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How to complain successfully

Dodgy shoes? Cold soup? Bad phone signal? These are all very valid reasons to complain, and you should always speak out if something's not up to scratch.

woman happy with a speaking symbol and hand receiving money symbol

Credit: ViDI Studio, Illizium, halimqd– Shutterstock

When you've parted with your hard-earned cash for something, you're well within your rights to expect your money back if the service or goods aren't up to scratch.

But, it's often hard to get past the worry that you won't be taken seriously if you try to complain.

Ultimately, knowing how and when to complain is crucial. To help, we've put together a comprehensive guide to complaining successfully. Feel free to complain if it's not good enough. 😉

This guide focuses on how to make a complaint using your consumer rights. If your problem is related to your living situation, head over to our guide on knowing your rights as a tenant.

How to make a complaint

Wondering how to make a complaint and get results? Here are the best steps to take to complain effectively:

  1. Decide if your complaint is justified

    grumpy cat

    Credit: JStone – Shutterstock

    This might sound obvious, but picking the right time to raise an issue is just as important as actually making the complaint.

    Whatever you're thinking of complaining about, don't do it if you're only looking to get a freebie out of it (you can find plenty of those right here).

    Not only will it be painfully obvious that this is your intention if that's all you're gunning for, but it could lead to you being banned from somewhere as a result if you're busted.

    Valid reasons to make a complaint

    •  You received a service (such as a massage or a haircut) that was inadequate

    •  Staff were rude or made you feel uncomfortable (e.g. in a restaurant or shop)

    •  You were served something very substandard or that didn't meet an expected level of health and safety (like if you find a hair in your meal)

    •  A product you bought was faulty or didn't work as it should

    •  A service or goods were delivered unreasonably late

    •  You were overcharged for something 

    •  You were unable to return an item, even though you complied with the store's return policy

    •  A company hasn't satisfied all of its contractual obligations (e.g. you were promised 500 free minutes and unlimited texts, but only got the calls).

    Note: If you're still unsure if your situation justifies a complaint, you can find plenty more details in our consumer rights guide.

  2. Consider what you want to achieve from the complaint

    baby success meme

    Source: KnowYourMeme

    It's all very well knowing that the hot dog you ordered was delivered by a grumpy sod that made you feel about as wanted as a steak in a vegetarian restaurant, but you need to give the company some idea of what it would take to get back in your good books.

    The three main methods of fixing customer complaints are: offering you an exchange or fixing the problem, refunding you for the goods or service, or offering compensation.

    While you may not be automatically entitled to compensation or a refund in every circumstance, it's more likely to be achievable if you know what you're looking for.

    Have a think about exactly what you want to be offered in response to your complaint before you make it, and it'll make the process a lot easier.

  3. Research your consumer rights

    woman on laptop

    Before you go in all guns blazing, make sure you've got all the facts first.

    Write down a full description of the issue and research what your rights are. Try consulting our guide to your consumer rights and have a quick search on Google for advice on your particular situation.

    Any photos, receipts or comments from witnesses that you can gather can help with your case – the more info and material you have when you make the complaint, the better chance you'll have of resolving the issue effectively.

    If the complaint's about a purchase, try to state the exact time that you were in the store or making the order, too. This sort of info – combined with a description of the staff member who served you – can hugely help a company to decide whether further action needs to be taken.

    The added bonus of this stage is that gathering all the info and writing it down can be kind of cathartic. Once you've blown off some steam doing this, you might even find it a bit easier to lodge your complaint without losing your rag.

  4. Stay calm when making a complaint

    calm woman at a desk

    Credit: Fizkes – Shutterstock

    We understand that you won't be at your happiest after a disappointing incident or purchase. However, remember that the people you're dealing with are human too, and they're just trying to do their job.

    What's more, those involved will be much more inclined to help you out if you treat them with respect – even if you are absolutely fuming inside. After all, it's highly unlikely that they were directly responsible for the problem in the first place.

    If you're calm and collected, you're also much more likely to explain your situation coherently and with enough detail for the issue to be resolved successfully.

  5. Complain as quickly as possible

    person with a stopwatch

    Credit: Alextype – Shutterstock

    You should always complain as soon as possible after the event to stand the best chance of getting a positive end result. This is especially true if you're complaining about faulty goods – and make sure you stop using them as soon as you notice there's an issue.

    After all, would you really believe someone was distraught about the service they received in store if they only got round to complaining six weeks later? Or that a frying pan was totally unfit for purpose from day one, but it's obvious that they carried on using it for a fortnight?

    If there's a reason you haven't been able to complain earlier, be sure to clarify this in your complaint.

  6. Follow a company's complaints procedure

    grumpy dog

    At this stage, going straight to the manager or owner of the company to tell them their business is shambolic might feel tempting, but you can often sort out complaints much faster if you start at the source of the issue.

    If your problem involves something that happened in a place where you were present or with something you bought in-store, you should first ask to speak to the person who (in your eyes) caused the problem in the first place.

