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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
complainIt 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 sub-standard 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.

Learning how and understanding when to complain is extremely important, as this will give you the confidence you need to get results.

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 focusses 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

no serviceThis 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.

As a general rule, you have a case for complaint when…

  • 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 sub-standard 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!

How 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 pointers and you'll be well on the way to a solution!

  1. Make sure you've got all the facts

    writing lecture notesIt 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 plus 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 of when 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 some steam doing this you might even find it a bit easier to lodge your complaint without losing your rag.

  2. Think about what you want to achieve

    service industry jobs waitressIt'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 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.

  3. Know who to contact

    rules customers ebayAt 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.

    Buying in-store

    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 you feel you aren't getting anywhere at this stage, this is time to ask to speak to a manager.

    Buying online

    If your issue involves something you bought online, then the first port of call should be to check the company's website for a customer service email. Or, if you're feeling particularly cheeky, skip straight to the company's Twitter page and send them a tweet.

    No business likes to receive complaints online for all to see (although every one 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 140 characters, or it's a more personal matter, simply send them a direct message about your complaint.

    Still no reply? Badger them on social media until you get a response, and if you're still having no luck (although this is unlikely), send a formal letter to the company's head office (see the next section of this article for more on this!).

  4. Remember your manners!

    be politeWe 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.

  5. Act quickly

    get there quickYou 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.

What if this doesn't work?

bang head against a brick wallWhile we'd like to think that you've managed to get your complaint sorted out by this stage, there can be occasions where you feel like you're banging your head against a brick wall and getting nowhere.

In this instance, it's time to take your complaint to the next level…

Write to head office

You can attempt to contact someone very high up by searching for their email address on this website. Alternatively, you can try to guess (Eg. [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.

Name and shame them online

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.

Here's a great example below – 400,000 people supported this woman on Facebook when she complained publicly to Ryanair about her boarding pass charges!

Viral Complaint

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).

There are different types of ADRs for different sectors, from bank issues to problems with your broadband provider. For example, if you're unhappy with how an issue with your energy provider is being handled, you can get in touch with Ofgem, which is a government-run regulator. For complaints in other areas, a quick google search should bring up the relevant contact.

Take it to small claims court

complaintIf your complaint involves a breach of contract, you can try to take this to a small claims court. The maximum amount you can claim for with small claims is £10,000 in England and Wales; £3,000 in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Speak to Citizen's Advice

Finally, if you are really struggling to get any contact 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.

Expert tips

complain catIf you want to almost guarantee you get the results you want (and fast!), here's a few additional tips from us:

  1. Know who to address your complaint to: Whether you're sending you letter to the Managing Director or the Customer Services department, find the name of the right person to send it to and it will get there quicker.
  2. Quote the relevant consumer law: If you really want results fast, read up on the relevant law and quote it to them.
  3. Don't apologise: While it's important to be polite, make sure not to apologise for anything. You're making a complaint because they're at fault, not you!
  4. Keep copies of everything you send: 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.
  5. Set a deadline: You don't have to be rude, but you can ask a company to get back to you within a reasonable timeframe so you're not left hanging. This also makes them much easier to chase up if they don't stick to the date.
  6. 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. Include your details: 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. This should be covered if you're writing a formal complaint letter, as your address should be included in the header.

Don't forget that being a pleasant and polite customer yourself also goes a long way, and you could make someone's day!

Have you had to complain in the past after having problems with service or something you've bought? Let us know in the comments below.

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