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 land.
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.
Step 1: 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 £10.
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.
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.
Have you got a problem with second hand goods? Read our guide to your rights.
Step 2: 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), which represents 5,000 companies. 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).
Step 3: 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 up to £10,000 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 starting at £25, which you will normally get back from the other side if you win.
In Scotland, small claims are limited to £3,000 and you cannot claim online – but advice and claim forms can be found here. A similar limit applies in Northern Ireland, but you can claim online.
Read our guide to using the small claims court.
Step 4: Compensation
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 get interest on any loss at 8% a year and get your costs reimbursed. You might get a little extra for emotional distress, but probably no more than £100.
There is a new 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 and home support services, travel – and plans to extend to other areas soon.
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.
Throughout, it gives 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. It makes its money by selling anonymous data to firms about what people are complaining about, how they compare with their rivals, and how well complaints are handled. It is a new service and I would like to hear from any readers who use it.
Do you use social media? Twitter is another tool you can use to complain. Find out more...