Smart Consumer: 'Get me the manager!' 10 lessons in the art of complaining
John Hearne on how to resolve disputes to your satisfaction
The travel company complaints department were used to bizarre grouches but this one took the biscuit: "Why didn't the holiday brochure warn me that the local store doesn't sell custard creams?" the angry customer asked.
He may have been a crazy cribber, but there are plenty of genuine reasons to give out about bad service and shoddy goods -- and Irish consumers, traditionally reluctant to complain, are starting to change their ways.
Research from the National Consumer Agency (NCA) found that complaints have risen by nearly 30pc since 2008.
The good news is that businesses are going out of their way to make it up to us. The research also found 93pc of complaints were either wholly or partially resolved to customers' satisfaction.
When it comes to complaining, there's a right and a wrong way to go about it. If the good is faulty or the service shoddy, here are 10 steps to getting your way without screaming the house down.
Know Your rights
There's no point going in all guns blazing if the law isn't on your side. Just because many shops now have no-quibble returns policies doesn't mean that changing your mind about a good or service gives you the legal right to your money back.
Also, if the fault arises as a result of misuse of the goods, you may have invalidated your rights. If you have a written contract or a description of the goods or services you bought, read it carefully.
Your complaint will be more effective if you are familiar with any terms and conditions that apply. Remember, too, that the law only requires you have proof of purchase.
That doesn't necessarily mean a receipt; a credit card statement will do just as well.
Think about what you want ahead of time. Why are you complaining? Was the product faulty? Did the service not meet the terms of the description? Were you treated badly as a customer? Figure out exactly what you want: Store credit? A replacement? Your money back? Simply an apology?
The clearer you are in your own mind about what you want, the easier it will be to make your case.
Don't Hang about
Unless you act quickly, the store or service provider will take it that you accept the good or service as is. Any delay in reporting the problem may reduce your entitlements under any guarantee or contract. Similarly, if you end up taking legal action, that action will be weakened.
Note, too, that there may be time limits on making certain types of complaints. Complaints about a package holiday, for example, must be made within 28 days of returning home. Don't wait for a convenient moment. Spring into action.
Find out who to complain to
Don't march into the store, grab the first guy with a name-tag and demand your money back. Go to customer care, or ask to speak to the manager. If there's only a guy with a name-tag on duty, briefly explain the nature of your complaint and ask to speak to the relevant department.
The paper trail
Start keeping notes the moment the problem arises. /Write down when and where you bought the good or service and how you discovered things weren't right. Keep notes on all contact with the company. Who did you speak to and when? What did they say?
If you end up writing a letter, keep a copy and note when it was sent. If the process starts to lengthen, let the company know they're up against a note-taker. It helps concentrate their minds and notes will be invaluable if the complaint ends up in court.
Be assertive rather than aggressive. You may have a right to be angry, but if you get abusive, you've lost.
Present yourself as a reasonable person, looking for what he or she is entitled to. If your blood starts to boil, focus on the action you want the supplier to take rather than your urgent need to clobber them with the faulty goods.
Consumer law can be a little grey, particularly in relation to how an issue is redressed. Again, know what you want and be persistent. If the shop assistant says it's against policy to issue refunds, ask to speak to someone with more authority.
Sometimes a shop will refer you to the manufacturer if you arrive in with faulty goods. Don't accept that. Under consumer law, the contract you automatically entered into when you bought the goods is with the shop, not the manufacturer. It's their job to get on to the factory.
Taking the matter further
OK. You've complained calmly, persistently and assertively. Despite your best efforts, the business is not playing ball. You need to make a formal complaint, this time in writing. Don't fret if you haven't written a letter in the last 20 years -- the consumer agency has some great templates at NCA.ie. These can easily be adapted for most complaint situations.
Type the letter up if you can. Keep it short and clear. Include reference numbers or info about the type and model of the goods or service, so it's easily identifiable by the company. Set out the history of the case. State your rights, tell them what you want and attach copies of documentation or photos if necessary.
Whatever you do, don't send original documents and make sure you know who to send the letter to.
All Fruit fails
It's unlikely you'll ever get to this point, but if your letter gets you nowhere, it's time to consider law.
If your complaint involves an amount up to €2,000, you may be able to take your case to court yourself through the small claims process, which is relatively simple and relatively quick. Check out smallclaims.ie. For bigger claims, you'll have to talk to a solicitor.
alternatively. . .
There is a small army of regulators, ombudsmen and consumer advocate groups out there whose job it is to bring reluctant goods and service providers to heel if they don't do as they're told. Go to the local citizens information centre, or click on citizensinformation.ie.
Alternatively, call the NCA on 1890 432 432. If your complaint relates to goods from another EU country, either online or while on holiday, try the European Consumer Centre, eccireland.ie.
Although the survey data tells us we're all seasoned complainers now, some of the old clichés about giving out still hold true. According to that same NCA survey, men are less confident about complaining than women. Some 82pc of women said they felt confident about exercising their rights as a consumer. The equivalent figure for men was 73pc.