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Why complaints are good for business

Typing a letter

Crowned the ‘Queen Of Complaints’, Ingrid Stone writes to companies when she’s dissatisfied with a poor service. Here’s Ingrid on why it isn’t the customers who complain that companies should worry about…

Apparently we’re becoming more confident at doing it – complaining. But there are still too many of us who would rather battle our way through a steak that tastes like an old boot than ‘make a scene’.

But for whose benefit? It certainly doesn’t serve ours, and neither does it for – and this might surprise you – the business providing you with their product or service.

Avoiding bad publicity

It’s a case of Better The Consumer Devil You Know. At least if you point out the problem with the disastrous holiday you’d saved up for, your below-par meal, or those new leggings with the unintentional dropped crotch, the relevant company immediately knows something isn’t right. They then have the opportunity to lure you back by offering some sort of compensation, or by advising you that they’ll take action to improve or solve the issue.

If however, you say nothing, this schtum-dom might lead you to tell your friends – or worse, tweet and YouTube your bad experience. That incident could even go viral. Ironically, the company has more chance of keeping you as a customer if you do complain – they are given the chance to make things better and prevent you from telling the world about what went wrong.

Grateful for complaints

And if there’s a genuine problem, it seems that businesses want to know.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a complaint letter to the CEO of a high street store. I had purchased a rubberised light-up monster toy for my little girl that all the babies went mad for at her playgroup. When I got this creature home, I discovered a sharp, broken shard of either glass or plastic within its rubber casing – like a piece of shattered light bulb, which could have hurt a child. So I wrote to the CEO and he replied personally, with a handwritten postscript, telling me how grateful he was that I had got in touch and that the matter would be dealt with “as a matter of significant urgency”.

As consumers in noughty-something AD, we have more power than ever to stand up for our rights and spread the word. And companies know it. They check out Twitter to see what people are saying about them, listen to opinion polls – even Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary is taking notes. No one can afford to lose customers anymore.

So it’s not the customers who complain that companies should worry about, it’s the ones who don’t.

This is a guest post by Ingrid Stone, author of the book and blog Letters of a Dissatisfied Woman. All opinions expressed here are her own, not those of Which?.


Well said.

One hitch for us in the Passive Aggressive Kingdom (GB) is that when only a few people complain, companies seem as if they are defensive or are finding it hard to process the feedback.

I found this when I complained to a rail company about some misleading text on their ticket booking website. It took all a lovely sunny Easter Monday to get the long-suffering customer service person to get my point. I could hear how she was struggling to understand and I was struggling to put my point over but when she got it, it made a difference.

The more we let companies know what doesn’t work about them (and learn how to do this), the better their systems will become for taking in feedback and asking customers’ experience and then the better services they can provide.

Plus no more annoyingly narrow market research surveys!


Having worked in manufacturing we took complaints very seriously because they often arose when something had gone wrong at our end – a defective product, a late delivery, for example. These were things we could improve, and we told the customer what the cause was and how we had addressed the problem This turned a complaint into a plus for the company – customers know nothing in this world is perfect, felt we were on their side, and knew they would get a good service in future. When the problem turned out to be down to them – defective maintenance or installation for example, we helped them resolve the problem. At a personal level I find when dealing with stores like John Lewis, Waitrose and M&S we get a similarly helpful response and a resolution with little hassle.


The mobile phone networks have received a large number of complaints as a result of increasing tariffs during fixed price contracts. I am not aware that these complaints have done much to improve the reputation of the phone companies or the service they offer.

John says:
3 March 2014

When someone comes into my takeaway to complain about something we sold them I often find that the first thing they do is apologise for making the complaint! The first thing I have to do is assure them I am grateful they have come back to make the complaint. Ideally no one wants to hear that something has gone wrong, but I always tell a customer in this situation we can’t fix a problem until we know there’s a problem to fix.

When my father started the business nearly 50 years ago he introduced a system we still use today. First we refund the person for their entire order as a thank you for coming back to tell us about the problem and giving us a chance to solve it. We also give them their next order for free as a thank you for giving us another chance. It makes a win for everyone concerned, the customer feels appreciated, and we retain a customer and most likely their family and friends as well.


Although I have no problem with complaining about goods and services, I find it difficult to complain about food prepared from me because this is so subjective. Where there is clear evidence of a problem, such as excessive delays, dirty cutlery (a problem that has largely disappeared) and cold plates, I am happy to make a polite comment.

One of the best ways for takeaways and restaurants to demonstrate commitment to their customers is to display their FSA food hygiene rating prominently and use this on advertising and websites.

Gary says:
4 March 2014

I complained about the conduct of Which? Ltd, but their CEO won’t reply.

John says:
7 March 2014

I complained to Which? about a kettle that came very low in the ‘best buy’ table being sold with a ‘which best brand’ label on it. My wife bought it because of the Which? endorsement. Which? vigorously and unrepentantly defended their endorsement saying that their readers understood what the label meant. Pah!


“So it’s not the customers who complain that companies should worry about, it’s the ones who don’t.”

So true. Those are the customers who will do that very unhelpful and British thing and vote with their feet.

As I ponder walking to the electrical recycling bank to post another defective iron inside I wonder where I put the receipt and whether I should look for something better and aren’t there European guarantees that are longer now than you expect them to be. You can’t fight all of the battles all of the time but you can definitely fight some of them.


Forget guarantees – the Sale of Good Act says that goods should be durable – that is, they should last, what a fair-minded person would consider, a reasonable length of time. While we wait, optimistically, for manufacturers to provide long guarantees, I have repeatedly asked Which? why they seem to ignore providing members with help to use the durability requirement when making a claim. Publishing “reasonable lifetimes” for goods and appropriate paperwork templates might help? If it is an unworkable solution then perhaps they could tell us why.