The six steps of effective complaining you need to know - Sarah Coles

This week I got a warning letter from the gym telling me that because I’d failed to pay my membership fee, my credit record would be set on fire and they’d send someone round to break my legs.

OK, so it wasn’t quite so threatening, but you get the gist. Fortunately, I followed the six steps of effective complaining, and after step four, this morning Ryan kindly confirmed that the matter was all settled – without any need to call those debt collectors after-all. And while in an ideal world, none of us would ever need to complain, it’s worth knowing what to do if you find yourself in a similarly sticky spot.

It starts long before you get any kind of problem, with the records you keep. I was lucky because I had incredibly low expectations from the outset. You don’t sign your son up for the cheapest gym in town without reading all the small print and spotting all the pitfalls. I filed the contract, and made a note of all the details of cancellation.

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We can’t keep every piece of paper we’re ever given by every company, but for any large outlay or ongoing subscription, it’s worth checking and filing a copy. Some businesses will do everything verbally, so you need to check their website for the terms and conditions and take screenshots. When things start to go wrong, keep evidence of this too. This should include everything from photos of faulty goods to a diary of the conversations and emails you exchange with the company.

It’s worth knowing what to do if you need to complain about a product or a service. Picture: Adobe StockIt’s worth knowing what to do if you need to complain about a product or a service. Picture: Adobe Stock
It’s worth knowing what to do if you need to complain about a product or a service. Picture: Adobe Stock

The second step is to know your rights. If you’re buying goods, they need to be of satisfactory quality, as described, fit for purpose and last for a reasonable time. If it’s a service, it should be done with reasonable care and skill in a reasonable time for a reasonable price. If, like, me, you’re cancelling, you need to know the cancellation rights laid out in the contract.

Your rights also depend on the timescales involved. It’s reasonable to expect a full refund if you send something back as faulty within 30 days – because the law states you have the right to reject it during this period. After 30 days, you lose some rights, but if the retailer wants to argue, they’ll have to prove it wasn’t faulty when you got it. Otherwise, you’ll be entitled to a repair or replacement. After six months, it’s up to you to prove it was faulty from the outset. Once you get beyond about six years, your chances of winning the argument decline significantly.

Step three is to know what you want to achieve. Before you do anything, work out whether you’re after a refund, an exchange, a repair or compensation. Or whether, like me, you just want them to carry out what they initially promised.

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Now you’re ready for the actual complaining. So step four is to get in touch in person – by phoning or visiting the store. The key is to stay calm and polite – but firm. Explain the problem, outline any evidence you have, explain your rights, and make your request.

If they don’t respond, step five is to complain in writing. Check to see if they have a complaints procedure, and if you get to speak with them, ask them specifically what details they need to have. You will need to explain the problem and include any proof – although you shouldn’t send any originals. If you are sending anything through the post, use recorded delivery, so you can prove it arrived. Make sure you’re clear about the time limit for any response – and be reasonable so they have enough time to reply.

If you still get nothing back, be persistent. The old adage that it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the oil is true. You need to be nice enough that they want to help you, and persistent enough that it’s less hassle to deal with the issue than to keep fobbing you off.

Step six is the final resort. If the industry they’re operating in has an Ombudsman you can submit a claim to them. Otherwise, you may need to go down the legal route. It’s important to weigh up the hassle and cost against what you’re trying to achieve. At this stage you may be so angry you want to proceed anyway, but sometimes in the final analysis, it’s not worth it, so consider it carefully. Before you do, it’s always worth sending a final letter confirming you’re about to take legal action. This may be enough to tip the balance, and if you end up with a legal approach, any court would want to see you’ve given them this opportunity to settle.

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Don’t be put off though. If you’re claiming for £10,000 or less you can go through the small claims court, which is less onerous than you think, and is designed so you don’t need a lawyer. It will cost money, and if it goes all the way to a hearing there will be a fee. If you win, you’ll get it back, but there are no guarantees. You may also win, but not get what you want, especially if they don’t have the money to pay you, so while you shouldn’t be too afraid to try, you also need to understand what’s involved.

In my case, I sent a copy of the contract with details of cancellation, a copy of the cancelation email I sent, giving the notice that was required, and details of my final payment. Their assertion that I’d never cancelled was pretty hard to hang onto in these circumstances and they backed down. It can be easy to feel intimidated when you get a worrying letter, but if you keep your head and follow the steps, you can end up with the best possible result.

Two bright spots in Awful April

We’ve already faced a round of horrible changes this April – with higher council tax, car tax and water bills, the end of the energy bill rebate, lower capital gains tax and dividend tax allowances, higher prescription charges and new air passenger duty rules.

Fortunately, we’re set to enjoy the upside in the coming days and weeks. First, on Monday 10 April, we’ll finally get the 10.1 per cent bump in state pensions and benefits. The new flat rate state pension will rise from £185.15 to £203.85 a week and those on the old basic state pension will get £156.20 a week. Of course, not everyone gets the full pension, so those without enough national insurance credits will receive less - as will anyone on the new flat rate state pension who contracted out for a period.

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Then from 25 April, low-income households will start getting the first of their cost-of-living payments. If you’re on a number of benefits – including Universal Credit and Pension Credit – you’ll get £301 between 25 April and 17 May. To qualify you need to have claimed a payment between 26 January and 25 February this year, although pensioners may be able to get a new pension credit claim backdated. If you’re on a low income in retirement and you don’t claim the credit, it’s worth checking if you’re eligible. Apparently 85,000 people could claim it but don’t, and are missing out on the cost-of-living payments as well as a regular and essential boost to their income.

It is a bit of much-needed good news in the gloom of April. Unfortunately, the misery isn’t over either. It has emerged that towards the end of the month there’s another blow lying in store, with an 8.5 per cent hike in dental charges – the biggest rise in 17 years. This is the last thing we need on top of everything else.