The consumer champions: ‘Firms hope we’ll just go away, but we don’t’

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Which consumer topics has the pandemic brought to the fore?

Coronavirus has proved to be a disaster for consumer rights in the UK, as the airlines, travel firms, and some insurers have behaved as if they were above the law. Even to a seasoned consumer champ it’s been shocking. It’s been interesting to see how different companies in the same boat have reacted to the crisis. Some refused to engage with their customers at all, removing all email and phone contacts from their websites, while others pulled out the stops to try to help customers. Consumers have long memories, and when this all settles down, some firms may find they no longer have much business left.

Immediately after the first national lockdown we were inundated with emails from panic-stricken elderly or vulnerable readers who had received the NHS text telling them to “shield”, but who were then unable to order their supermarket shopping online, as all available slots were quickly booked up. We featured a couple of readers’ cases – which we had been able to resolve – but this led to many more contacting the Guardian’s switchboard directly and pleading for our help. Many were frightened and isolated and wanted to speak to somebody. At that time, we appreciated that retailers were buckling under the strain but what did not help was the lack of clarity about who was deemed to be vulnerable.

This important relationship with readers works both ways. They have been invaluable in alerting us to wider problems caused by non-communication during the pandemic – even in government agencies. One example was the meltdown at the DVLA in Swansea, as car owners were left waiting for months for vital documents and unclear about whether they could legally drive their vehicles because of a backlog of applications. There were similar problems for frustrated readers trying in vain to book driving tests

How much correspondence do you get, and how do you decide what to feature?

The Consumer Champions email address typically receives at least 40 emails a day, while we also still receive a generous amount of snail mail – mostly from older readers. It is frustrating that we simply don’t have the time to reply to each email, but we do read every one. The volume of email coming to our postbag has probably doubled during the pandemic.

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When deciding which complaints to take up, we are looking for striking cases – for example where the reader has been very badly or unfairly treated and then ignored when they later complained. We’re looking for cases that speak to other readers, so are interested in larger companies that others will have heard of. We’re also interested in significant financial losses, or at least evidence that a lot of people may have been scammed out of smaller sums.

We are fortunate in that Guardian readers tend to be an articulate bunch who are well able to put forward their arguments. We get some people who try their luck by making up parts of their claim, but these are mercifully few, and are soon exposed as having done so.

What are the most commonly seen problems?

A decade ago, most of the complaints we received were about the banks, or insurance claims, or investments gone wrong. Even before 2020 became the year of not going away, complaints about the airlines, hotel booking sites, travel firms, ferry operators and train companies dominated the postbag – and this has only been exacerbated by the Covid pandemic.

While we still get complaints about banks and insurers not paying out, they are now being dwarfed by problems with retailers. The energy firms, and other utility firms also keep us busy. Car parking – thanks to the proliferation of private parking operators – and car hire complaints have boomed in recent years. Complaints about (increasingly sophisticated) scams have also soared during the pandemic.

In the spirit of transparency, when we receive complaints about Guardian services, which does occasionally happen, we try to resolve them for readers too.

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View image in fullscreenPandemic-related problems at the DVLA in Swansea left car owners waiting for months for essential documents. Photograph: James Davies/Alamy Stock Photo

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How do you go about getting an informed response for readers?

The first rule is to give the company in question the right of reply. While most firms will engage and provide an explanation, at least, as to why they have treated the customer in this way, one of the biggest problems we have is trying to contact companies that refuse to play ball. Emails to addresses that you were given by the firm’s staff mysteriously go unanswered, as do telephone messages. Firms simply hope that you will just go away, but we don’t and will still run the reader’s letter.

In crafting our response we try to be fair to the company, and if the problem is a genuine mistake we will say so. However, we will also call out bad behaviour, and try to offer some advice to others who might find themselves in the same boat. It’s helpful when readers follow up online with their own experience from similar situations.

What would your number one piece of consumer advice be?

It’s to be realistic and not expect everything in life to be perfect. We often hear from people who have spent hours and hours trying to get a company to refund them £4. The phrase “matter of principle” usually features. Sometimes, it is healthier just to let the matter go. Yes, these things are annoying, but there are bigger things to worry about, particularly at the moment.

Some of the bank fraud cases we have featured have seen the reader lose in excess of £70,000

If you do need to complain to a company, it is important to be clear and concise and state your expected outcome. Include your customer reference number and your address or account number, and if you are rebuffed, take it to the chief executive or the person in charge. If you’re talking on the phone, never, ever, swear at the operator, however frustrated you are becoming. Lastly, be persistent and always threaten the small claims court if you absolutely believe in your case – and go through with it.

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Our other major tip is to always pay by credit card. We are always amazed by the number of people who will happily input their debit card details into a website they had previously never heard of. If it all goes wrong, you could find yourself with an empty bank account. But if you use a credit card, it’s the card provider’s problem.

What are some examples of big real-world successes?

Over the years the Guardian must have got several million pounds back for readers. Some of the bank fraud cases we have featured have seen the reader lose in excess of £70,000. Sometimes the most rewarding “wins” are for older readers, particularly those living on reduced means. If you rely on the state pension and a company won’t give you back the £50 it owes you, it’s a big chunk of your income that you really need back.

We spend a lot of time criticising companies – often major high street names – so there is always the chance of the threat of legal action once a letter has appeared in print. That’s what we call the “tin hat moment”, when we wonder whether a solicitor’s letter will come winging our way. To date, no company has sued us over anything we have written. On the other side of the coin, readers appreciate the opportunity to highlight examples of good service, and we are happy to be able to lighten the mood and give credit where it’s due.

And finally…

We are very fortunate to be at the “coal face” of reader complaints; to hear their voices, engage and build up a relationship with them. It’s always satisfying to get a “win”. Over the years we have been rewarded with the odd box of chocolates or bunch of flowers, but in these challenging times we suggest that readers simply make a donation to the Guardian.