When is it worth making a consumer complaint? | Kat George

In a perfect world, all sectors would have official dispute resolution schemes. Unfortunately that is not the case in Australia

As a consumer, it’s likely that you’ve bought something that didn’t function the way it was supposed to. A piece of clothing that ripped at the seams after two wears. A faulty appliance. A flight that was delayed so many times you missed your holiday. An unexplained charge on your phone bill.

It’s happened to all of us, and for most of us the thought of raising a complaint also raises anxieties. Making a consumer complaint can be as easy as writing an email to the company that aggrieved you, which results in a prompt response and obliging solution. Or it can be a taxing and convoluted string of phone calls, live chats, social media DMs – a part-time job’s worth of communications lasting months – just to get a half-baked apology and little in the way of compensation.

I once spent four months contacting an airline, trying to explain to them that they did not understand their own terms of service, and that they hadn’t given me what I was entitled to in the first instance. After hours on hold over the phone, live chats, sliding into the DMs on three different social media platforms, multiple email chains, and unfruitful contact with different consumer advocates and regulators, I finally got through to the right person at the airline. They told me that yes, I was right, yes, they had not delivered their service to me in line with their own terms and conditions, and no, they would not be compensating me for my losses. But would I like some frequent flyer points for my troubles (not enough to get me anywhere)?

Grudgingly, I took the points and slunk off with my tail between my legs. My complaint ended up being an emotionally draining time vortex with an unsatisfactory outcome. So is making a consumer complaint actually worth it?

Gerard Brody, the CEO of the Consumer Action Law Centre, says yes. “People should feel empowered to make a complaint if they are dissatisfied,” he says. “Not only do most complaints deliver a remedy, businesses that manage complaints well will investigate the root cause of complaints and prevent complaints occurring in the future. This is really what most people want.

“Making complaints, if businesses do fix the problem, can reduce the likelihood of distress associated with complaints in the future.”

So if you want to make a complaint, what’s the first thing you should do? Start by contacting the business directly, Brody says. “Many businesses, such as in the energy, water and telecommunications sectors, are specifically regulated to have internal dispute resolution systems, and are required to respond in a particular timeframe and give you particular information or explanation.”

Other types of products and services, such as general retail, do not have the same type of regulation that requires businesses to have internal complaint mechanisms. But Brody says it’s still worth contacting the business to raise your concerns and “directly and clearly articulate what outcome you want”.

To make the process of complaining as efficient and effective as possible, Brody suggests being ready with all the information that’s relevant to your complaint. Gather your evidence – receipts, dates, contracts, order numbers, photos, and anything else that goes to proving your case.

Hopefully, upon hearing your complaint, the business is repentant, compensates you for your losses, and your journey ends there. But unfortunately, not all businesses will admit fault, or give consumers the outcome they’re looking for. That is when you might be in for a bit of a battle, and when you might start wondering if the complaint is really worth the trouble.

If you’re not successful complaining on your own, some sectors have dispute bodies that can help you. “In many sectors – energy, water, telecommunications and postal – there is an ombudsman that can hear complaints,” Brody says. “Ombudsmen are free and independent, and can make decisions that are binding on the business.”

The ombudsman you contact will need all that information you gathered earlier, and will communicate with the business on your behalf to help find a fair resolution, without you having to do much more than provide information as requested, and answer periodic communications as your case progresses. It’s a simple and easy process that’s well worth engaging with when you’ve struggled to gain traction with a complaint in one of the relevant sectors.

“Unfortunately, there are some sectors where making a complaint is more difficult than others,” says Brody.

An illustration of a person in business attire being chased by an angry phone
‘Where there isn’t an ombudsman, it’s likely to be more time-consuming and stressful to make a complaint.’ Photograph: Nuthawut Somsuk/Getty Images/iStockphoto

In general retail and air travel there is no ombudsman, and the process for escalating a complaint is subsequently more onerous for consumers. “In these sectors, you can make a complaint to the consumer affairs department in your state or territory, and they can sometimes help,” says Brody, “however, they are often limited when it comes to individual complaints.”

If the local consumer affairs department can’t help, the next step would be to go to a civil tribunal, which Brody notes can be “time-consuming and expensive processes”.

“Airline complaints are particularly difficult, as it can be hard to find out where to complain to and a lack of response to complaints. Where there isn’t an ombudsman, it’s likely to be more time-consuming and stressful to make a complaint.”

In a perfect world, all sectors would have official dispute resolution schemes, and Brody says “we’d like to see more accessible ombudsman schemes in sectors where there isn’t currently”.

Given how difficult and complicated the complaints process can be if a business is unwilling to acknowledge its fault, and there is no other free alternative avenue for managing complaints like an ombudsman scheme, no one would blame you for opting out at this point. Pursuing a complaint can be a time-consuming, stressful and unrewarding process. For smaller grievances, giving up may be the best option to preserve your mental health and emotional wellbeing.

But if you do choose to pursue a complaint, and all you get is a few frequent flyer points, take comfort in knowing you did the right thing.

There’s some smug satisfaction in having been a fly in the ointment for whatever business wronged you (because complaints, especially persistent ones, are a resource drain for businesses too). So if you’re angry, it’s worth it. If you get what you’re owed, and get a business to rethink its dodgy practices or even improve its customer service or product offers in the meantime, even better.

  • Kat George is a writer and public policy professional. Her work focuses on access and inclusion, consumer and human rights, regulation and new technology. She is a non-executive director at Choice and Hope Street Youth and Family Services. All views expressed in her writing are her own


Kat George

The GuardianTramp

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