Do you complain effectively or indignantly?
Knowing how to fight for your consumer rights is as important as knowing when to do it, writes Sinead Ryan
We're told we're a nation of begrudgers and it's true, we love nothing more than a bit of a gossip, especially if it's bad news. But when it comes to complaining properly about something we're unhappy about, do we really know how to do it effectively or do we just want to have a rant?
Most businesses prefer to know if their customers are dissatisfied. It's said you'll tell one person about good service, but five people about bad. So, rather than stonewall complainants, many organisations prefer to handle them - it's better for business. But if you find you haven't received proper service or bought something which doesn't work, it's important to know your rights before you kick off.
Purchases fall under the Sale of Goods and Supply of Services Act 1980 and EC Directive 99/44 and revisions. This determines that goods must be of merchantable quality, do what they say and are as described. If not, you are entitled to repair, replacement or a refund. These rights hold firm even on discounted goods, unless they are clearly marked as damaged. However, you have no rights at all if you simply change your mind. You will be reliant on the store's goodwill.
If your complaint is over a breach of legislation, such as discrimination under the Equality Act, or a Government body which didn't provide a service (eg. a medical card, or housing), then you may have even stronger laws on your side, but complaining effectively may take time.
For the most common type of complaint - a faulty good - if you believe you have a valid reason to return it, the first place to complain is with the retailer or service provider. Some will attempt to send you off to the manufacturer, but you should stand your ground. The store/provider you gave your money to is the one with whom you have a contract. It is incumbent on them to fix the problem, not their supplier. Remind them of this obligation by quoting the Act.
Secondly, speak to someone empowered to help - there is no point yelling at the receptionist. Find out who is in charge. If that doesn't work, write to the company's head office, calling first to identify the customer services manager or general manager to ensure your letter goes to the correct department. Some companies are reluctant to receive official complaints by email, but you can certainly try.
Enclose/attach details and proof of your case, eg. receipt, outline of complaint and, crucially, what you want to happen and by when. Many people give out to a company without saying what exactly they expected and now want.
If that is unsuccessful, the next step is to find out if there is a regulatory body, arbitration service or guild to which the company belongs. In Ireland, we have a range of regulators for financial institutions, communications (eg. phone, broadband, TV providers), energy and others. There are statutory bodies dealing with discrimination issues such as the Equality Authority or a breach of government or state services - the Ombudsman's office. Some trades have their own mediation system, for example, SIMI, the Society of the Irish Motor Industry operates a successful service for complaints.
Failing all that, it may be necessary to revert to Court. The Small Claims Court (www.courts.ie) handles claims up to €2,000 for a fee of €25. It is also quite speedy, and, in many cases, once the offending company hears of the action, it can act as an effective mind concentrator to settle. If they ignore the court's complaint, you automatically win.
The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, set up 14 months ago, is the body charged with investigating and enforcing complaints against Irish companies (www.consumerhelp.ie).
The top 10 companies with the most complaints are Eir, Vodafone and Three taking the dubious honour at the top of the table, which also features Virgin, Meteor, Harvey Norman and Currys.
If you're buying online, your rights are even stronger, as the law gives credence to the fact you don't have the opportunity to see or touch the goods first. Therefore, your right to return an item and get a refund extend to 'change of mind' for 14 days. There are some exceptions such as perishable items (food) and customised goods, and some less obvious ones like ticket sales and hotel bookings.
Never take bad service, or faulty goods lying down. Fighting works!