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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.

Alistair says:
7 March 2014

I agree: complaining is good for the complained about company, and good for other consumers – the company has a better chance to improve how they operate and perform.

re. Sales of Goods Act – durable, fit for purpose, merchantable quality
It really would be a good thing to arrive at, or define, standard agreed definitions of how long various products should reasonably be expected to last IF they were of satisfactory quality to begin with… (and under full time, let’s say, domestic usage levels – commercial equipment tends to be more industrially built and proportionately more costly)

one could look at different period of warranty cover – a failed 4yr old washing machine may not be eligible for free replacement, but might be eligible for free repair… at 7 yrs old, the repair might be at 50% cost.
1. How long, with all repairs fully covered by manufacturer
2. How long, with perhaps some contribution toward repairs
3. How long, with some exclusions to what is covered by manufacturer
4. How long until product is deemed outside any warranty for ‘merchantable quality’ ?

e.g. Laptop Batteries are generally excluded – they may get anything from a 9month warranty; batteries are like this – not yet the best technology
But should laptops be expected to last 2yrs minimum, per John Lewis standard warranty terms?
I think so – software excluded. I think John Lewis strike a good balance here.

There is also room in the marketplace for products of a cheaper build quality where, if this is stated at point of sale, it might be reasonable to accept a shorter life span than a very expensive premium brand similar item, whose price suggests the heights of quality… and whose lifetime should be expected to be far far longer.

Alistair – I have been pushing for extended warranties for some time because few people seem to exercise their rights under the Sale of Goods Act. From personal experience and discussion with others, it can be a real challenge to achieve success.

One of the problems with offering decent warranties is that the amount of use can vary greatly. A family with six kids will use a washing machine more than a single person. I believe the solution is to fit a device to record the number of hours or washing cycles. Then it is easy to offer a manufacturers warranty for ten years or a certain number of hours/cycles. This is what car manufacturers do when they give a warranty of 100,000 miles or 3 years.

Laptops already record the number of charge cycles and manufacturers use this information in deciding if a battery is faulty. I would suggest a warranty of 3 years or 1000 cycles would be an appropriate warranty period.

We need to have a system that protects both the consumer and the manufacturer. Decent warranties could provide the customer with protection where the Sale of Goods Act has failed.

Alistair, I agree. A warranty should cover total repair or replacement but is subject to the manufacturers conditions. We need protection for the whole of what should be a “reasonable life” for the product. If we are unfortunate enough to have bought one with a latent defect, or one of defective design or with poor-quality components, then we should not end up out-of-pocket. For most manufacturers this should not be a problem – they already make well-designed and durable products. For others it should persuade them to pay more attention to detail and quality.

A Sale of Goods Act is essential to give us ultimate protection from loss when a defective product (whether in quality or design) is supplied. The Act has not failed, we just don’t normally appear to have the information to make proper use of it. Why Which? does not comment on repeated requests as to why it cannot help I do not know. It is in a foremost position with its European partners to put times on “reasonable durability” for ranges of products with their combined experience and testing. Given this information, individual consumers would be better-placed to back up claims when they have failed products within their “reasonable life”. Such as the 19 month-old fridge freezer, Kindle failures just after 1 year, and so on from previous conversationalists. If the Act is unworkable, perhaps Which? would explain why.

I wouldn’t hold your breath while waiting for long warranties – I don’t know of any moves in the pipeline to bring these to fruition – but does anyone else?

There seems to be a general of feeling of malaise sweeping the country at the moment when it comes to complaining. I must admit I do not relish the thought of verbal confrontation but have found written complaints, where applicable far more effective. Consumer groups such as Which? (not forgetting of course their knowledgable participants making their own valuable contribution) do a
brilliant job in providing the incentive to act.

Extended warranties are not always what they are appear to be however. I.e. The John Lewis 5 year extended warrantee on TV’s does not automatically guarantee a replacement I have found. You will more than likely be offered a repair in the first instance. This is where people need to be conversant with their rights under The Sale of Goods & Services Act.

