Way back in time it was farly common to find foreign objects in purchased items, some of the most famous being a dead mouse in a loaf of bread, a decomposed snail in a bottle of ginger beer, and fireworks in a bag of coal. In the 1970s, my mother embarked on a policy of always complaining in writing if something wasn’t up to scratch. It all started with finding a piece of plastic in a digestive biscuit. She was rewarded by the company for pointing it out, in the form of a large tin of assorted biscuits and a voucher. Her complaints extended to steak houses and motorway cafes which were subjected to a public tirade followed by a strongly-worded letter and (eventually) a free meal.
These days, the consumer has a lot more protection and incidents are fewer especially in manufactured goods and supplies. Still, the human element can always put a spanner in the works, or worse, if regulations and good practice are not followed. I had lunch with a friend once and we both chose the beef casserole. Part way through it, my friend urged me not to eat the bayleaf as he drew a piece out of his mouth discretely. Not that I would, I assured him, but he was quiet for the rest of the meal. When we left to go back to work, he told me that it wasn’t a piece of bayleaf he pulled out, but a large fingernail (or toenail) clipping.
Things can go wrong with more major purchases, of course. Second-hand cars, new lawnmowers, professional services can all fall short of expectations in the eyes of the purchaser. There are various ways of achieving consumer protection, some better than others, and the concept of ‘caveat emptor’ – let the buyer beware – still holds true to an extent. But should we complain? In a world where the compensation culture is gaining a strong foothold, many must be tempted to make a case, even if a subsequent pay-off could ultimately threaten the survival of a small business. Is this justified? Maybe. It depends, amongst other things, on the nature and severity of the complaint. However, there are usually two sides to a story and probably more than two perceptions of what is reasonable, or an accepted risk.
How should we make a complaint? To start with, it should be a matter of calmly stating the following:
- what you asked for, what you got, and why you think it’s fallen short
- key consequences – physical, health, reputational, financial harm or inconvenience
- that you know it’s not the fault of the person you are speaking to, but you feel it necessary to raise the issue
- what you would like to be done to put things right, if you don’t get an offer of action
- Abusive, insulting or threatening
- Unreasonable or creative over the alleged consequences or losses
And don’t expect too much by way of compensation, either in monetary value or timescale – reasonable and fair treatment is what you should get, so approach the situation with the same mindset. Turn a complaint into a positive event for the company you have fallen out with and everyone wins, with lessons learned on both sides.
By Gill Pavey
*’Title taken from Chapman et al.1989 ‘The Complete Monty Python’s Flying Circus:Just the Words’ Vol.1 p.104 Methuen, London (The Parrot sketch)
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