Do consumer complaints always fall on deaf ears?

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EVERY 1.2 seconds, a consumer complaint is made in the UK. As a nation, we are keener than ever to take action when we feel we have been sold shoddy goods or services – and yet millions more unsatisfied customers do not think grumbling is worth the hassle.

Figures from the first ever Consumer Action Monitor show there were 38 million complaints about products and services in 2013 – one every 1.2 seconds.

The most complained about sectors were energy – which had double the complaints from the previous year – retail and Internet telecoms.

But the new measure, from Ombudsman Services, also reveals that many who have a problem still take no action, with 40 million problems not pursued because people believe the system is flawed, slow and won’t work for them.

The legal process also daunts consumers, with only 6 per cent of problems addressed through the small claims courts. Cynicism about companies adds to the sense of frustration, with 36 per cent of people believing that big businesses are only interested in their money and do not care if something goes wrong. Those who do take action are most likely to contact the company first, but many disputes are now escalated to other independent third parties, like ombudsmen. Millions of consumers are also resorting to more direct action, with social media frequently used as a way to gain companies’ attention.

Chief Ombudsman Lewis Shand Smith said: “Given that consumer trust in companies is low, the time is right for businesses to embrace third parties as a means of resolving disputes. Transparency has a big role to play in shaping consumer opinion and enhancing brand image.”

Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice Bureau, said: “When a purchase goes wrong, people should be able to rely on businesses to act quickly and fix the problem. It is good that people are more likely than ever to take a stand, but we want anyone who has been left out of pocket by shoddy goods or services to feel confident that they can complain – and get things sorted out.”

A spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills admitted consumer law is “far too complex and can be daunting”, but added that the new Consumer Rights Bill “will clearly set out the key consumer rights and what consumers are entitled to if things go wrong.”

Richard Lloyd, executive director of Which?, said: “Businesses need to improve their complaints procedures but the law also needs to be made simpler and clearer so that consumers who fail to get a satisfactory response to their complaint can take their case to an ombudsman or the small claims court.”

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