With regard to goods containing motors however, although I have absolutely no knowledge of engineering I was once informed by a qualified engineer that anything containing a motor, provided it is regularly serviced and maintained should be kept running. Unlike humans they perform better when they don’t remain idle for too long!!!

With the ever continuing advancing and competitive technological world we now live in it seems to me the greater the sophistication the more we are likely to experience breakdowns.

Beryl, if you complain in person remember that the person you are dealing with is likely to be just like you – not some sort of ogre. They are probably just as uncomfortable that a complaint needs to made as you feel in having to make one. Providing we complain in a pleasant, calm and rational way – whether verbally or in writing – I have found I usually get a reasonable response. It is when we start off with an unpleasant attitude, and demand more than is reasonable, that battle lines are drawn.

I agree Malcolm but sometimes sales assistants are not always authorised (or paid) to deal with complaints however rational or polite. I have found it more effective to complain at executive level who have a better knowledge of and carry more clout when dealing with company procedures, which often means putting it in writing.

To quote an example, I recently visited a restaurant/cafe in a well known departmental store with a friend for a coffee and a snack which turned out to be very poor value for money. My friend complained to the very pleasant and polite young lad who served us but he failed to act accordingly. I reminded my friend the lad was only adhering to company protocol in serving the food and the onus was on the store management for producing such an inadequate menu. When returning home she contacted the store management and as a result received an immediate apology and refund, something the young lad was not authorised to do.

Slippery Alresford says:
7 March 2014

Having shopped at Lidl for the past four years, I was surprised, to say the least with, the reaction I first got with the manager of Their Worting Road Basingstoke branch saying that Items listed for sale would not be available today until maybe after lunch as I have staff missing, so requested when they did, display the item for sale, would they save them no as the seed potato’s and onion sets where food and we don’t save food items, so try our other branch, which I did ,again same sort of reply manger its my day off so cant help, when returning home after a 40 mile trip and early morning traffic, called there customer centre who said they would pass their comments on , no response so far, so why advertise products which are not stocked or displayed.
Does not inspire confidence in company with this type of service

What surprises me most (apart from the poor level of literacy of the article) is the number of posts in here complaining about Which?. No fewer than five adverse posts regarding Which?. That’s 33%. Quite a chunk in a consumer advocate…

Gary says:
7 March 2014

I share your surprise. My own recent experience of interaction with Which? led to many unanswered questions. For an organisation that advocates active consumerism, Which? is remarkably reluctant to answer questions about its own activities.

Phil says:
8 March 2014

Which? certainly does not like having it’s own tactics thrown back in its face.

I disagree. Strongly.

By complaining we identify the lowest level of service that we are prepared to tolerate. Make no mistake, companies seize on this and drop their standards to just above “complaint level”.

Companies respond to complaints by fixing the problem. No more, no less.

Conversely, if I am dissatisfied I go elsewhere. No complaint, no hint to the company why I have left. If they want my custom back again they have to up their game – and be BETTER than the competition to win me back.

Companies respond to lost trade either:
by getting much better in all areas, or
by allowing better companies to succeed.

That we we drive standards up not down.

It does strike me as quite bizarre that there are people who, when faced with two shops on the high street, will use the bad shop and complain rather than use the good shop.

Robert C says:
7 March 2014

For some strange reason I have had 3 serious problems in rapid succession. 2 have been sent to the Ombudsman and the 3rd will soon. One phone company lost a credit to my account, they confirmed they could see it, but never corrected it (despite 3 attempts on my part). An energy company make claims that their on-line account system shows is not true, before helping themselves to my bank account. A bank made an unauthorised payment, they blamed my wife but could not find the phone-bank recording when pressed (strangely convenient!). In all cases they seem unwilling to admit their mistake in writing and hide from the truth. I find the solution is to keep a diary (at the first hint of trouble) and I will get there in the end. Writing a good letter can at least relieve the stress. Of course I usually get good service and products and I do tell my friends.

