If it feels as if every company you have contacted in recent months has done everything it could not to talk to you, that may be right.
Airlines, holiday firms, online retailers – and even the big supermarkets – have all been accused of removing customer “contact us” options from websites or failing to answer phones during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Some have had to reduce the number of staff in call centres, while others have simply been overwhelmed by the volume of people trying to get in touch.
However, according to Resolver, the online-complaints website, even before the current crisis firms were already making it harder and harder for customers to get in touch. The coronavirus crisis has turbocharged this trend – with the removal of email contact addresses the biggest bugbear with consumers.
Resolver reckons every week a big company is removing its email address from the “contact us” options. In other cases, firms are using online contact forms instead, which do not let you know where your message is going.
“The airlines in particular decided right at the start of the crisis that they would not talk to customers seeking refunds – or put in place other barriers – in the hope that they would take vouchers instead,” says Helen Dewdney, the woman behind TheComplainingCow.co.uk website, and the UK’s unofficial queen of complaints. “It was a deliberate policy, one that has been adopted by plenty of other firms since, to huge consumer frustration.”
If you have been fighting to speak to someone and are running out of steam, here’s what you need to know.
You may be able to jump the (phone) queue
Who hasn’t spent hours waiting on hold in recent months? In some cases it is just down to persistence – those who are prepared to wait the longest eventually get an answer.
However, there are few tricks that can get you to the front of the queue. The excellent Saynoto0870.com website provides alternative customer numbers for many organisations. These are usually standard landline numbers – which will save you a fortune if you are using a mobile. Roll through all the numbers. You may well find one that is answered straight away.
Getting nowhere with the voice-activated options? Try some different departments such as accounts, or the new customer option. This may get you talking to a real person who will be able to help you. Make deliberate mistakes when asked to input customer numbers, for example, and you can often find that you are put through to a person more quickly.
Pick a better time to call. Resolver says that mid-afternoon is the least busy at most call centres. Calling as soon as customer centres open at weekends, while the slackers are still in bed, can also result in a quick connection.
If none of this is working try the lateral approach. Phoning a utility firm? Threaten to cancel the service. Try the head office or switchboard number. Customers trying to call airlines will often get through to first class more quickly. Once connected you can make your case for help.
Lastly, don’t forget to be polite and never swear, however frustrated you have become. Call centre workers will try to help those they like. Upset them, though, and they could cut you off without a second thought.
Doing nothing can be rewarded
Sometimes it can pay to do nothing. At the start of the pandemic the airlines were only offering vouchers. Those that rushed in and took them may have ended up kicking themselves when airlines such as easyJet did start offering refunds. Regulators can step in, prompting a change of heart.
Holiday firms/airlines have been calling off trips to Spain in recent days. Do not cancel a booking until the very last minute because chances are the holiday firm may do it anyway. If you cancel, your refund rights are significantly diminished. If the tour operator does it, you will get a full refund.
You may get an answer more quickly in person
We are great believers in visiting the errant company in person, if you can. Got a problem with John Lewis? Put on your face covering and head down to the store. Guardian Money has received lots of complaints about Currys PC World failing to deliver online orders during lockdown. If no one is answering the phone, a trip to your nearest branch may be worth a try.
Going straight to the top can work
If phoning is getting you nowhere, and you have exhausted all the conventional customer service options, Dewdney – who literally wrote the book, How to Complain, advocates emailing the firm’s chief executive.
You will find the CEO’s details of thousands of companies at ceoemail.com. It is unlikely that he or she will respond in person but your complaint should be passed on to someone who will at least read it. Crucially, she says, you have a record of having sent the complaint to the firm in question
“The problem with the phone is that you will often be left with no record of what is agreed. If an airline staff member verbally agrees to refund you but it fails to materialise, you’re back to square one. With an email, it’s all there on the record,” she says.
It is all in the wording
Whether you call or email, state the facts in a concise and clear way, with times and dates – and make sure to include your customer reference/booking reservation numbers, to allow the firm to find you on its systems.
If you are looking for a refund, state the reason and cite the relevant consumer law – the Consumer Rights Act, or package travel arrangements – or whichever is appropriate to your case.
Dewdney says you should clearly detail what action you want to happen, and by when. In emails, be polite, use good grammar and, Dewdney says, include the threat at the end that you will take the matter to the relevant ombudsman or small claims court if the matter is not dealt with as requested.
A threat to report the matter to Trading Standards, the regulator or the government’s Competition and Markets Authority, which is investigating the way businesses have treated consumers during the pandemic, won’t hurt either.
Always point out what a good customer you are and how you have always found the company to be really good in the past.
Social media can produce results
Twitter can be a good way to attract a firm’s attention, or to find out where a complaint should be sent. However, just ranting on Twitter about poor customer services rarely achieves anything, unless you have millions of followers.
Facebook closed groups have become a good place for victims of the same company to swap informatio. Or you could post on a company’s own page – again, the more measured and reasonable you sound, the more likely you are be contacted and helped.
Resolver is a free-to-use resolution website. It works best with “engaged” companies – those that care about their reputation.
Review sites, such as Trustpilot, are another good way to get a problem noticed. We recommend posters keep the reviews factually accurate and temperate in tone.
If all else fails, your bank may help
If the company has disappeared, or just won’t engage, you have a couple more options. Ask your bank card provider to do a chargeback – to reverse the payment for the item.
PayPal will do the same if you have been scammed and the items did not turn up. If the item you bought cost more than £100 you can hold the credit card firm jointly liable for the retailer’s breach of contract. You have to have paid the retailer directly and not via a third party such as a travel agent.