We sometimes think of ourselves as a nation of complainers. But that’s simply not true.

In fact, most of the people I speak to are reluctant to make a fuss, even when they’ve been treated terribly. The reasons why vary, but range from those who don’t like confrontation, or are worried about being penalised for making a complaint, to those of us who have become so cynical and fed up with the behaviour of businesses that they question if there’s any point.

I really do sympathise – and understand – all these viewpoints. But making a complaint means more than just getting a problem sorted out. It’s a way of making your voice heard. Of standing up to someone or something that has not behaved well. It’s possible to change the way a business operates for the better too. And above all else, it’s the best way to get some closure, even if you don’t win.

I’ve been writing columns for the Mirror now for getting on for a decade. Yet when Editor Levi asked me to write about making successful complaints, I realised that I’d somehow never covered this subject! Reader: I was shocked.

So let’s take a look at how to make a complaint – and win!

Work out what it is that’s bothering you

If you experience bad service, or a business makes a mistake that has an impact on your life, then it can be hard to put in to words what’s gone wrong. That’s because we tend to focus on the things that are annoying us the most, rather than providing an overview of the whole problem. Add to that emotions, and it gets harder to get across the situation and what you want the businesses or organisation to do to sort things out.

Firstly, distract yourself so you feel a bit calmer. Pop on some music or the tele or radio so your mind switches off a bit. Some people meditate, though I like to have a hot bath with a book, to de-stress my brain.

Next, try to reduce the problem to a few simple points. You might find going for a short walk helps you to put the problem in to perspective. Have a think about:

  • What’s actually gone wrong.
  • What needs to be done to sort things out.
  • Additional things that have arisen as a result of the problem (poor service, other errors).

Write the problem out using bullet points

Okay, let’s get the problem written up. Keep that TV or radio on as making a complaint while sitting in silence can be depressing. Set yourself a maximum of 20 minutes to jot things down at first. This will help keep you focused and will prevent the complaint spiralling out of control.

Think of your complaint as a short story. So start at the beginning with what went wrong and finish with a summary of what you want to sort things out.

Rather that write lots of paragraphs, set out what’s happened with bullet points. This makes the complaint easier to follow and understand. It’s also easier on the eye for the person who investigates the case and helps you keep things succinct.

Once you’ve noted down the basics of the complaint, you can return back to it and flesh it out with dates and details if you have them. But remember – keep things short and to the point.

Most importantly, write ‘complaint’ at the top of the document. Some firms try to fob you off by pretending you’ve sent in an enquiry. This matters because most regulated businesses have a maximum of eight weeks from the moment you first complain to sort the matter out completely. This includes saying ‘complaint’ on the phone and in theory, on social media.

At this stage, you might find the whole process of writing out the complaint has made you feel more in control of the problem. In fact, if you’re facing a difficult situation of any kind, this process can help you settle things in your mind and make it easier for you to know what to do to sort out almost any problem.

Say what you want to resolve the problem (including compensation)

This might seem obvious, but in roughly two-thirds of the complaints I see, people fail to say what the business needs to do to put things right. And if you don’t do that, you might just get fobbed off.

So be brutal and spell it out:

  • Sort out the problem (explain what they need to do)
  • Compensation for financial loss (explain how you reached that figure).
  • Compensation for distress/inconvenience (this is the ‘gesture of goodwill’ payment. Keep it realistic and explain why the money reflects your experience).
  • Consequential loss (these are losses you’ve experienced as a consequence of the problem. Again, keep this realistic).
  • Other factors (like repairing damage to your credit file).

Not sure what to ask for? Then simply say ‘put me back in the position I would have been in had the error not occurred’

Ask for a full written response to your complaint too.

Get your supporting documents and information

Most complaints should be relatively easy to sort out. But if your problem is a bit more complex, then you may want to provide supporting documents.

These days, we don’t need to send original copies of letters. You’ve got a mini-computer in your hand, so use your phone to photograph any documents, bills or letters. Save them all to a single file so you can find them when you need them.

You can request all information held on file by a business or organisation by making a ‘subject access request’. You probably won’t need to do this for most complaints, but you may find it helpful for more complicated matters. Here’s a guide from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO)

If you’ve got loads of documents to send, you might find your email gives in and won’t send! So use a free transfer service like WeTransfer.

Contacting the business

Here’s the tricky bit! Do you want to make a complaint on the phone or by email/letter?

If you make the complaint on the phone, try to call at ‘off-peak’ hours (peak hours are in the morning, early evening and around midday). If you can’t find a complaint number on the website of the business, type ‘complaint’ or ‘contact’ and the brand name in to a search drive. It’s often quicker to find the number that way. Write down the time, name of the caller and what’s been agreed for future reference.

Businesses are going out of their way to make it harder to contact them these days. It’s almost like they don’t want us to make complaints! But there will always be a registered address on the company website, or on Companies House. So there’s always the letter option.

If you can face it, you might be stuck with ‘live chat’ on a website first. Be clear, you want to email or send a complaint online in writing to the business and you want it to be formally investigated.

No matter what, ask for a written response to your complaint.

Know your rights

Businesses don’t like it when you quote bits of legislation at them and if you base your complaint solely on legal points then you’ll get a boring – and unsatisfactory – legal response.

But by making it clear that you know your rights and that the business has breached them, you’re re-enforcing your complaint. We have tons of guides and articles in the Mirror that explain your rights about pretty much any complaint or scenario you can think of. Use the links to these articles to ram home your point. You can also use guides on websites like Citizens Advice, Which? or MoneySavingExpert to make your point (or mine)

Taking things further

All regulated industries – finance, law, energy, water, telecommunications, etc. – have free Ombudsmen services that you can go to if you to get a clear and impartial resolution to your complaint if you’re not happy with the response. Ombudsmen are designed so you can make a complaint in your own words and are fair and independent. Businesses must tell you about your right to go to an ombudsman, but there are often time limits after a ‘final decision’.

Many other sectors have ‘Alternative Dispute Resolution’ (ADR) services of varying quality, which work in a similar way. Again, these are a free alternative to the courts and a good way to get your voice heard.

Other organisations have trade bodies that offer mediation services which may help you reach a resolution informally.

Government-linked or funded services and organisations (like councils or the NHS) have complaints processes, but they are often complicated and a bit bureaucratic. Don’t be put off. There’s loads of advice and guidance online about taking complaints further about these organisations too.

Finally, there’s the Small Claims Court, which varies in terms of what it can look at and maximum awards depending on which of the four countries of the UK you live in. The name of the court changes too but ‘small claims’ is the term to search for. You can get started here

Don’t be afraid to threaten to take things further. Sometimes a business just needs to know you mean business to prompt them in to sorting things out.

Points of principle

Finally, some complaints relate to the way a business or organisation operates or behaves. You may not even have a direct relationship with them. But you can still complain about these things.

You can’t usually take complaints about points of principle further, but you can shop a business to a regulator, Trading Standards or even your local MP. So if you care about something strongly, make your voice heard.

Featured in Mirror – Martyn James

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