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Complain for change: it’s the little things

Glass of water on table

One simple word can make a very powerful statement. And I’ve found the word ‘complain’ stirs up more controversy than you might expect. Do you regularly hold back from complaining because it makes you feel awkward?

When we launched our ‘Complain for Change’ series on Which? Convo, our main aim was to highlight that it’s OK to make a complaint if you have a bad experience with a company. In fact, we positively encourage it! Not only could the company rectify your problem – it will often take your feedback on board to improve its products or services.

But our calls for people to complain have met some resistance, with some saying we shouldn’t encourage moaning. I think there’s a commonly held opinion that a complaint should be reserved for situations where a company has made a significant mistake, rather than for things that are simply inconvenient.

I admit, I used to baulk at the idea of complaining (one of my mottos was ‘try not to make a fuss’), so this made a lot of sense to me. As someone with more than their fair share of assertive friends and relatives, I’m always wary of a complaint turning into a ‘scene’. But the difference between the two things became clear when I went out for dinner recently.

Complaint versus suggestion

We were at a fairly posh dinner and we’d pre-ordered our food and drinks. The bottles of wine appeared soon after we sat down, but when one of us asked for a jug of tap water, we were directed to the pricey bottled water on the table.

One member of our group made quite a loud complaint, letting the waitress know it was ‘ridiculous’ that they wouldn’t give us tap water.

Rather than let the waitress get an earful, I called her over and calmly let her know that any place that is licensed to sell alcohol for consumption is obliged to offer people free access to tap water. She looked a bit sheepish, but scurried off to find some.

Removing the stigma of a ‘complaint’

I’d call that a complaint, but it’s a far cry from writing a strongly worded letter or shouting at some poor customer service rep down the phone. What’s more, the problem wasn’t a disastrous one – no one found glass shards in their salad or a fly in their soup.

But I think that making these small, polite complaints can be incredibly valuable. The longer you put up with a problem, the more likely you are to make a disproportionate fuss when you finally do make a complaint. For instance, the flat-dweller getting frustrated with their neighbour’s loud music would do well to knock on the door and ask them to turn it down, rather than stew over it for weeks before eventually complaining to the council.

I know the word ‘complain’ can sound confrontational and a bit extreme, but it doesn’t have to be. For me, a complaint covers any feedback I give a company about things it could improve. I’m getting the hang of it now, and have started giving quite a lot of feedback to companies ranging from ‘this service was not acceptable and I’d like a refund’ through to ‘it would be fantastic if you could do this in future’.

How about you – do you tell companies about the little things, or do you hold back and save your words for when something goes really wrong?


I think your comment about the word “complaint” is relevant. To me, complaint is a second step in the process. The first is to point out a deficiency, and hope for a positive response; it often works. I had a problem with John Lewis broadband that they werr going to resolve, but resulted in a temporary capped speed; they reduced my bill by £15 and sorted it. I have very (rarely) occasionally returned food to M&S pointing out a problem – refunded and replaced with no question. No need to escalate to a “complaint”. Most reputable companies and people seem to respond well if they are at fault. Those that don’t often need more than a complaint to get action.

I have not studied the meaning of ‘complain’, but I agree with you Malcolm. I am polite, have all the information needed to hand, and most problems are resolved promptly. With anything more complex it can be much more difficult and I can see why many don’t complain as much as they should.

Your introduction makes a lot of sense, Nikki. I thought the ‘Complain for Change’ Conversations got off to a shaky start, featuring the issue of a tasteless Cheddar cheese. I felt there was a danger that ‘complain’ could be overused.

I tend to wait until there is a more serious problem, though I make a point of providing feedback (with both positive and negative comments) whenever there is an opportunity.

It can be difficult to find easy ways of making suggestions, offering feedback or just pointing out a small problem without “raising a complaint”.
Websites don’t always have a suitable link or form just one for complaints.
Also some companies seem to go all defensive when any issue is raised and treat it like a formal complaint.

My complaints to John Lewis/ Waitrose Customer
Services always produced a positive response
as I threatened to escalate matters further if complaint
is not corrected or made good. Below is what I sent
to Waitrose just days ago.

Short of asking me not to shop at Waitrose,
it seems yr staff has a pathological propensity to removing a (small) shopping trolley parked outside the Lavatory and this despite my ensuring with a young black guy at Check Out beforehand that such parked trolley shall not be removed, when I’ll be in for no more than a minute or

A reply:

Thank you for your e-mail.

Firstly, please accept my apologies for the delay in responding to you which is as a result of the high volume of e-mails being received at this time.

I was concerned to learn of your experience when shopping at our branch, and I hope you will accept my apologies that this has occurred.

If you would like to discuss this further, please do not hesitate to make yourself known to a member of the Management Team when you are next shopping with us, so that we can address your concerns in person.

Thank you again for taking the time and trouble to bring this matter to my attention. I can assure you that your experience does not reflect the high standards we aim to achieve and hope you will continue to shop with us at Waitrose.


Taking rights seriously…..a complaint is an expression of
dissatisfaction of service rendered to which the Brits, unlike the Americans, do not take quite seriously enough; it’s little wonder we get, by and large, an inferior customer service.

A complaint taken must be pursued to it’s logical ends
for its resolution… it may be those with a more robust
mind or temperament that have the propensity (and time)
to so pursue.

As a last resort, the civil Courts are there as a final arbiter
of decisions made and any quantifiable loss sustained.

My wife and I often go out – to the Pub or for a meal in a restaurant – with another couple.
The male of the other couple is, in some respects, rather intolerant and with a short fuse.
His main ‘dislike’ is music being played in the establishment, especially if it is loud enough to impede conversation. At such times he has been known to explode and flounce out, making loud comments as he goes, making everyone within earshot thoroughly uncomfortable. It’s a shame because we enjoy the company of his wife.
So, as soon as I see steam beginning to come out of his ears I just find a member of staff and, quietly, explain that we’re having a little difficulty hearing one another and ask if there is any possibility of the music volume being reduced. It has never yet failed to get the desired result.
Will our friend’s husband ever try that tactic? Do pigs fly?
There’s no need to complain if a gentle request has the effect that you want.

kath cole says:
20 February 2013

Every time I use my pc I am inundated with advertisments,offers seem to be the worst no matter how many times I refuse to accept or take part they just keep popping up again and again. I would be grateful for any advise of stopping them. but if thats not possible at least reducing them.