I realised I had caught the complaining bug after an incident involving a cereal bar, a set of kitchen scales and Twitter. On opening a box of Nature Valley cereal bars, I noticed one was suspiciously light in my hand, to the extent that I weighed the snack to see if it really did contain, as the packet claimed, 42 grams of crunchy oats and honey. It did not. It weighed a mere 32g.
Outraged at being diddled out of 24 per cent of my mid-morning snack, I took a picture of the offending item on the scales – displaying the weight – and tweeted the company. The tweet soon started attracting attention, with various wags asking if the company was a ‘cereal offender’ while others suggested I should get a life.
But within 24 hours Nature Valley had responded, apologised and sent me vouchers for the princely sum of £4. The victory was sweeter than anything involving oats and honey.
TV’s Victor Meldrew (Richard Wilson) with screen wife Margaret (Annette Crosbie)
It turns out that I have become one of millions of Brits no longer ashamed about complaining. The UK may long have been a nation of grumblers, always prepared to grouch about the terrible sandwiches on British Rail or another power cut ruining teatime TV, but never quite prepared to make enough of a fuss to make things better. But things have changed. A nation of consumers, empowered by the internet, has finally snapped about late deliveries, PPI, or sky-high utility bills. They are as mad as hell and not going to take it any more.
Figures from the Ombudsman Services suggest that 55 million complaints were made in 2016, up from 38 million in 2013. These range from anything from a whinge on Facebook all the way to a formal lawsuit that ends up in a small claims court.
A company called Resolver, which takes on complaints on behalf of consumers, dealt with 579,309 grievances in the six months to September this year, up from 205,318 in the same period in 2016 – an increase of 182 per cent.
Jasper Griegson is a lawyer by day but professional irritant by night and author of The Joys Of Complaining. He says: ‘There used to be a real stiff-upper-lip, Dunkirk spirit. Let’s soldier on. We’ve shaken that off. The good news is people are a little bit more fearless and no longer scared of authority. We feel we can email anyone we like.’
Many Brits no longer feel toe-curling embarrassment about sending a meal back to the kitchen, or insisting on talking to the manager.
The financial crisis and a series of banking scandals have eroded trust in not just the banks, but all big institutions. Appealing against parking tickets has now become a default response.
We also live in a climate where we demand things at a click of a button, even takeaway meals, something that is responsible for our increased expectations and anger when those expectations are not met.
Many Brits no longer feel toe-curling embarrassment about sending a meal back to the kitchen, or insisting on talking to the manager (file photo)
When Griegson started complaining in the 1990s, the only option was to write a letter, find an envelope, buy a stamp – and most importantly track down to whom to send it. ‘You had to go to the library to look up the names of the directors. Now, it’s so much easier.’
Online, there is a wealth of information, not least a website called ceoemail.com, which lists the email addresses of bosses of nearly all companies and public services. ‘The CEO is unlikely to respond personally,’ explains Helen Dewdney, author How To Complain and who runs a website called The Complaining Cow, ‘but the matter will be escalated to his or her team.’
But though it has become much easier to rant at a company – especially online – it is more difficult than ever to get problems sorted in the real world. I discovered this while making a TV programme, The Department Of Complaints, which aims to help ordinary Brits who have been fobbed off after buying faulty goods, from glass tables that spontaneously shattered to ‘silent pulse’ washing machines that were noisier than a power drill.
All the consumers had tales of woe of being stuck on hold for hours, of retailers blaming manufacturers, manufacturers blaming retailers and companies hiding behind legalese rather than admit they’d made a mistake.
Griegson says the outsourcing of a customer services is partly to blame: ‘I remember the days when you had a bank manager who knew who you were. Now, it’s a computer in Birmingham.’
Dewdney, who once took Tesco to the small claims court and successfully won £50 – ‘it felt very good’ – says: ‘We are complaining more, but it is taking more effort to get a resolution. You have to take it further. It helps if you know what the law is and what you are entitled to under the Consumer Rights Act 2015. It shows them that you should be taken seriously.’
These rights – that goods should be satisfactory quality, fit for purpose and as described – apply only if you bought the item in the UK or EU, however. As we increasingly shop from websites based in America or China, you can find yourself very exposed.
‘You need to be clear about what you want,’ says Dewdney. ‘For a lot of people it’s no more than an apology. If that’s what you want, you have to ask for it. If you don’t ask for it, you won’t get it.’
- The Department Of Complaints, More 4, 10pm on Wednesday.