Smart Consumer: We're getting better at what we do best -- complaining, of course
Giving out is only useful if you go by the right channels, writes John Cradden
A letter of complaint about the quality of the food on a Virgin Atlantic flight became an internet sensation when it was written nearly two years ago.
Addressed directly to Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson, it is still regarded as one of the funniest complaint letters ever written.
On the flight from India to London, ad executive Oliver Beale took pictures of his rather dubious-looking meals with his camera phone and included them with his letter as "supporting evidence".
"I imagine the same questions are racing through your brilliant mind as were racing through mine on that fateful day," he wrote. "What is this? Why have I been given it? What have I done to deserve this? And, which one is the starter, which one is the dessert?"
After pointing out that it was only because he saw a tomato in one dish that he was able to identify it as the starter, he is still not convinced the other dish was a dessert. "Answer me this Richard, what sort of animal would serve a dessert with peas in it?"
Although most of the advice about writing complaint letters warn against being sarcastic or funny, this one broke all these rules and proved so effective that Branson himself reportedly telephoned the passenger and offered him a job as the airline's food tester.
Of course, the fact that it spread like wildfire across the internet probably forced Virgin's PR team to deal with the damage.
Unfortunately, trying to emulate this passenger's clever approach is probably unlikely to work in the case of one of our own airlines.
After all, it's hard to imagine Michael O'Leary following Branson's example of engaging a customer personally.
1 I know we're a nation of begrudgers, but are we actually any good at proper complaining?
Opinions vary, but a recent study commissioned by the National Consumer Agency (NCA) suggests that we are much more confident these days about complaining when we're not happy.
Over nine out of 10 consumers surveyed who were unhappy about a purchase in the past year complained to the seller about it.
Of those who complained, 78% said they found the process easy and 84% had their problem completely resolved. "The results of our research provide evidence that consumers are getting more confident about their rights and are more willing to complain," said an NCA spokeswoman.
2 This seems very high, especially the number of people who get their complaint fully resolved.
It certainly does to Dermott Jewell, chief executive of the Consumers' Association of Ireland. "I was very surprised when I read the results of that study, because it did not match our experiences here."
He adds that the survey results don't reveal much about whether the complaints had been resolved in a way that was "fair, reasonable, effective and lasting".
"We are inundated with consumers who have complained and got absolutely nowhere," says Jewell.
The NCA spokeswoman said the survey had asked the same questions as in similar surveys in the recent past, and "the figures, while showing an improving trend, are consistent with those recorded previously".
3 So what are the golden rules of complaining effectively?
When you know you have good reason, act quickly. The longer you leave it, the weaker your case gets.
There may also be a time limit on making a complaint.
Next, make sure you find the right person to complain to. It should be someone who has the authority to put things right -- which almost certainly isn't the snotty sales assistant.
Don't be rude, get angry or be sarcastic. You need to come across as a reasonable person, not as a grumpy old crank.
If you don't get any joy in person, by telephone or email, put your complaint in a formal letter.
4 But I absolutely hate writing formal letters.
If you can't get a resolution to your complaint, you can ombudsman services, such as the Financial Services Ombudsman, Pensions Ombudsman, and so on, which can provide an arbitration service.
However, before you can go to them, you'll need to prove that you have exhausted the normal complaints channel of the firm you are complaining to. The best way is through a formal letter. Formal correspondence will also help if you later try the Small Claims Court.
5 What about social media? I hear about lots of people getting very quick responses after complaining about a firm on Twitter or Facebook, for instance.
There is no hard evidence that companies are more responsive on Twitter or Facebook than if they received a complaint by email or phone, says top social-media consultant Krishna De.
"However, consumers have an expectation that if they post a question on Twitter or Facebook, companies will respond quickly."
"While it may be easy to complain online, you need to tread carefully.
"If you do post a question or a complaint on a social-media platform about a company, make sure that it is factual, and remember that whatever you post has a reflection on you too, not just the company," says De.
She also recommends never posting your phone number, email or account details on a social-media platform, because companies will usually offer to get in direct touch with you.