Companies that deal with complaints and returns well get continued customer loyalty those that don’t loose customers. Most people in business know that it costs many times more to get a new customer than it does to keep one but all too often fail to get that message across to their staff in a clear and effective manner.

Many years ago, while working for a computer distribution company, when we failed to meet a promise we made a concerted effort to fix the problem and also apologised to the customer both over the phone and by sending a small gift with a note saying “Sorry”. The effect was out of all proportion to the cost. It created a feeling of goodwill that converted into more sales and loyal customers.

I think our service companies, in particular, need look to the quality of their service. For example First Utility have not produced a bill for my supplies since November 2013, so at the beginning of February I asked them to fix the problem. After three weeks without reply I changed my Direct Debit arrangement from a fixed monthly to a variable one so that they could not take any more money until they produced a bill. They still failed to produce a bill at the beginning of March so I have now instigated a switch to another supplier (with a better deal as well).

Lily says:
7 March 2014

Reading these emails and from my own experience, it would seem that the big international companies such as B T , the Energy Companies, and the Banks are not interested in one’s complaints, we’re too small fry for them to bother, hence the need for organisations such as Ofcom, etc. However I am sure that for others it is helpful to complain, although I have personally not been very satisfied on the replies or lack of, from the very few occassions I have complained. Unless I think it may be useful I find it too much bother to do so on many occasions. If I do, I do it by letter, as I soon discovered that emails were ignored, so of cause it also involves expense, both time and postage etc. I am just about to type one to ‘Damart’ who overcharged me and their reply so far was to send me another advert to buy more of their clothes!!

Gary says:
7 March 2014

When I hit a legal issue, I felt confident I could rely on my Which? Recommended, John Lewis home insurance policy. I received independent legal advice that I had a good case, and so I made a claim.

Needless to say, the claim was rejected and my complaints were dismissed. When Which? asked for help on legal expenses insurance, I told them my story. The researcher was very interested and said Which? would consider John Lewis’ status as a recommended provider. A case-study was prepared for publication and sent to John Lewis for comment:

When Gary lodged a legal expenses insurance claim with John Lewis over an employment issue he expected it to be supported. However, the insurer’s solicitors rejected the claim without giving any substantial reasons. This prompted Gary to seek a barrister’s opinion on the matter, which was favourable.

Gary pursued the matter with John Lewis, but despite assurances from their Chairman that he’d receive comprehensive answers within 21 days none was forthcoming. Gary then sent the solicitors a Subject Access Request (SAR), which required them to reveal any information they hold on the person making the request. The SAR revealed that a barrister, instructed by the solicitors, concluded that Gary’s claim had a reasonable prospect of success. Armed with this information, he went to the Financial Ombudsman Service, which upheld his complaint, and following a challenge from John Lewis, later issued a final decision again upholding the decision.

Gary told us: ‘I felt confident I could trust John Lewis to vigorously pursue any valid claim. Considering this is a company that prides itself on quality customer service I feel very badly let down.

Following a response from John Lewis that did not explain why the favourable counsel opinion had been concealed, I spoke with the Which? researcher. The conversation ended with him saying “I see what you are saying. Let me get back to them then and let’s see if we can get a bit more purchase on this. I think that’s the best way I can take this forward and then I’ll get back to you on that”.

I chased up when he did not come back to me. His response seemed at odds with all previous exchanges, saying “I am confused as to what further work could be done on this from my end”. He left a few days later and nothing further was done. The case study was not published.

I followed up with Which? because it doesn’t seem right to me that they should endorse a business that avoided a claim while sitting on contrary evidence and then, when found out, refuses to explain the reasons why. I have no idea whether others have been similarly affected, but how will we ever know, if no one will pursue the questions. I rather thought that to be a role Which? seeks to fill.

I’ve supported Which? for 35 years and am one of the 8,600 members of the controlling charity. I have expressed my concerns to both the CEO and Chairman, but neither will respond.