    In many cases, they'll be happy to solve the issue there and then as the last thing they'll want is for the complaint to go further up to a manager.

    Alternatively, if your complaint is about a product and the store has a customer services department, it's worth going straight there first – it's their job to keep you happy!

    If your issue involves something you bought online, then the first port of call should be to check the company's website or social media for a customer service email.

  7. Complain in person or write a formal letter

    notebooks and pencil against blue background

    Credit: Alexxndr – Shutterstock

    If your complaint is about an item you bought from a shop, get yourself down there in person rather than doing it over the phone. It's far harder for someone to ignore or overlook your complaint if you're making it face-to-face.

    If there's absolutely no other way for you to contact them than over the phone, keep a full record of the conversation by jotting down the most important points and make sure you get the name of the person you're dealing with.

    Writing a formal complaint

    Putting your complaint in writing is a good shout if you can't physically go there – that way you've got solid proof of all communication. This could be via letter (if you're old school) or email, addressed to the relevant person.

    If the company does decide to send you some free things or money in the post, the whole process will be much easier if you include your full details in your complaint. This will be covered if you're writing a formal complaint letter, as your address should be written at the top.

    Make sure to include any statutory rights you feel have been broken in your letter, and ask the company (politely) to get back to you within a reasonable time frame so you're not left hanging. This also makes it much easier to chase up if they don't stick to the date.

    Lastly, check your spelling. Bad spelling doesn't excuse a company for not dealing with your complaint properly, but it will help give a good impression and show you're serious about your issue if you've proofread your complaint before sending it.

  8. Make a complaint on social media

    phone with social media icons

    If you're a confident writer and feel like you have a strong case, you might even want to try your hand at writing a viral complaint or making a complaint video that could gain thousands of views.

    No business likes to receive complaint tweets for all to see (although everyone gets them), so they're more likely to want to be seen to offer a solution ASAP to protect their image.

    If your matter is too elaborate for 280 characters, or it's a more personal matter, simply send them a direct message about your complaint.

    Still no reply? Badger them on all their social media channels until you get a response (but don't use aggressive language!), and if you're still having no luck, send a formal letter to the company's head office. Which brings us to our next point...

  9. Contact the company's head office

    Young serious man on phone at desk

    Credit: GaudiLab – Shutterstock

    You can attempt to contact someone very high up by searching for their email address on this website. Alternatively, you can try to guess (e.g. [email protected], [email protected] or [email protected] etc.).

    You may notice a profile picture pop up next to an email address when you type it in – this shows you are using a valid email address and is (hopefully!) the intended recipient.

    The higher up you take your complaint, the more people you'll end up speaking to. It's always useful to be able to reference how you've tried to resolve the problem already, as this shows how seriously you're taking the complaint and avoids any "he said, she said" situations.

Had a parking ticket recently? Find out how to win your appeal and save yourself needing to shell out for the fine.

What to do if your complaint is ignored or dismissed

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Go to an ombudsman

An ombudsman is a form of ADR scheme (Alternative Dispute Resolution scheme) which you can reach out to if you've exhausted all other options and are still not getting anywhere.

The ombudsman will only act if an admin or service error has occurred, so you can't go to them if your complaint is more about a difference of opinion (bad customer service, for example).

Major UK ombudsman services

  1. Ofgem is a government-run regulator that deals with issues between you and your energy provider, for both gas and electricity.
  2. The Financial Ombudsman Service resolves disputes between financial services such as banks, insurers and lenders, and their customers. They'll give you an unbiased opinion and have the legal powers to correct any wrongdoing.
  3. Ofcom deal with complaints regarding communication services like your phone contract or broadband provider.
  4. The Competition and Markets Authority deal with issues of competition in business, and as part of their work, they make sure universities comply with consumer law. If you're thinking about filing a complaint against your university (like this graduate), you may want to get in touch with them.

These are some of the leading ombudsman services, but there are different types of ADRs for different sectors. For complaints in other areas, a quick Google search should bring up the relevant contact.

We've got a whole guide on how to claim compensation from your uni if you feel they haven't upheld their end of the bargain.

Take your complaint to a small claims court

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Credit: MGM Distribution Co.

If your complaint involves a breach of contract, you can try to take it to a small claims court. The maximum amount you can claim for with small claims is £10,000 in England and Wales, £5,000 in Scotland (through this simple procedure) and £3,000 in Northern Ireland.

Speak to Citizens Advice

Finally, if you're really struggling to get anywhere with the company, then you might want to look into taking legal action – depending on how serious the claim is.

If you've exhausted all the options available within the company itself and still aren't happy, there are people you can go to for help.

The Citizens Advice Bureau offer free advice to anyone on money, legal or other issues and you can either call, email or pop into a local centre to chat with them.

If all else fails and you're stuck with any goods you don't want, you could always try these great swapping sites.

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