How to complain about problems with your gas, electricity, water, telephone, council tax, broadband and similar bills and bank charges

How should you complain about problems with your gas, electricity, telephone service, council tax, broadband and other services?

I rarely complain. Mostly I am too busy and cannot be bothered. If I get upset about some poor service or a billing error or whatever, I try to get it sorted but the laws of negative returns often comes into effect and I leave it alone. Lots of people do the same. As a nation we are not very good about complaining and I think that we are becoming less effective at it because of tactics employed against complainers and as a result we are allowing the near monopolistic services (like those that provide energy or telephones or those that collect the council tax) to provide inadequate service safe behind the huge market shares that they all enjoy. 

The rules of complaining have changed considerably in recently years. At one time you would ring up the company and speak to someone who would judge your complaint on its merits. They did not always get their judgement right, but they would do their best to resolve it. Usually, you only wanted the matter to be put right – you did not need an apology or £50 in compensation. 

Sometimes if you complained to a small business they would try to blank you and hide behind confusion and prevarication. With those businesses you got the impression that they treated your business like a war – once they captured your pound it became their pound and their obligations ended after your pound was in their pockets. 

These day I think the position is different. Huge companies make complaining difficult and small businesses want you to come again and try much harder to resolve things correctly. Companies, like British Telecom, e.on, the banks, and so forth seem to have all kinds of strategies in place to avoid giving your complaint proper and fair consideration. Sometimes I wonder if they have given their complaint call centres a script created by psychiatrists to ensure that it upsets you as much as possible and prevents you thus of ever trying to complain again. 

Anyway, after some infuriating experiences in trying to get BT, e.on and others in the past few months to deal with my complaints reasonably (and rememebr that I am a lawyer – an advanatage not everyone shares) I recommend the following strategies:- 

  1. Only make a complaint that you genuinely believe is right. Get things in proportion. These are simple matters of contract, not breaches of your human rights.
  2. Before you ring up, write down your script. When you get through to the person at the call centre read and stick to your script because without a doubt the other person will read out a script from a computer screen. It is good if you also have your script in front of your screen when you make the call.
  3. Do not personalise the complaint. BT have said, for example, that the fact that I have been a customer for nearly forty years on many accounts and paid every bill until now when I withheld part of the bill I queried was irrelevant. They weren’t interested. Their innuendo that I suddenly become a crook upset me, and it would have been far better if I had not personalised the complaint by alluding to my long standing as a customer. I should have just stuck to the facts. BT are officially not interested in my longstanding as a customer, so don’t bring this kind of extraneous fact into your complaint.
  4. Be brief; talking for ages won’t make them budge and all it will do is make you more upset. Your time is worth more than the time of someone in a call centre. Remember that.
  5. Remain polite and firm. The script that is being read to you will imply in some way that you are a crook or defective or stupid or wrong or trying to fiddle them. Do not rise to the bait. The person at the other end of the phone has no decision making power, except in very limited cases. It is best to imagine that you are talking to a machine and that the conversation is being recorded.
  6. If the complaint is not resolved on the telephone, don’t worry – it rarely is. Just write down a note of what was said. If you have stuck to the script that I suggested earlier you should have had the script on your computer screen in front of you when you spoke and would have made notes on the screen as you went along.
  7. Now you have been through the motions of complaining – what you have now done is simply to have opened the door to being able to make a complaint that will be dealt with properly. Armed with all your facts go to the website of the Regulator that regulates the business (for example ofgem for gas and electricity, ofcom for telephone and broad band etc) and file a complaint. The company that you are complaining about hates this because these statistics are published and if the complaints get too numerous, swinging fines are dished out.
  8. Complain to the regulator on line if you can. Here your script and notes make the process easy. Explain how hurt upset and distressed you are by the way that you have been treated. The regulator may decide that your grievance is not the fault of the company; OK, no problem because at least you will know that your complaint has now been dealt with fairly, instead of by someone instructed to go through the motions. The regulator will not always be right but he or she will try to be fair. If you do not complain to the regulator your telephone call will be logged by the company as a successfully resolved complaint! Don’t let them get away with this.
  9. Finally don’t get upset that if you want to pay your bill they give you an 0800 number to call, but if you want to complain there is often an 0845 number, sometimes as an “appeal” type service. Ignore it. You should not be charged to complain.

For years I never bothered with compensation. I used to think that few quid compensation not make any difference to my life. I now think that every one who has a legitimate complaint should ask for compensation. You have to hurt them in their pockets. (You can always give the money away to charity.) Perhaps then these massive companies can treat complaints reasonably, instead of as some kind of game in which they try to put barriers in front of someone who has a legitimate grievance.

51 Responses

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