Like you, Gary, I have used the Which? legal services on several occasion, and always found them to be very good. Your experience with both Which? and John Lewis give rise to some concern and – at the very least – Which? ought to have responded to you fully.

On a slightly different tangent, I am being encouraged to ‘register’ on this site. I tried, and was told my email and username already exist. Since on that basis it’s reasonable to assume that means I’m already registered, I have two questions:

1. Why invite me to register if I was already registered??
2. Why didn’t the prompts tell me I was registered instead of using the cumbersome ‘this email already exists’?

Gary says:
8 March 2014

Ian, Thanks for your comment. To be clear, I didn’t use Which? Legal Services. Which? asked for help about Legal Expenses Insurance because they were investigating it following letters from members. I responded to that request with my story.

The last thing I expected was that a Which? recommended provider would hang me out to dry while they knew my claim to be valid. That’s bad enough. Extraordinary too that ‘consumer friendly’ John Lewis refuses to offer any explanation to accord with the direct evidence. What they have said leads to concerns that other policyholders may have received similar treatment.

Which? was investigating this with the diligence I’d expect, until the researcher said he would go back to JL with more questions. Immediately following that contact everything was dropped and Which? would no longer speak to me. What happened next troubles me greatly.

As a member of the controlling company for the past 25 years, I wrote to the trustees to express my concerns about matters of governance; not something I’ve ever done before, or would do lightly. As far as I’m aware the trustees have no knowledge of this because the company secretary refuses to pass my letter to them.

If any Council members happen to be reading this thread, I will be happy to provide the details and evidence to you directly.

Gary, as Which? is a charity and many of us are members, not subscribers, I believe we should be entitled to an explanation. Perhaps Which? would like to elucidate. There may well be a very good reason why they could not proceed.
I am never clear about Which?’s position in these conversations – many times it is asked to comment or provide information, but does not. Perhaps we should have a Conversation about Conversations to understand just what they are for? We see articles published in Which? that seem to take no note of the views that are expressed in related conversations. You would think contributors’ views were of some relevance?

It’s hard to know exactly what’s happened, Gary, but I am somewhat concerned about the entire thing. You should know, however, that the elected Council in terms of the day-to-day management of Which? is a fairly impotent grouping in the main, although some individuals on it are possessed of a decent and moral perspective, and will be unhappy to know you have been treated so poorly. The power that actually controls Which? is in fact Which? Limited – a grouping comprised of largely unelected individuals whose presence is determined by their association with the Director – PVS – and because they have been seconded to the company as their presence is thought to be beneficial in a competitive marketplace.

I will try to ensure that what you have posted makes its way to the people concerned.

Gary says:
8 March 2014

Ian, thanks for your interested, which is appreciated. I don’t know what happened – I simply stick to the facts. What troubles me is the lack of clarity. I’ve tried very hard to raise my concerns privately, without success.

I appreciate I have no greater right than anyone else to expect my story to be taken up, but I am very certain that what I discovered about my legal expenses claim is a matter of serious concern.

Yes, I understand something of the arcane nature of the Which? empire! It maybe begs some questions about what Which? is perceived to be versus what it actually is; an interesting debate for another time, perhaps.

Gary says:
8 March 2014

Malcolm, thanks for your contribution. I agree with you that there may be very good reasons. I don’t claim any special rights, but I do think some clarity is required. As for the insurance claim I deconstructed, having discovered the truth I meet only with a wall of silence.

I share your concerns regarding interaction with members.

The big companies just make it so difficult to reach the right person or department that a high proportion of complainants give up after one attempt. You have to be like a dog with a bone to get any satisfaction these days. I currently have a problem with Scottish Power. I have sent them four emails over the past four months regarding a Home Comfort plan annual service. On each occasion they replied that my query was currently under investigation and had been passed to the home comfort department who would look to resolve the issue as soon as possible. Nothing has happened. I wrote to the office of the retail Scottish Power CEO without success and have recently sent another to the Complaints department director. I wonder if the ombudsman could help? No wonder Which magazine featured Scottish Power for criticism on page 38 of the March issue.