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How to complain and get results

Dodgy shoes? Cold soup? Bad phone signal? These are all grounds for complaint, and you should always speak out if something's not up to scratch. 

suit cape

Credit: Yuganov Constantin – Shutterstock

It might be the pinnacle of Britishness to keep a stiff upper lip and just get on with things, but this doesn't mean you should accept substandard service or goods.

What's worse is that it's easy to feel disempowered by the feeling that you won't be taken seriously if you try to complain about something, and unfortunately, many (particularly young) people avoid speaking up for fear of either being ignored or embarrassed by the whole situation.

Knowing when to complain is crucial. And since telling people that what they're doing is a pile of steaming brown mess isn't the easiest thing in the world, we thought we'd put together a guide of how to complain effectively and as painlessly as possible.

Feel free to complain if it isn't 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.

When to complain

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Credit: JStone – Shutterstock

This might sound obvious, but picking the right time to complain is just as important as actually doing the deed itself.

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.

Reasons to make a complaint

  • You received a service (such as a massage or a haircut) that was terrible
  • Staff were rude or made you feel uncomfortable (for instance, in a restaurant)
  • You were served something very substandard or against health and safety (a hair in your pasta, for example)
  • A product you bought was faulty or didn't work the way it's supposed to
  • A service or goods were delivered unreasonably late
  • You believe 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 (for example, you were promised 500 free minutes and unlimited texts, but only got the airtime).

Still unsure if your situation justifies a complaint? You can find loads more details in our consumer rights guide.

Once you've decided that you really have got a case for a complaint, you can get your gears into action.

Lesson one complete – now it's time to have a good old moan!

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

The best way to complain

So now you've established that you have been wronged and do have grounds for making a complaint... but how do you actually go about doing this?

Just follow these few simple tips on how to complain and you'll be well on the way to a solution!

  1. Know what you want to achieve

    what is student finance

    Credit: CBS

    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. After all, they do depend on your custom.

    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 before you make your complaint, and it'll make the process a bit easier.

  2. Brush up on your consumer rights

    woman on laptop

    It can be easy to get Angry Rant Central when you feel like you've been shafted, but 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 witnesses you can gather might help with your case – the more info and material you have, the better chance you'll have of resolving the issue effectively.

    Offer the exact time that you were in their store or making your order, too. This sort of info – when combined with a description of the staff member who served you – can 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!

  3. Don't get angry

    elf smile

    Credit: New Line Cinema

    We understand that you're probably not the happiest bunny in the world after the [insert bad experience here] incident. However, you do have to 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, right?

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

  4. Complain as quickly as possible

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    Credit: Alextype – Shutterstock

    You should always complain as soon as possible 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 a problem.

    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.

  5. Follow the designated 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 seem like a tempting and productive use of your time. But you can often sort complaints much quicker and with a lot less hassle if you start at the source of the issue.

    If your issue 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 to them first – it is 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.

  6. Complain in person if you can or write a letter

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    If your complaint is regarding an item you bought from a shop, get yourself down there in person rather than doing it over the phone. It's far easier for someone to pie you off if they haven't got you face-to-face – they might promise to look into it and do nothing at all!

    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 correct person of course!

    If the company do decide they want to send you some freebies or dollar in the post, the whole process will be much quicker 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 included in the header.

    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 them much easier to chase up if they don't stick to the date. You can do this if you're complaining over the phone too, mind!

    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.

  7. Use social media

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    If you're confident with words, and feel like you have a strong case, you might even want to try your hand at writing a viral complaint or make 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 offering 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. On which note...

  8. Contact head office

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    Credit: Warner Bros

    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'll know if you've guessed correctly when a logo or image appears in your email browser or your email doesn't bounce.

    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.

What to do if complaining doesn't work

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Go to an Ombudsman

An ombudsman is a form of ADR scheme (Alternative Dispute Resolution scheme) which you can go to if you can prove you've exhausted all 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 ombudsmen

  1. Ofgem is a government-run regulator which deals with issues between you and your energy provider, for both gas and electricity
  2. The Financial Ombudsman set up by Parliament resolves disputes between financial services such as banks, insurers and loan sharks (gross!) 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 telecom services i.e. your phone contract or broadband provider
  4. The Competition and Markets Authority deal with how universities comply with consumer law, so if you're thinking about filing a complaint against your university like this girl did, you might want to get in touch with them.

These are some of the biggies, 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 it 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 and £3,000 in Northern Ireland.

Speak to Citizen's 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 show up to a local office to speak to someone in person if you'd prefer.

Knowing how to haggle your way out of any situation is a great way to improve your negotiating powers!

If all else fails and you're stuck with your unwanted goodies, here are some of the best places to sell your clothes online and the best swapping sites if you already know what you want!

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