Cents & Sensibility: Consumer Rights
When things go wrong you shouldn't have to pay the price. John Hearne has tips for effective complaining
As a society, we've never been particularly good at complaining.
We want to be nice, we want to avoid embarrassment and confrontation, and if that means swallowing the fly rather than summoning the waiter, so be it. Not anymore. These days, Irish consumers swagger and moan with the best of them. Research from the National Consumer Agency shows 78pc of consumers are now willing to complain when dissatisfied. But there's a right way and a wrong way to go about it. If the item in question is faulty or the service shoddy, here are 10 steps to consumer satisfaction:
Know your rights
Don't kick up a storm if you've no grounds. Suppose, for example, you buy a coffee maker, then realise once you get it home that you don't actually like coffee. If the product isn't faulty, the shop doesn't have to take it back. These days, many shops out there have customer-friendly returns policies, but the point is they don't have to take things back unless there's a problem.
There are exceptions: when buying over the phone or online there's usually a cooling-off period during which you can return something, even if it works fine. Note, too, that when bringing something back you need proof of purchase, but that doesn't have to be a receipt -- a credit card statement will do. If you have a contract or description of the goods or services you've bought, read it to find out whether or not the shop or service provider has breached the terms of the contract, it will make you more effective.
What's the problem?
Don't let your anger carry you along here. Get clear in your head exactly what the problem is. Was the product faulty? Were you treated badly as a customer? Did the product or service not fit the description? Be certain.
What do you want?
An apology? A replacement? A repair? Complaining can sometimes be a daunting business. Prepare yourself and figure out exactly what it is you want before you go in.
Don't hang about
If there's a problem, don't put it on the long finger. For one thing, it gives the impression that you're happy with the goods or the service. For another, there may well be a time limit on making a complaint. For example, complaints about package holidays must be made within 28 days of returning home. You'll undermine your own case if you keep using faulty goods and delay going back to the shop.
In these circumstances, you may find that you're no longer entitled to a full refund, but may have to put up with a partial refund or a repair. And, as the National Consumer Agency (NCA) points out, you've no comeback if you misuse the goods, if the fault was pointed out at the time of purchase or if there are superficial faults that you should have spotted when you were buying the thing in the first place.
The paper trail
Keep every little bit of paper and record every single interaction you have with the good or service provider, just in case things have to be taken further. Having a thorough history of your dealings with whoever it is will always add weight to your claim and give you credibility. So hold onto cheque stubs, receipts, credit card statements and invoices, and make a note of what's said during phone calls. Note the times of these calls, too. And if you're complaining in writing, keep a copy of what you send as well as any replies you receive.
Complain to the right person
Don't start arguing with the first person you meet when you return to the shop. Ask for whoever you dealt with in the first place, or go to the customer care department, if they have one. If they don't, ask for a manager -- someone who has the power to set things right, and always give them a chance to do that before you take things further.
Be polite but firm. Don't lose the head or start swearing. The NCA puts it like this: "Explain the problem, keep to the facts and know your rights." Tell them what you want and how you want it. Focus on a solution rather than blame. Be determined. If you've a genuine problem, the shop can't tell you to take it up with the manufacturer. Under consumer law, your contract is with whoever sold you the goods, not who made the goods, so it's up to the seller to sort the problem. If they point to a sign that says "no refunds", don't accept that. These signs may be illegal. Remember, too, that your rights don't change just because the shop is running a sale.
Still no satisfaction?
Then it's time to make a formal complaint, in writing. Get the name of the most senior person or the right department, plus, of course, their address. Then sit down and write -- or type if you can at all. Keep it short and to the point. State your rights, say what you want, give them a reasonable timeframe to comply and attach copies of any documentation. The NCA also strongly recommends that you send the letter by registered post, so they can't say they never got it. If you don't know where to start, the NCA has template letters on its website, consumerconnect.ie.
This is serious
If making a formal complaint fails to get you want you want, it's time to take it further. There are all kinds of options. If the complaint involves an amount up to €2,000, you could try the small claims court. Small claims court procedures are designed to be straightforward and relatively quick. If you're talking about a bigger amount, it may be necessary to get yourself a solicitor, or at least to seek legal advice. Alternatively, there is a range of industry bodies and state organisations that you can take your complaint to and who can act on your behalf.
Who to go to
There are regulators, ombudsmen and consumer advocate groups out there whose job it is to bring reluctant goods and services providers to heel. Try the local citizens information centre, or click on citizensinformation.ie. They'll tell you where's the best place to bring your beef. Alternatively, call the National Consumer Agency on 1890 432 432. And if your complaint relates to goods bought from another EU country, online or while on holidays, try the European Consumer Centre, eccireland.ie.