Do some research
Before you even think of complaining, do a bit of research into what your rights are. Citizens Advice publishes excellent and detailed guidance at adviceguide.org.uk – but make sure you look in the right place: the law varies considerably in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. And for those with no internet access, Citizens Advice has offices throughout the UK.
Taking advice first will help you be clear about what you’re looking for. If you have lost money then you want that money returned; if you have been overcharged for goods or services or they were not what was promised, then you want a refund.
When you complain, either by phone or in writing, be courteous but firm. Don’t be fobbed off but never be rude or offensive.
Give them a ring
Most companies have a standard method for dealing with complaints and the first step is to ask the customer to telephone. When you get through, explain as simply as you can what has gone wrong and what you expect the company to do about it.
Always ask the name of the person you’re talking to and take notes of what was said and the date and time of the call.
If you fail to achieve the desired outcome, ask for the name of a person you should write to or email. Keep these notes carefully. When dealing with disputes, almost all firms record calls and, under data protection rules, you can get a copy of the recording or a transcript for a few pounds.
If the call gets you nowhere, it’s time to write. Start with the manager in charge of customer service, if there is one. If that doesn’t work, move on to the chief executive; the website ceoemail.com gives contact details for the bosses of nearly 3,000 UK companies, although you should check they are up-to-date before contacting them.
Keep your letter brief and send enclosures only if they will help your case – and keep the originals. Set a date by which you want a response. Two weeks is reasonable.
If there is an ombudsman overseeing the business you’re dealing with, then make it clear you will be referring the dispute there eight weeks after it started. That’s the normal time you have to wait before an ombudsman will consider a case, unless it has reached a deadlock earlier. The service is free for consumers but companies have to pay a sum in the hundreds of pounds per case: an incentive to make them act.
Go to the ombudsman
Check whether there is an ombudsman who can help you. Remember, Ombudsman require you to have already tried to settle the dispute before contacting them.
The Retail Ombudsman can take complaints about any firm which sells goods or services to individuals, including shops, gyms, supermarkets, garden centres, or petrol stations. It does not deal with a business which is already covered by another Ombudsman scheme, such as financial services, property, utilities, solicitors, accountants, builders and car outlets. It also covers sales through websites that are based in the UK.
Complaints can cover any aspect of the sale including refunds, delivery, faulty descriptions and clarity of pricing.
Financial services companies have to be part of the Financial Ombudsman Service. Call it on 0800 023 4567 or 0300 123 9123 for advice; online, it’s www.financial-ombudsman.org.uk.
There is also a separate ombudsman for disputes about pension schemes and how they are run (www.pensions-ombudsman.org.uk, 020 7630 2200).
Telephone and internet providers
Telephone, mobile phone and internet services (including broadband) are dealt with by the Communications Ombudsman, part of a not-for-profit private company called Ombudsman Services, which handles disputes in several fields, including energy and property (see below). Use its website ombudsman-services.org or call 0330 440 1614.
All telecoms companies must belong to this or another smaller organisation called CISAS (www.cisas.org.uk, 020 7520 3814). These websites both list their members so check which ombudsman to complain to.
Energy companies all have to subscribe to the Energy Ombudsman service (0330 440 1624), which can deal with disputes over bills, switching supplier or the way services have been sold to you. https://www.ombudsman-services.org/sectors/energy
Estate agents and surveyors
Estate agents, letting agents, surveyors, auctioneers and property management firms are dealt with by the Property Ombudsman service (0330 440 1634), but such businesses are not obliged to join. It is worth checking that a firm you are about to deal with is a member. www.tpos.co.uk
Holiday disputes are dealt with by the Association of British Travel Agents (abta.com, 020 3117 0599). Under Civil Aviation Authority rules, airlines are governed by ATOL – Air Travel Organisers’ Licensing (www.caa.co.uk/atol-protection, 020 7453 6700). When booking a holiday and/or flight, it’s a good idea to look out for the ABTA and ATOL symbols.
Legal services come under the Legal Ombudsman (legalombudsman.org.uk, 0300 555 0333), which deals with disputes in England and Wales.
There is also a Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (scottishlegalcomplaints.org.uk, 0131 201 2130).
In Northern Ireland the Law Society determines and enforces standards (lawsoc-ni.org/making-a-complaint, 028 9023 1614).
Many other businesses subscribe to consumer codes and dispute resolution procedures approved by the Trading Standards Institute (TSI), but the TSI does not itself deal with complaints. It recommends your first step should be Citizens Advice (see opening paragraph).
Go to court
If all else fails you can go to the small claims court to try to recover losses. In England and Wales, small claims can be made online at www.moneyclaim.gov.uk – not an easy website to use, but it’s probably more convenient and cheaper than visiting your local county court.
You cannot make a claim by phone, but you can get advice by emailing MCOL@hmcts.gsi.gov.uk or calling 0300 123 1057. You will have to pay a fee, which you will normally get back from the other side if you win.
In Scotland, advice and claim forms can be found at www.scotcourts.gov.uk/taking-action/small-claims.
In Northern Ireland you can claim online at www.courtsni.gov.uk.
The normal outcome of a successful claim should be to put you in the financial position you would have been in if the goods or services had done what they were supposed to do. You should also receive interest on any loss and have your costs reimbursed. You might get a little extra too for emotional distress, but probably no more than £100.
Alternatively, there is a website called resolver.com, which is a good point of reference for dispute resolutions.
Getting a refund on goods received
While you might assume you can return goods simply because you don’t like them or want them, this is not the case.
Under the Sale of Goods Act, you have no legal right to return an unwanted gift, as stores only have to offer a refund, replacement or repair if an item is damaged or faulty.
In other words, retailers are not legally obliged to give you the value of the item back in cash just because you don’t want it – or because you got the wrong size or colour.
But in reality most retailers have a “goodwill policy” (especially at Christmas) which means they will usually offer a refund on unwanted gifts. Others will offer an exchange or credit note.
Check for time limits on goods received
If you’re looking to return an unwanted item, you need to check the individual store’s policy on refunds.
Most retailers stipulate that you must take back non-faulty goods within 28 days of the purchase date.
That said, some shops will offer an extended returns window over the festive period, so that people who buy presents early in December aren’t penalised if the recipients don’t like them.
Note too that under a change to the Consumer Rights Act made back in 2016, you now have 30 days to take faulty goods back and receive a full refund.
Improve your chances of getting a refund
To help your chances of getting a refund, it’s worth taking along a receipt or gift receipt and, where possible, the card that paid for the item.
If the item was bought with a card, the store will usually refund the money to this card.But if the item is a gift, this may not be an option, so, the store may offer cash or gift vouchers instead.
You should also try and take unwanted gifts back to the store as soon as possible, and ensure that items are in pristine condition (which means unworn), with labels still intact.
Note that some retailers won’t accept the returns if the packaging has been opened or damaged.
Returning goods bought online
When goods are bought over the internet, you have more rights to return them than you do when buying items in-store under a set of rules known as the Consumer Contracts Regulations.
These rules allow you to return anything up to 14 days from the day you receive your goods – even if you just don’t want them or like them.
Equally, some internet retailers will extend this even further, so it’s worth checking the Ts and Cs, as you may have longer to return unwanted items.
Certain items cannot be returned
While most goods can be returned, there are some exceptions that you cannot take back, regardless of whether they were purchased in-store or online. These include fresh food, flowers and other perishables, personalised gifts, or other items that could not be re-sold.
Stores may also refuse to take back DVDs, music and other software if the seal on the packaging is broken.
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