman services?


I once took Scottish Power to Ofgen (or whatever it is called) as when I swapped my old token meter for a proper post-pay one, SP sent me a bill for £1500 claiming that the meter had been set at the wrong tariff for years and that it was my fault!

So I contacted the regulator who said that in no way was I responsible for this as the meter reading people had visited the house and checked the meter 3 times that year (even though it was a prepay) and found nothing wrong.

It’s amazing what they try and get away with isn’t it?

Regarding your complaint to FTE Martyn, perhaps this is the reason why the railways were privatised, so that teflon shouldered business folk can apportion blame wherever they see fit, saving on compensation! 🙂

I recently complained to orange that my phone wasn’t receiving calls correctly and sending people straight to voicemail. They rang to speak to me, what happened? it went straight to voicemail!! Good to see that orange have been shamed this morn in terms of their simply atrocious 3G coverage.


I hadn’t considered your point re privatisation – you’re right, of course. If one company owns the rolling stock, another maintains the tracks and a third operates the signaling systems, it creates a blame merry-go-round with no-one taking ultimate responsibility.

My follow-up post below shows that they’ve now admitted they were wrong to reject my claim in the first place. Grr!!


I have only had to complain to companies rarely – all but one, BT, answered quickly politely and effectively

BT’s telephone line was atrocious (always hissing and crackling) and kept dropping connections to the Bulletin Boards (before the Internet). They would send an engineer within a few days and the connection would improve for a couple of weeks before dropping back to rubbish.

However I received a bill containing a large amount of “collect calls” from Ireland – which weren’t mine – I sent the amount of the bill less the collect charges – with a letter explaining why. I did not receive a reply – but a debt collectors letter. I phoned BT – they said I had accepted the collect charges. I replied that it was impossible as I was at work at the times stated – and could prove it. and the only occupants in the house were dogs – though I did admit one was Irish Bred!! – I invited them to visit to show how wrong they were. Eventually after nine months where I kept getting this wrong addition – and I kept refusing to pay – Cable and Wireless laid down fibre optics – I left BT and never looked back. BT lines locally are still bad.


Good point – there are plenty of companies that deal efficiently with complaints. It’s a fact of life that things occasionally go wrong, but it’s how companies deal with those problems that shows what they think of their customers.

My own experiences with BT (and its rival Talktalk) have been less than positive. We talk a lot at Which? about ‘voting with your feet’, but it really is the only way.


Martyn, what a good point you make. Companies in the main DO NOT view customer service as they should with many relying on a ‘code of conduct’ syndrome so devoid of actuality, why did they bother in the first place. Yes, it says all the right things, but mention problem and your sent on a pathway to bashing your head against a brick wall!

There are however small companies who produce or stock goods in which they are proud of, and, back up to the hilt what they sell and/or service. The missing word here is ‘pride’. So let’s applaude those honest people who do value that word first. With pride goes responsibilty, once upon time we taught that! Led the world! Now twice upon time, we are slave ‘to not my fault’ and ‘sorry, you didn’t read our terms and conditions’, what we say goes..tough!

The demon comes to when this is replicated on a mass scale with the ever present need of ‘us’ for cheap and cheaper goods, and the need for profit surpassing all! Let’s though be clear on a few things.

You pays your money, you takes your choice? Sad but true! £3 tee shirt, £50 tee shirt? The greasy spoon or the Savoy Grill? etc, etc.

The choice somehow sinks when multiples take over and ‘they’ think their word is God. So true when it comes to Banks, Services and Utilities, Airlines, Travel/Transport, unelected Self Regulatory Authorities, and the ultimate whipping boys Parliament itself. The art here is that when we do complain, they change/divert/pacify whatever ‘we’ve’ said by automatically saying the matter is regretable – never sorry – and immediately apologise for the inconvenience..but it’s not our problem!!! As per yours with FTE! How many times has Which heard that?

Save of going to Court – one avenue, who does what for whom when you’ve come to end of the road? You’ve mentioned The Ombudsman/woman services, who we hope are there to make sure your complaint falls under their remit, and should however you get there, give the ‘Final’ decision either way yet still the choice to take it further.

This is not helped by the fact that the ‘one stop’ obvious place to go, Trading Standards, is now under Consumer Direct with a press button 1 or 2 contact level, excepting emails or letters to the department via your local Authority lengthening the process. Consumer Focus doesn’t deal with individual cases, but will amalgem all to provide ‘a case’.

On the two occasions I’ve dealt with the Financial Ombudesman I’ve had success, other cases were resolved before I threatened Banks concerned with the honour of that step. However, not so with the Energy Ombudsman. They deemed I was not under their remit so matters of fact like sales, obstruction of consumer rights!, providing full disclosure, et al was a total waste of time, cosied up with the supplier to dot the ‘i’s’ and cross the ‘t’s’, to ensure their job was a good’n.

Yes, I lost. So they think that’s the end of it…do they!..the electricity supplier concerned has now realised that they can not ignore my letters/emails and must provide everything under the Data Protection Act, as requested, so we go on. Even the Ombudsman is coming under my gaze! wish me luck.

Martyn, I’m lucky insofar I’ve worked in Banking, been associated with insurance companies, studied law, held a Consumer Credit Licence, disclosed Government failings at national level when they hid facts from employees, even one of my previous clients was Government Hospitality and I had to sign the Official Secrets Act part 1. That was a hoot! Not short of experience but aaarrrgghh! patience of a saint was not taught at school or Uni.

It is a very sad state that nowadays Companies treat everybody as though we’re the guilty party as some do want to buck the system, tarred with the same brush. As is a sign of the times I now assist others were befalls their plight, but even I don’t know it all or how devious ‘honest’ companies are. One cheerful fact of how this works is a that one energy supplier promotes itself from a recent poll to be be “1st” in customer service, but should you want to see those results you’ll need to pay £470 at the last count, from a separate company. Believe the hype and eat the tripe! Now who? did they ask? Noooooooo……not here, oh do say……never here!


Thanks for your post – loads of great points in there.

You’re right that it’s the refusal to just say sorry that so often grates the most. The wording tends to be ‘Sorry you felt the need to complain’, rather than ‘Sorry we gave you a substandard service’.

And yes, my negative experiences have tended to be with multinationals – small traders rely on their reputation, so it’s in their interests to keep customers happy. Compare that with someone on a low wage with no financial stake in the success of the company they work for.

And yet, there are some big companies that seem to have good customer service engrained in their DNA. First Direct and Pret A Manger spring to mind. John Lewis is another big name that trades on its reputation for good customer service – however, my own experiences with John Lewis suggest this is just clever marketing and not backed up in practice, but I suspect that is the topic for a whole new Conversation another day…


OK, I’m doubly angry now.

I’ve received a letter and voucher from First Transpennine Express. A good overall result.

However, the letter from FTE Customer Relations states: ‘I have now had the opportunity to review your case and can confirm that initial reports did state that the disruption was the result of a signal failure, caused by an attempted cable theft. We have now received detailed service logs for the date and question and Network Rail have not confirmed that a cable theft was the root cause.’

So the company didn’t bother to investigate properly when I submitted my claim? And my claim was, in fact, valid, even by FTE’s own (in my view unfair) terms and conditions? How many other consumers would be fobbed off by the company’s initial denial of responsibility? Yet another example of why watchdogs like Passenger Focus are absolutely vital and will continue to be so until companies treat their customers with a bit of respect.