In October of last year, I embarked upon a battle with my bank (Bank of Ireland). I experienced some truly awful customer service from them, and was left so unhappy with them that I had no recourse to complain. I’ll save the nitty-gritty details of that débâcle for another day and another post however, because what I really want to talk about is something that not only relates to my Bank of Ireland experience, but to how we all deal with companies when they provide sub par service.

You may well say that no one needs to be told how to complain, least not the people of Ireland, but I would contend, as I have done for a very long time, that people don’t know how to complain properly. In fact, I would content that we generally don’t complain. Yes, that’s right, we don’t complain. We may vent briefly at friends and family about what has happened, or maybe even put together a brief post on a site like, but for the most part, we stop there. Aside from the occasional grumble whenever the issue comes up in the future, no real affirmative action is ever taken. Worse still, if you actually do complain (really complain), in many cases you are not lauded, but actually derided for daring to complain about the poor service you received (as has happened to me – again, a story for another post).

I think that there are a number of reasons why people don’t really complain, some of which I’ll try to deal with below.

  1. Effort: There’s no denying that it takes some effort to complain properly. You have to investigate the company to figure out who you should be complaining to, and how they accept complaints. If you call them over the phone, you have to have documentation in front of you and likely quote endless reference numbers and dates. If you need to write to them, you’ll first have to put together a letter outlining your difficulties. All in all, it takes time and effort.
  2. Low Return: Sadly, it has been my experience that many companies handle complaints poorly. If you have to keep fighting and fighting to get an apology or some sort of compensation, it may well become more of a fight than you feel it’s worth.
  3. Stigma: This is a bit of an odd one – there is an odd stigma that you’ll occasionally encounter as a “complainer”, where people seem to think you really have no right to expect decent service and to complain when you don’t get it. These are the people who will take it personally that you have complained, and they can derail you very easily.

So, with those points in mind, why bother complaining? Well, for a start, I think it’s one of the most valuable rights that we have as consumers. When you buy something, be it a good or a service, you enter into a contract. That contract assumes that the good or service will do what it purports to do, and it is on this basis that you sign up, purchase, etc. If a good or service falls short of expectations, you have the right to complain, and expect that the situation will be resolved. You should exercise your right to complain, because if you don’t, then the company will continue to produce inferior products, or provide inferior services. When you do complain, you should expect to receive good customer service. The company should respond to your complaint, and try to resolve it in a satisfactory way. And, at the end of the day, you should receive some sort of compensation (an apology, a refund or replaced product, etc.).

Sadly, there is a notable discrepancy between the way things should be, and the way things are. I haven’t always received adequate responses to complaints. I have sometimes had to fight my corner for much longer than I have cared to, and I have sometimes been attacked for doing so. Will that stop me? Heck no, and nor should it stop you.

Here’s how I usually deal with any sort of complaint –

  1. Be Polite: This is so important, I cannot stress this enough. The simple fact of the matter is that if you call an organisation, the first person you’re likely to get through to is either a receptionist, or someone in a call centre. Unless your beef is actually with the receptionist or the call centre  in question, it’s likely that the person on the end of the phone isn’t directly at fault. Shouting at them, being aggressive or abusive, or generally being rude over the phone won’t help your case. The person on the other end of the phone won’t be sympathetic to your problem, and will just make a note of you as being a problem caller. You can expect any dealings with that centre to be more difficult from then on (depending on how badly the call goes). Simply explain to the person what is going on and ask to be redirected to someone who can deal with the complaint directly. If they refuse, or do not know where to send you, request that you be put on to a supervisor or more senior member of staff, and take it from there.
  2. Be Firm: You can be polite without being a pushover. While you shouldn’t get aggressive or angry over the phone or in person, when it is the umpteenth phonecall about the same issue, you should be prepared to be firm. This means not accepting the “we’ll call you back” shortly excuse, but politely insisting that you speak to someone now (perhaps citing previous “call backs” that never happened). This means stating your case calmly and clearly, and refusing to be brushed off until you have a definite answer for your problem.
  3. Be Prepared: In general, get into the habit of keeping receipts for large or expensive purchases up somewhere safe. This doesn’t have to be a huge chore – just assign a specific place (e.g. a “Receipts” folder in a document divider) and pop them in when you get home. File digital receipts in a particular folder in your email so that they can be found quickly. If you’re making a complaint over the phone, have any relevant documentation to hand so that you can’t be put off by requests for dates, prices, reference numbers, etc. If you’re complaining via snail mail or email, be prepared to photocopy or scan your documentation and attach as proof.
  4. Be Knowledgeable: Do a quick online search about the company – do they have a history of being difficult to deal with? Are there horror stories littering the web? Do some research about your rights as a consumer, and make sure you know what you’re entitled to (you wouldn’t believe how many people regularly misquote the Sale of Goods and Supply of Services Act). All of this information can shape the way you deal with a company, and having a good grasp of this information can really help.
  5. Be Forearmed: Chances are, unless you’re extremely lucky, that you may have to make contact more than once. Particularly when dealing with phone complaints, keep a notepad handy (real or virtual). Make a note of who you spoke to, when you spoke to them, and what they said. Keep this somewhere safe (with your receipts, for example) as you never know how long a complaint can drag on. If emailing or writing, save a copy of your letter along with the date you sent it. Keep any replies received in the same place so that you have  a record of the conversation as a whole.
  6. Be Persistent: In the first instance, your complaint will probably be directly to the company concerned. If you’re not satisfied with their response, take the complaint elsewhere. Complain to the general customer services (rather than individual branch). Complain to the corporate headquarters. Complain to a regulatory body that deals with the industry (e.g. the financial ombudsman). If you are in the right, you deserve to be dealt with quickly and efficiently. If that’s not happening, take the complaint to the next level.
  7. Be Public: If you’re very unhappy with a company, tell people. Tell your friends and family. Tell people who read your blog, your twitter feed, your facebook page, etc. Make sure that people you know don’t end up having the same problems. Equally, if the response you receive after a complaint is excellent, tell people. Companies with good customer service policies deserve credit, because they are few and far between.
  8. Be Mobile: If you really are very unhappy with a company, and complaining doesn’t get you anywhere, then be prepared to leave. As the saying goes, “vote with your feet”. Stop shopping there, close your account, switch your provider. When you do so, make sure that whoever is dealing with your account closure knows exactly why it’s being closed. If you feel that you have been particularly badly treated, make sure to let the company know (not just the branch directly, if possible, but at a corporate level) that you are leaving, and make sure they know why (e.g. When closing a bank account, also write to the general corporate customer services, not just the individual branch customer services).

Next time, I’ll blog a bit about some of my own customer service experiences (best and worst), and how I dealt with them. In the meantime, if you’re not happy with something, do something about it!