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 dotted 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 small fee.
If the call gets you nowhere, it’s time to write. If they are unable to meet your requests then politely ask to speak to their manager, sometimes the initial person you speak to has limited authority. Wherever you can, get a name of a person to address the letter to, rather than just using sir or madam. Make the letter succinct and use any evidence you have to back up your argument; for example, photos of poor workmanship - perhaps send it by recorded delivery and keep a copy yourself.
Start with the manager specifically 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 thousands of UK companies.
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 is 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 £500 or so per case: an incentive to make them act.
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Go to the ombudsman
Check whether there is an ombudsman who can help you.
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 financial-ombudsman.org.uk. There is also a separate ombudsman for disputes about pension schemes and how they are run (020 7630 2200).
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 (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.
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.
Holiday disputes are dealt with by the Association of British Travel Agents (020 3117 0599). Under Civil Aviation Authority rules, airlines are governed by ATOL – Air Travel Organisers’ Licensing (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 (0300 555 0333), which deals with disputes in England and Wales. There is also a Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (0131 201 2130). In Northern Ireland the Law Society determines and enforces standards (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 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, small claims are limited and you cannot claim online – but advice and claim forms can be found here. In Northern Ireland you can claim online.
Read our guide to using the small claims court
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 get your costs reimbursed. You might get a little extra for emotional distress, but probably no more than £100.
Explore other options
There’s a website called resolver.co.uk, which automates most of these processes for you and stores the trail of correspondence securely. It covers energy, insurance, retail, telecoms, motoring, home support services and travel.
It gives you the contact details you need, drafts and sends letters or emails, and also records phone calls to eliminate subsequent disputes about who said what.
And throughout, it gives you advice about what you can reasonably expect. For the consumer, Resolver is free to use – you just pay low rates for any postage or phone calls.
Do you use social media? Twitter is another tool you can use to complain. Find out more...
Good companies will listen
They want to hear your complaints - this is because an unhappy customer often becomes their competitor's customer. You also become the worst walking advert a company can have - telling friends and family of the poor service you have received. However, if they successfully resolve your grievance they will likely keep your custom.
Know what you want
If you have bought a product and it has arrived faulty, you obviously want it exchanged. But have you been inconvenienced? If so, what additional extra will make up for that?
Or perhaps you had a poor stay in a hotel; your room wasn't available when you arrived and the shower wasn't working properly. Why should you pay the full amount? What about a free night's stay, discount or an upgrade?
Adopt a fair but firm approach
It's important to remember that it's the companies' product or service that has gone wrong and not necessarily the fault of the person on the end of the line/in front of you; ranting at them rarely gets the best results, so be polite but firm, stating what's wrong and what you want done about it.
Whenever you agree adequate compensation, take a note of the name of the person you spoke to and the date and time you spoke to them.
Remember: the law is on your side
The Sale of Goods Act - http://www.berr.gov.uk/whatwedo/consumers/fact-sheets/page38311.html - details your rights as a consumer when a product is faulty.
But before you get to that stage you must try to resolve the complaint yourself.
Initially you will probably complain by phone.
Keep a note of any conversation as you make it or just after. Write down the date and time of the call and the name of the person you spoke to. That will help you recall things.
If the firm records such conversations – and most of them do – knowing when you made it will enable the firm to track it down. If the firm did record the conversation, you have a right to a copy or a transcript of the conversation but you will probably have to pay a small fee.
All these firms must have a complaints procedure, so once you feel you are being fobbed off, say that you want to make a formal complaint and ask how to do that.
Complaining to phone and TV providers – try this approach
Companies involved in communications are often the hardest to get in touch with. Landline and mobile phone firms, broadband providers, and satellite TV companies can seem difficult to deal with if you want to do anything except join, upgrade, or pay.
So what do you do if you have a complaint? All communications firms must belong to a dispute resolution service. There are two – Ombudsman Services and CISAS (Communications and Internet Services Adjudication Scheme). You can find out which service your telecoms provider belongs to from the firm itself or from the regulator Ofcom at https://www.ofcom.org.uk/phones-telecoms-and-internet/advice-for-consumers/problems/adr-schemes.
Ombudsman: https://www.ombudsman-services.org/ or call 0330 440 1614.
CISAS: https://www.cedr.com/consumer/cisas/ or call 020 7520 3814.