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As Karen Stevens, an expert in the field of complaining puts it: "If you can think of something, most will have some ability to complain, and that's a good thing."

But the number of cases the tribunals and complaints bodies hear indicates people are finding their way to the right places.

The ability to take complaints to these bodies, and often to demand redress, cheaply, if not for free, is a weapon in the consumer's armoury in keeping companies like banks and insurers, and service providers like landlords, lawyers and financial advisers honest.

Businesses will often prefer not to be hauled before a tribunal or complaints body, even though some guarantee them anonymity even if they lose.

But taking cases is also time-consuming and stressful for people complaining, so there's an advantage in developing the complaining skills to avoid things going that far.

Stevens says successful complainers start by working out what they are really complaining about, and what they want to achieve.

At this stage a little research is often important, which can reveal whether a complaint is valid.

Consumer law isn't hard to understand, especially the Fair Trading Act and the Consumer Guarantees Act. The central basis for providing goods and services is captured well in a mnemonic by MoneySavingExpert.com, a British website dedicated to empowering people to make the most of their finances.

The mnemonic is "Sad Fart".

The "Sad" stands for "Satisfactory quality As Described". The "Fart" is "Fit for purpose, And last for a Reasonable length of Time".

As mnemonics go, it is a bit rude, and a bit strained, but New Zealand's consumer laws are similar, requiring goods and services to be of acceptable quality and durability, though individual industries like insurance and financial advisers have additional duties to consumers set out in different legislation.

The Government Consumer Affairs website is also a goldmine of information and tips on complaining well.

There are also databases of decisions of the likes of the Disputes Tribunal to help research things like Fair Trading Act decisions on whiteware, for example. Lawyers and community law centres can also be sources of advice.

Once a complainer has researched their complaint, and can articulate it well, they are in a position to begin their complaint from a point of strength.

That can give confidence to people who are not natural complainers, Stevens says.

Choosing where to take your complaint is also important. Stevens says people often take complaints to the wrong person.

She sometimes sees complaints come to the Insurance Ombudsman scheme about an insurer, when it is an insurance adviser who is the source of the problem.

Complaining to a manager is often a sensible course of action rather than a low-level staffer.

Sometimes companies, or individuals may seek to mislead you about who it is you should be complaining to.

For example, the Commerce Commission has noted how sometimes retailers will try to convince people they should be complaining to the manufacturer when they have a duty to fix the problem.

Having a plan can also help avoid losing your cool. Putting your complaint in writing can help avoid confrontation.

Being unreasonably angry can be counter-productive by firing up people against you. "Sandwiching" a complaint between compliments can sometimes be a means of keeping things pleasant.

Don't overdo it though.

Anna Tims, author of Money Back Guaranteed: Be your own Consumer Champion, advises people to avoid apologising.

Tims also says it is important to set some reasonable deadlines for a company to address your complaints.

If a company fails to provide redress, a complainant must decide how far they will take their complaint. At this stage getting some advice is often helpful.

As insurance ombudsman, Stevens handles cases about insurance, but she says many are a result of people not having appreciated what their insurance actually covered them for, rather than any fault of the company.

Only 27 per cent of claims to the Insurance Ombudsman find for the complainant, or are settled. Nearly three-quarters are withdrawn or not upheld.

And, one in nine complaints to the Banking Ombudsman fail, the annual report released this week showed.

Complaining is not only a personal affair. It has a social value for all consumers by forcing companies to understand and comply with consumer law, especially if complaints reach the ears of the Commerce Commission.

Written by Rob Stock. Republished with permission of Stuff.co.nz.

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