Consumer interests: Ten steps to making a valid complaint

John Hearne outlines the steps you must take to ensure you’re not wasting your breath when complaining about a product or service.

Earlier this month, the Irish Ombudsman Network launched a guide to help with identifying the correct ombudsman to deal with your complaint. There are no fewer than seven.

The longest established is of course the Office of the Ombudsman, which deals with complaints from members of the public who believe they have been unfairly treated by public service providers.

In addition, there is also an ombudsman for children, for the Defence Forces, the press, An Garda Síochána, the Irish language, and financial services and pensions.

The guide, available at fspo.ie, was compiled by the latter office.

It details in precise terms the formalised procedures in place for dealing with complaints in each of these areas.

If, however, your complaint relates to a service provider or private organisation that falls beyond the remit of these offices, you are going to have to take a very different approach. Here are ten steps to getting consumer satisfaction.

Know your rights

Don’t kick up a storm if you’ve no grounds. Suppose, for example, you buy a coffee maker, then realise once you get it home that you don’t actually like coffee. If the product isn’t faulty, the shop doesn’t have to take it back. These days, very many shops out there have customer-friendly returns policies, but the point is they don’t have to take things back unless there’s a problem.

There are exceptions. When buying over the phone or online, there’s usually a cooling off period during which you can return something even if it works fine. Remember too that despite the Brexit impasse, the UK remains within the EU and online traders are still bound by EU consumer law. If you run into issues with overseas sellers, the European Consumer Centre (ECC Ireland) is an invaluable source of information and support.

Note too that when bringing something back you need proof of purchase, but that doesn’t have to be a receipt — a credit card statement will do. And if you have a written contract or description of the goods or services you’ve bought, have a good read through and find out whether or not the shop or service provider has actually breached the terms of the contract before you go in to make your complaint. It will make you far more effective.

What’s the problem

Don’t let your anger carry you along here. Get clear in your head exactly what the problem is. Was the product faulty? Were you badly treated as a customer? Did the product or service not fit the description?

What do you want

An apology? A replacement? A repair? Complaining can sometimes be a daunting business. Prepare yourself and figure out exactly what it is you want before you go in.

Don’t hang about

If there’s a problem, don’t put sorting it on the long finger. For one thing, it gives the shop a sign that you’re happy with the goods or service. For another, there may well be a time limitation on making a complaint.

For example, complaints about package holidays must be made within 28 days of returning home.

You’ll undermine your own case if you keep using faulty goods and delay going back to the shop.

In these circumstances, you may find that you’re no longer entitled to receive a full refund, but may have to put up with a partial refund or a repair.

And, as the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission points out, you’ve no comebacks if the fault has arisen because you misused the goods, if the fault was pointed out at the time of purchase or if there are superficial faults that you should have spotted when you were buying the thing in the first place.

The paper trail

Keep every little bit of paper and record every single interaction you have with the goods or service provider, just in case things have to be taken further.

Having a thorough history of your dealings with whoever it is will always add weight to your claim.

So hold onto cheque stubs, receipts, credit card statements and invoices, and make a note of what’s said on phone calls if and when you phone.

Note the times of these calls too. And if you’re complaining in writing, keep a copy of what you send as well as any replies you receive.

Always complain to the right person

Don’t start haranguing the first person you meet when you return to the shop. Ask for whoever you dealt with in the first place, or go to the customer care department, if they have one.

If they don’t, ask for a boss or a manager — someone who has the power to set things right, and always give them a chance to do that before you take things further.

Stay cool

Be polite but firm. Don’t lose the head or start swearing. Tell them what you want and how you want it.

Focus on solution rather than blame. Be determined. If you have a genuine problem, the shop can’t tell you to take it up with the manufacturer.

Under consumer law, your contract is with whoever sold you the goods, not whoever made the goods, so it’s up to the seller to sort the problem. If they point to signs that say ‘no refunds’, don’t accept that. These signs may actually be illegal.

Remember too that your rights don’t change just because the shop is running a sale.

Still no satisfaction?

Then it’s time to make a formal complaint, in writing. Get the name of the most senior person or the right department, plus of course their address.

Then sit down and write or type your letter.

Keep it short and to the point. State your rights, say what you want, give them a reasonable timeframe to comply, and attach copies — no originals — of any documentation.

This is serious

If making a formal complaint fails to get you want you want, it’s time to take it further.

There are all kinds of options here. If the complaint involves an amount up to €2,000, you could try the small claims court.

Small claims court procedures are designed to be straightforward and relatively quick.

If you’re talking about a bigger amount, it may be necessary to get yourself a solicitor, or at least to seek legal advice. Alternatively, there are a range of industry bodies and state organisations to whom you can take your complaint, and who act on your behalf.

Who to go to

There are any amount of regulators, consumer advocate groups and, as we have seen, ombudsman’s offices out there, whose job it is to bring reluctant goods and services providers to heel if they don’t do as they’re told.

If you are looking for a one-stop shop, then go to the local citizens’ information centre, or you can click on citizensinformation.ie.

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