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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,