Consumers are constantly treated like dirt, so why don’t we complain more?

Customer service by many of the largest companies in Ireland is often unacceptably bad, says John Dolan - but do you ever speak up and give out?
Consumers are constantly treated like dirt, so why don’t we complain more?

FAWLTY SERVICE: Guests were slow to complain in the TV sitcom Fawlty Towers, which is true of many people in both Britain and Ireland, argues John Dolan

IT may have been made almost half a century ago, but the classic TV series Fawlty Towers can still teach us a thing or two about the type of people we are in this part of the world.

The Brits - like the Irish, I would contend - are hopeless at complaining.

I’m not talking about moaning or bitching or begrudging, we’re pretty good at all that.

I mean proper, official, ‘Can I speak to the manager please’ type of complaining. We just don’t do it.

In that infamous hotel in Torquay, most of the guests put up with all kinds of shoddy standards and appalling costumer service. The few who confront the demonic Basil to complain are invariably shoved forward by other, more timid types, and left to stutter about a really quite unacceptable level of service.

The best complainer was the brash Yank who wanted a damn Waldorf Salad now, capice?!

The Irish, as a rule, are not like the over-polite, forelock-tugging Brits, but we do have the same avoidant attitude to complaining.

This, despite the fact we surely live in an age when consumers and customers have never been treated so shabbily by the larger companies. (Smaller ones are usually, thankfully, unfailingly pleasant to deal with and eager to please - quaintly old-fashioned, I know!).

I was left to consider this the other day when I flew return out of Ireland into the UK.

Both flights - full, incidentally - were delayed by an hour, and both times we passengers were kept completely in the dark.

Not an announcement, not an explanation, not even an acknowledgment from anyone on the ground or in the air that anything amiss had occurred.

Think about that: Bizarre, isn’t it?

That dozens of people should be herded around, kept waiting, delayed, and left to queue, for what seemed an interminable time - and not one employee even thought it worth mentioning; and not one of us, that I could see, gave out an inch about it - never mind a yard.

We just stood there, glassy-eyed, glancing at watches, a few fidgeting or raising eyebrows...

On the journey out, as my flight was called, I had booked a rail ticket at the other end, leaving plenty of time to catch it - or so I thought. But as the delay wore on and we still hadn’t boarded the plane, I began to curse my optimism.

How many other people around me had similar anxieties? Onward journeys or appointments that depended on basic timekeeping?

On the flight back, it was the same. This time, I had asked a friend to pick me up at the airport at the other side, and was forced to constantly put back the time of collection while the minutes ticked by and another hour delay transpired.

Why the hold-up?

Not a clue. Nobody told us, nobody said sorry. It was as though it didn’t happen. That a delay in our expected time of arrival was nothing to be concerned about.

And I know, I know. I didn’t complain either, like everyone else (that I’m aware of). It’s as though we have come to expect being herded like cattle at airports, and the odd lengthy delay, and we should just suck it up.

It’s beyond doubt that service by many of the largest companies in Ireland is often unacceptably bad - from banks to utility companies to service providers who make tens of millions a year.

Often, a service appears to be so poor across the board, that we don’t even have an alternative.

Take TV and broadband providers. Are any of those firms reliable and renowned for their customer service? If they were, they would hoover up the market.

I am currently considering extricating myself from one TV provider - and have read many horror stories about how even that simple step is likely to be an hours long nightmare of being left in limbo while an easy listening tune burns into your brain and various operators pass you along.

However, I then faced the dilemma of which new provider to employ, given that I had heard bad stories about all of them!

Eventually, I chose one, and am already regretting it, even before the service has begun (it’s been a month so far, and counting...).

Suffice to say, I now know why my potential new provider advised me not to cancel my current TV deal until the new one had kicked in - since it’s a process that is taking a ridiculously long time to complete.

The first guy came out to fit the TV box, and - I kid you not - he didn’t have the TV box.

A few weeks later, after I had rang the company, they sent out another guy, who this time had a TV box - but warned me it probably wouldn’t work straight away once he installed it.

This didn’t inspire confidence, but his pessimism proved well-founded, and now I am waiting for the company to contact me to switch on my new TV box, which I had ordered from them several weeks ago.

Ye gods.

Yet, once again, I haven’t (so far) complained.

Perhaps it’s because, like many of you, I’m not good at standing up for myself and demanding better - or perhaps I am rightly wary that trying to complain will just send me down a whole new burrow of interminable rabbit-holes.

Is that what the big companies want? To provide such an abysmal service that it discourages us from even complaining about it?

Because it’s working.

But it’s not good enough

It all left me to wonder whether The Consumers’ Association of Ireland is doing a good enough job to protect consumers.

The body is an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organisation, with charitable status. Those involved give voluntarily of their time and expertise, but do we need a tougher body, with greater teeth and powers, who can expose some of the more abject failings out there?

Their current advice is to:

Complain to the right person, in writing, keep a copy of the letter.

Give the retailer a reasonable chance to sort things out

Don’t lose your temper, swear or get personal

Be polite but firm and confident. You want the business to recognise how reasonable you are.

Keep all correspondence and other documents relating to the complaint. This includes receipts, letters, invoices, cheque stubs and estimates, and record of phone conversations.

The problem with the above is it relates to serious and injurious issues, rather than the day-to-day problems of late flights and constant broken promises.

Usually, people like me don’t want our money back, we just want to be acknowledged, kept informed, and hear some forgiveness from a worker.

Customer care, the big companies call it. Common decency, in other words.

Not much to ask really, is it?

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