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Consumer - How to Complain

Friday, 9 April 2010

Tina Leonard will be in studio discussing how you should go about making a complaint and what a good and bad complaint letter looks like.

According to an EU consumer survey:

"Less than 10% complain over unsatisfactory purchases" and fewer than one in ten Irish shoppers complain when they buy a product or a service that is less than satisfactory.

The Irish propensity to suffer in silence when they get shoddy products makes them the least likely in the EU to object. This, despite almost every consumer saying they have come across at least one unfair commercial practice - the highest number in the EU. The Irish appeared to be learning to complain during the years of the Celtic Tiger, with the number demanding action on problems rising to 13% in 2008, the highest recorded, but last year this dropped way down to about 7%.
The Irish Examiner, Tuesday, March 30

Tina Leonard, Consumer Expert

We are not always so good at complaining or speaking up in Ireland, but many more people are speaking up to complain now as money is tight and they know they have rights.

If a service has not been provided adequately or if a product is faulty and you know you are legally entitled to a remedy, then what's so bad about asking for it? Consumer legislation is there to readdress the balance of power between the consumer and the business so use it.

Research published by the National Consumer Agency at the end of January (Carried out by Amárach Consulting) shows a small increase in people who are willing to complain at 78%. Over one third (36%) of those surveyed said they had a reason to complain in the previous 12 months but only 78% did so. A majority (69%) said that the complaining was easy and of the remainder (21%) that found it difficult the main reason was unhelpful staff.

From a business perspective looking after an existing customer is easier and cheaper than finding a new one. Empowered consumers who know their rights and complain where needed are good for business as they are likely to shop more and tell others of their positive experiences. (Likewise, consumers with negative experiences will pass that on too).

Four key elements to complaining effectively:

1) Act quickly
2) Know what your rights are
3) Know what you want
4) Be rational and stay focused

1) Act quickly

Act promptly when something goes wrong, otherwise you run the risk of being deemed to have accepted a faulty product, for example.
Under EU consumer law, during the first 6 months your rights are highest and you have a minimum of 2 years across Europe to make your complaint. In Ireland the Statute of Limitations allows you 6 years for a complaint/case but bear in mind the expected life span of the product.

Also, under some consumer law there are time limits. For example, you must write your letter of complaint about a package holiday within 28 days, or about damaged luggage within 7 days and delayed luggage within 21 days. If you've bought something online, your cooling off period is a minimum of 7 days from receipt of the items (where you can change your mind).

2) Know your rights

To complain effectively you will need to know if you have grounds for a complaint. Find out what your rights are first so that you are sure the retailer / service provider is obliged to provide a remedy.
For example, a shop is not obliged to take back a perfect but unwanted good (unless purchased online where you have your cooling off period). Or if you break something yourself you are not entitled to a remedy. So if you know that and are asking for goodwill, you'll need to ask for that in an appropriate way.

Find out what your rights are by contacting the National Consumer Agency or the European Consumer Centre ( for advice on cross-border complaints. Also go to the Irish Insurance Federation or the Financial Regulator or the Commission for Aviation Regulation or COMREG or Regtel etc.

3) Know what you want

Once you know what your entitlements are you will be able to decide what you want. For example, is it a repair, replacement or refund or are you looking for compensation for damaged luggage. Being clearer will help, as if the retailer / service provider comes back to you with a suggested remedy you need to know if you will accept it.

Making the complaint

. Always go back to where you bought the product / service.
. Depending on the circumstances, it may be best to make your complaint first either face to face or over the phone. If it a small(ish) shop for example, you should be able to ask to speak to the manager to address your complaint to him/her.
. If it's a bigger company check if the company has an internal complaints procedure or a customer service department that deals with complaints and address your complaint to them.
. Keep records of the calls and names but if this happens you'll need to put the complaint in writing to the customer service section.
. Always give the business the opportunity to put things right: the majority of complaints should be resolved at this stage.

4) Be rational and stay focused

Never get aggressive, no matter what the situation is. Be polite yet firm. If you know what your entitlements are then that knowledge means you can negotiate with the company on strong terms. Always focus on the action you want them to take rather than your disappointment. You will only get emotional and so less clear-headed and rational, so focus on the positive of the action you want them to take. Be determined however. If you know you are right then don't back down.

Making the complaint

If making a verbal complaint hasn't worked, it's time for a letter. Be clear and concise in your letter. Don't give too much detail or be rude about them or explain your feelings. No-one needs your life story. You just need to include what happened and when and what you want to happen now. Include reference to people you have already spoken to in the company, copies of any previous correspondence, and a copy of your receipt / credit card statement or order confirmation.

Tips when writing complaint letters:

. Write to the manager by name if you can or to the customer service dept.
. If you were also talking to a salesperson give their name.
. Be factual and get straight to the point. Don't add unnecessary detail.
. Include the history: when and where you bought it; description of what happened; what you did next; what you want to happen; state your rights; suggest a time frame; copy of proof of purchase; copy of any other relevant document.
. Do not use emotive terms or condemnation, such as, I am disappointed in you, you are all idiots, I am distraught etc.
. Send your letter by registered post so you have proof of postage

What next?

If none of this has worked are there other places you can turn to for help for your unresolved complaint, depending on the area of complaint so look for public bodies, industry lead bodies or professional associations.

For example the Financial Ombudsman deals with unresolved financial complaints, Comm for Aviation Reg deals with unresolved air passenger rights cases, the European Consumer Centre deals with unresolved cross-border cases, SIMI deals with car cases, Comm for Energy Regulation with unresolved energy complaints, RIAI (Architects Assoc) has a complaints service too and there are many more, both public agencies and industry bodies.
You can take a small claims action against the trader / service provider for €15 and can claim up to €2000.