Today I’m interviewing an incredible lady about your consumer rights to complain, Helen Dewdney, owner of The Complaining Cow. Helen is the financial consumer champion – she writes for The Financial Times, MoneyWise, The Telegraph, has been part of the Rip Off Britain consumer expert team, and the BBC Radio London phone-in expert team. She’s been featured across local and national media, as well as TV series’ and interviews and is the This Money Consumer Champion.
Helen is also the author two Amazon best seller books; How to Complain: The Essential Consumer Guide to Getting Refunds, Redress and Results, and 101 Habits of an Effective Complainer. Helen is the go-to expert for anything related to consumer rights and knowing your consumer rights to complain.
Welcome Helen, it’s great to have you! How on Earth did you become the Complaining Cow?!
My background is working in Children’s Services, and in 2008 I left work and had a baby and did freelance consultancy stuff. Then around 2012 I started a blog as a hobby, and I was sharing stories about how I’d complained to companies for friends, family, and myself and had got the redress we were owed. So I put on Facebook one day “I’m going to start this blog, what should I call it?” I had a few ideas come back, I put it out to the vote, and that’s how Complaining Cow was born!
What made you start blogging about complaining? Was it something you’d always been passionate about?
Yeah, I’ve always done it. My parents brought me up with the idea that it’s the principle of it. I wrote to Jackie magazine (you have to be a certain age to remember that magazine!) and I talked about alternatives to animal testing. They printed the letter, but they didn’t pay me my (all of) £2 and I complained and got the money, but I remember feeling really cross that they didn’t apologise.
At school when I was about 12 I started a school magazine. At the time the girls were playing ‘boys’ games but the boys weren’t playing the ‘girls’ games like Netball and that kind of thing. Nowadays you’d be talking about The Equality Act and it would be a big issue, but at the time it wasn’t. And I wrote about wondering what the Sex Discrimination Act would have to say about this. And this got my magazine shut down by the school, which my first experience of censorship, but the did change the PE program. So for me the right thing had been done. I had effected change.
I then went into Children’s Services, starting as nursery nurse. I went back to college and did a degree in Drama and Education, then went into management of play services and fighting for children’s rights to play, to participate, and to be consulted with.
So it’s all about rights for me. Consumer rights, children’s rights, and fighting for what’s right.
I love that real passion and drive behind your business. Is that what continues to drive you today in educating people about their consumer rights to complain?
Very much so. When I started the blog I was really just writing stories about what I’d done for friends and family, and then I noticed it was gaining in popularity so I started to write tips for how to complain and your consumer rights to complain, and started to talk about laws. I then noticed that there was a real gap in the market for a book.
I had a book many many years ago called the Which? 150 Letters that Get Results, and they’d said they were not going to write another one, so I thought if they’re not going to write it then I will! So it grew from there, and it’s still a best seller 5 years on because there is such a need for finding out about how to complain and knowing what your rights are.
For me it’s about empowering people, and now I work with businesses it’s very much about businesses getting it right for consumers. Consumers tell me what businesses are getting wrong and how they’d like then to improve, and I tell businesses.
It’s very needed! I worked in the corporate banking world for many years, and the customer journey is so important. If it isn’t right it can affect so many things. I think irrelevant of the size of your business, you should have a complaints procedure in place. What are some of the misconceptions about consumer rights to complain?
The most common comes with the increase in online shopping – people think that if a courier hasn’t delivered an item that they have to be on the phone to the courier company, whereas in fact your contract is with the retailer. So if an item isn’t delivered you contact the company you bought from and tell them”My contract is with you. Under the Consumer Rights Act 2015 my parcel hasn’t arrived and you need to sort that out.” You let them take on the time, effort, and stress of dealing with that. People do still tend to contact the courier because they don’t realise that your contract is with whom you have given your money.
Brilliant! Are there any other common misconceptions that people have?
People think that they can take an item back just because they’ve changed their mind. The Consumer Rights Act that came out in October 2015 replaced a number of acts including the Sale of Goods Act, and it brought in the 30 day rule. That rule means that within 30 days if something is faulty, not fit for purpose, is not as described, or hasn’t lasted a reasonable length of time, then you are entitled to a full refund. After the 30 days you’re entitled to a repair or replacement.
Some people think that 30 days is for a change of mind, but it isn’t. It’s very much up to the store if they want to do that. However, where this is sometimes confusing is if you’ve bought it online. If you’ve bought it online then you have 14 days to inform them and then send it back. So you do have a change of mind period with online purchases, and who is liable for the return postage cost is down to the company’s policy unless the item is in breach of the Consumer Rights Act. So if it’s faulty, they have to pay the postage.
