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What to do if a customer complaint reaches stalemate

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Customer complaints can be a sticky issue but a bit of research can go a long way to reducing the headache. Sarah Lepak, director of governance and policy at the BHTA, offers advice on complaints procedures and discusses the main pieces of customer rights legislation for mobility retailers to consider.

Customer complaints – it might not be the most talked-about issue in the mobility industry, but it is certainly one that every retailer has had to confront at some point.

Complaints can become a particularly sticky issue when they seem to reach a dead-end and everybody, customers and sellers alike, wants a satisfactory resolution. But what exactly do you do when progress looks like it has hit a brick wall? What happens when you reach stalemate?

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Picking through the various pieces of seemingly complicated legislation can appear daunting and most dealers are time poor as it is. But offering a hand is the BHTA’s director of governance and policy, Sarah Lepak, who explains that a raft of new legislation on consumer rights has been introduced in the last few years.

Understanding the main pieces is important for any business to aid its complaints procedure and ensure it achieves a satisfactory outcome.

The first piece of legislation to consider is the Consumer Contracts Regulations (2013), explains Lepak, who offered her interpretation of what dealers need to know at a keynote session in Trade Days recently.

She comments: “It is specifically about the information that you’re expected to provide a consumer with and that they should have at the point when they commit to buying from you.

“It includes obvious things like being clear on who they’re buying from and what sort of cancellation rights they have. But within the list of things that you should provide, whether it’s in a shop, online, mail order catalogue or in a customer’s home, is that they should be told how to make a complaint. They should know who to contact and they should know how.”

As simple as it sounds, it can be easy for businesses to overlook having easily accessible, written information about their complaints procedure. Lepak advises companies to consider things like who should usually deal with a complaint and who should in their absence, what sort of timescales you are going to work to and what the actual process is.

For example, if you get an email or phone call, how fast would you expect to respond? All this information should be clearly communicated to the customer at the buying stage.

It is all well and good having your initial complaints procedure carefully written down and explained to the customer, but what happens when a complaint reaches stalemate? It might not be something most businesses have considered and Lepak asks: “Have you ever sat and thought about it?

“Most of us get on with trying to resolve a complaint. Our aim is to close it down fast and you want to do the right thing. You must get sticky ones from time to time. So at what point do you decide that you should really call time and decide it can’t be moved forward?

“It might be that you and the customer have opposite positions and neither of you will budge. It could be because the customer has got unrealistic expectations or has misunderstood their rights and you just can’t find a way forward.

“It could be you’re simply not willing to do what the customer wants and you feel you don’t have to. But at some point you need to stop and concede that it’s stalemate.”

Before a business reaches that point, Lepak suggests that it takes a moment to ask whether the customer, legally, has a valid point.

The Consumer Rights Act sets out when customers are entitled to a refund and details that if they find something wrong with a product within the first 30 days of purchase they can ask for a refund.

Dealers cannot oblige them to accept a repair or replacement. Beyond 30 days, then there is an expectation that firms are allowed to repair or replace the product, rather than just offer a refund.

Lepak adds that it is only if the fault comes to light six months after the purchase that dealers can begin to reduce the refund for wear and tear.

“I think people are sometimes quite staggered when you remind them of that because actually consumers do have quite a lot of rights in that respect now and it isn’t a given that you can just repair and replace.”

Another point for retailers to be weary of is whether the product is fit for the customer’s particular purpose and it is an issue that tends to catch bosses out.

The updated version of the Consumer Rights Act changes the wording slightly about when something is wrong with the product, Lepak points out.

The consumer is now within their rights to say the product was not fit for their particular purpose. Of course, the customer must have clearly said what that purpose is when they purchase, however the BHTA has heard many examples involving customers wanting to use equipment on public transport.

Lepak comments: “You have to be very careful about how you describe whether something is suitable [for public transport]. Always emphasise that they must check with the transport company. [A customer will] have bought something that in theory is the right size and shape and meets regulations.

“But the carrier may say they can’t take it on a certain route. Consumers often overlook that and say keep referring back to the company that sold them the product.

“So we need to really have carefully thought through all these sorts of things before deciding whether you’ve reached stalemate. Always check the Consumer Rights Act, it’s reasonably straight-forward English compared to a lot of legislation.”

Once a dealer is absolutely sure they have arrived at stalemate then the piece of legislation to consider is The Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR).

It is a piece of legislation that has slipped under the radar of many businesses and consumers, according to Lepak, but it is nevertheless vital to be familiar with.

The idea of ADR is to insert another stage in the process prior to going to the courts to resolve the dispute. ADR can be beneficial for both business and complainant in terms of avoiding court costs and stress. But it places some responsibility on the company if it goes ahead.

Firstly, you must ensure the last step in your customer complaints process is positively notifying the consumer that stalemate has been reached.

Lepak says that the next thing is to clearly inform the customer what they can do next, which ought to be signposting them to an appropriate ADR body. She adds that there is a host of ADR bodies, which include organisations like The Furniture Ombudsman.

“If you’re not with an organisation like the BHTA, you’ll have to look for a suitable ADR body. You don’t have to participate in that scenario, but think about it, what message are you giving to your customers if you refuse to participate.

“Aside from that, participating with an ADR body is a good idea because it’s instant. If a consumer wants to take you to court there’s the run-up, the cost, and it’s looked at in a very legal way.

“ADR bodies are tasked with mediating and finding a way forward. They will look at it as a rounded picture to find an acceptable solution for all parties, not just what the legislation says. I would suggest that ADRs are very good value and could be very helpful.”

If a customer decides to go down the ADR route but is still not satisfied with the outcome, they are still able to then take you to court. However, if a customer approaches the small claims court they will be asked if they have used a mediation service, for example an ADR body.

If not, the court will suggest that the customer does and even if the business does not engage in the process, the ADR body can offer advice to the customer.

If the complainant is still not satisfied with the mediator’s advice and insists on going to court, the court will look at what the ADR body has said and is likely to uphold its decision, says Lepak.

It is then, she says, in the company’s interest to engage in the process and she believes it is quite rare for end-users to go beyond the ADR process.

Customer complaints can be a thorn in the side and resolving them as quickly as possible is clearly within your own and the customer’s interest.

While the mire of customer rights legislation can seem thorny, as Lepak shows, a bit of research can help iron out your complaints procedure, make the experience easier for the customer and reduce any headaches for the business.

Further information on the topic, Lepak points out, can be found on a website called Business Companion, which features useful guides produced by Trading Standards.

No mobility business can avoid complaints altogether, but being proactive and engaging can ultimately help to resolve them before they begin to have a negative or long-term impact on either party.

The BHTA’s Code of Practice on Complaints Handling

• Code members are normally expected to resolve complaints within one calendar month.
• Code members should offer maximum co-operation with consumer advisers or any other intermediary acting on behalf of the complainant.
• Staff must be advised to be professional, courteous, prompt and fair when dealing with a complainant.
• Complainants must be informed to whom within the company they should address their complaint, what information they are required to provide, and the timescales that will apply to dealing with the complaint.

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Joe Peskett

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