What do you do when customers refuse to complain?

What do you do when customers refuse to complain?

When people cease to complain, they cease to think: Napoleon

I fear for the English then.

As a general rule of thumb, we love to gripe, grumble and whinge but we rarely complain in a formal sense.

As social anthropologist Kate Fox observes in Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour:

English customers may moan indignantly to their companions, push the offending food to the side of their plate and pull disgusted faces at each other, but when the waiter asks if everything is all right they smile politely, avoiding eye contact, and mutter, ‘Yes, fine, thanks'

Typically, for businesses, the evils of the 'silent complaint' usually manifest themselves as lost future trade or a damaging rant on social media. And suing a customer for defamation is usually not a realistic option.

So how can traders fight against the tyranny of the invisible moan?

Counter-intuitively, there is plenty of research to show that encouraging complaints is actually good for business (see, for example, this recent article from Forbes in the States).

So, here are some tips and pointers to draw out complaints and, importantly, stay on the right side of the law:

  • Remember that under the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013 traders must tell consumers about their complaint handling policy 'where applicable' (this information becomes an implied term of the contract with the consumer under the Consumer Rights Act 2015 which comes into force on 1 October).
  • Write terms and conditions that work (see our post: 9 top tips on how to draft terms and conditions that actually work). Don't hide the dispute resolution provisions deep within the 'small print'. Be brave! It is OK for traders to highlight their complaint handling policy in friendly tones: 'Whilst we hope that nothing goes wrong when you buy from us, sometimes they do. Here’s what you can expect from us if our goods or service fall short [link to the relevant clause]. Contact us. Help us to help you! We don’t bite. Honest.’ Or words to that effect.
  • Don't forget the Alternative Dispute Resolution for Consumer Disputes (Competent Authorities) Regulations 2015. The Regulations don't make alternative dispute resolution (ADR) mandatory, however, ADR must be made available where both parties agree to use it. The Regulations therefore require traders to make available information about access to ADR for consumers (such as in the terms and conditions).
  • Use FAQs to complement terms and conditions (which, in effect, are the plain English guide to your client's terms and conditions). Consider using the summary boxes suggested by Business Companion (see our post: This post does not affect your statutory rights).

Other non-legal tips include:

  • Ask for feedback – but do it well. Traders should not pester their customers in a childlike, are-we-there-yet-are-we-there-yet(?) sort of way. When the transaction has concluded is as good a time as any for feedback (I’ve never quite understood why some sites ask you immediately to do a survey when the site hasn't even finished downloading).
  • Reward customer loyalty perhaps by using a customer feedback monthly prize draw.
  • Keep an eye on what customers are saying online. There is specialised software to help businesses do this.

The good news is that there is plenty of good practice out there.

Take retailer Lakeland which was recently ranked by Which? as one of the best UK brands for customer service.

It doesn't shy away from engaging its customers:


Picture © Lakeland.co.uk

What's more, it even—shock horror!—has terms and conditions that sound like they were written by a human:

The only condition we place on the use of this website - whether you buy, browse, find out about our stores or just keep up to date with what's happening in the world of creative kitchenware - is that you enjoy it!

It doesn't surprise me that it scored so well with consumers.

So, follow some of the tips above and, all being well, and if you are really, really lucky as a business, you might upgrade from the 'silent' to 'apologetic complaint' and then you really know that you are on to something:

‘Sorry to be a pain, I wouldn't normally say anything, but, er, we ordered a laptop the other week and this, um, well, sort of looks like a toaster’

So what do you think?

Is, for example, ADR the future, despite its low take up?


Or should customer complaints be dealt with reactively and quietly?

Do let us have your thoughts below.

The eighth edition of Butterworths Commercial and Consumer Law Handbook is out in October. It contains an invaluable collection of UK statutory material and EC materials. The title is fully up-to-date with all the latest commercial and consumer law changes , including full coverage of the Consumer Rights Act 2015, making it an essential reference source for practitioners involved with this area of the law.

New to this edition:

  • This new edition has been fully updated to include the new Consumer Rights Act 2015 coming into force October 1st 2015
  • Consumer Rights Directive (CRD)
  • Consumer Credit Sourcebook (April 2014)
  • CMA (April 2014)
  • FCA

For more details, click here.

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