So if a company gives you a refund within the 30 days simply because you’ve changed your mind, they don’t actually have to do that?
No. If a company gives a refund at any point for a change of mind, then that is simply a good will gesture or policy of theirs. It’s a very common misconception. I was on a consumer rights program a year or two ago, and they had people walking past and someone mentioned a scenario just like this and thought they should have been given their money back. And a lot of consumer rights people were really cross because this went to air and it made it look like this person was right, but actually it was a misconception.
In terms of consumer rights to complain, does it make a difference how you pay for goods?
If you’ve bought an item for more than £100 you’re covered by section 75 of the credit card act if you use a credit card. So for big purchases and things like holidays it’s certainly worth doing. If the company went under you would be covered and would get your money back from the credit card company.
If you’re really struggling to get your money for a faulty item and you can prove that it’s faulty, then credit cards are equally liable. With debit cards there is a voluntary scheme called chargeback, but it’s not enshrined in law. So it’s always better to pay with a credit card where you can, and that means using the card directly and NOT through a third party like PayPal. If you paid via PayPal using your credit card, that will not give you the credit card cover, only the PayPal cover.
That’s really interesting. It’s really frustrating sometimes though that companies will charge you a fee to pay by credit card.
They can’t do that anymore. That changed recently.
Are there any other vital consumer rights that people need to be aware of?
The biggest one really is the Consumer Rights Act 2015. That entitles you to items that are of a satisfactory quality, as described, that last a reasonable amount of time. But also services. So it entitles you to services to be carried out with reasonable skill and care. So if you’ve had your kitchen fitted it covers you for the fitters as well as the kitchen. The act covers you for when you go out for meals or stay in hotels. So that one act now covers all of those things.
Does it make a difference whether you’re purchasing from the UK or abroad?
The Consumer Rights Act 2015 covers you for the UK in terms of your consumer rights to complain. However there are a lot of EU laws, so if you’re buying from within the EU you’re also protected. A lot of our laws were drawn up because of the EU laws, so they’re as near to the EU laws as can be.
Outside of the EU you can then hit real problems, so be really careful with those Ebay purchases! How things will change when we completely come out of the EU, I wouldn’t like to say, but the EU sets directives and then EU members write their own laws to fit. So our laws are very similar; not necessarily exactly the same, but you will have similar protections shopping from other EU countries.
Ok, so let’s say I’ve got a complaint to make, where do I go first?
I always say put complaints in writing because then you’ve got a record. That’s particularly important when you’re looking at telecoms and energy who are, without a shadow of a doubt, the worst sectors. Make sure you have everything in writing so that if you do have to go to the Ombudsman you’ve got all your evidence, which you just don’t have with phone calls.
So you write to customer services, and then if you’re still not happy to the CEO. And you can get CEO contact details from CEOEmail.com. You’re highly unlikely to get a response from the CEO, but most will have an escalation team. So you’ll access a more senior team who have more powers to get you the redress you need.
What if you’re still not happy with the outcome?
Well you still have a number of options. Particularly with energy, finance, telecoms, and those kinds of things there’s an Ombudsman. You can go to the financial ombudsman, the energy ombudsman, the communications ombudsman, and for telecoms there are two. You can either got to CISAS or the communications ombudsman depending on who your provider is.
It costs nothing to do it, so you may as well. There’s a motor ombudsman, railway, furniture – there are lots so it’s worth looking to see if they’re a member. It is quite confusing out there to find the right one, and not all retailers are covered.
You have then got the option of the small claims court, and if you do that online it’s cheaper. But what I tend to advise people is if you go to Money Claim Online then you can actually fill out all the details right up to the submit button, take a screen shot to show that you’ve written it all down and you’re really serious, then send that to the company. That tends to get results. Give them an appropriate deadline, and then hit the submit button if they don’t meet it.
What would be an appropriate deadline?
I would say about a week. I think a week is enough, especially with email, because they should be geared up for dealing with this. Even if they respond and say ‘We’re looking into it and we’ll take 14 days to get back to you,’ an acknowledgement like that has to come within a week. I think that’s reasonable.
Can a company enforce and insist that you have to put a complaint in writing in order for it to be formal?
Well they can take it as a verbal complaint, but my advice would be to put it in writing for your own protection! Calls aren’t always recorded, and the law is tricky around what you can take into a court, too. You also don’t have to keep repeating yourself when you have an email chain.
Are there any complaint templates that people can use?
There are lots in my book!
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