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How to complain – 30 years of successful complaining

An interview with the ‘Complaining Cow’ behind a new book on when and how, consumers can seek compensation from companies

Helen's book: How To Complain: The ESSENTIAL Consumer Guide to Getting REFUNDS, Redress and RESULTS!

Helen’s book: How To Complain: The ESSENTIAL Consumer Guide to Getting REFUNDS, Redress and RESULTS!

Helen Dewdney, author of ‘How To Complain: The ESSENTIAL Consumer Guide to Getting REFUNDS, Redress and RESULTS!’ tells us a bit about her background and why she decided to write a book on the art of complaining.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself – were you always a ‘complaining cow’?

Helen Dewdney: When I was about 12, I wrote a letter for Jackie magazine which they printed but didn’t pay me for. I complained and they sent the money but didn’t apologise which really annoyed me. Make mistakes, but apologise for them.

At secondary school I started a school magazine. In the second issue I was annoyed girls only played boys’ games at PE, for more than half a term we never played netball, it was always football etc. I wrote a piece wondering what the Sex Discrimination Act would say (now of course Equality Act, diversity, anti-discriminatory practice etc. would be mentioned and it would be more likely complaining that the girls weren’t allowed to play football!). As a result the magazine got shut down. My first experience of censorship! But it DID bring about change and the girls were playing netball the following week.

I developed my great belief in “the principle of the thing” and fighting for justice which probably led me into working in children’s services and fighting for children’s rights.

How did you get the idea for the book?

HD: I started my blog (‘The Complaining Cow’) as a hobby and it grew into providing help and advice for people and I saw that there was a huge gap for a book. Although the information is out there, it is in different places and sometimes people don’t know what they are looking for and of course not everyone is comfortable with searching the Internet.

Have you had many people reaching out to you for advice?

HD: Yes – another reason for writing the book. It just isn’t possible to help everyone and write personal emails for all of them. I can direct them to the right laws and tips on my blog and YouTube channel, but it takes time to go through peoples’ complaints and write everything for them. I also think people need to be empowered to do it themselves, so that they feel confident enough to assert their legal rights.

Any specific advice for complaining to energy companies?

HD: Generally, the tips are the same for any company. Energy companies must have a procedure for dealing with complaints, which should be available on their website or by telephoning them. The procedure should include names and contact details of all available sources of independent help, advice and information.

The big six companies must resolve a complaint within eight weeks (12 weeks for smaller companies). If not resolved within that time the company must provide a letter of deadlock (this states that they have reached deadlock and won’t deal with the matter further) and you can then take the matter to the Energy Ombudsman.

Do you think Brits as a whole are aware of their consumer rights?

HD: No – Answers to a survey I carried out on my website earlier this year showed that 70- 90% of people say they always complain, only 7% said they know their legal rights well and use them regularly. 5% know the basics of the Sale and Supply of Goods Act and Supply of Goods and Services Act. A further 33% will check out their rights before complaining, so assuming that they won’t always do that for various reasons, we know that fewer than 45% of people use their legal rights. So 7 + 5 + 33 = the 45% but I believe that is lower as some of the 33% won’t always check out their legal rights and complain.

It would appear that people think they complain more than they do, certainly not enough know their legal rights. There is an increase in using social media to complain and whilst this may be considered complaining, it often doesn’t gain the legal redress that longer correspondence elicits.

Can you give us an example of some of the more unusual complaints you have made?

HD: I complained about a free gift that came with a comic, 69p from iTunes, 40p from Tesco for “department sale” – all to do with the “Principle of the thing”.

What about some of the most successful?

HD: Largest over years have been £700 from Everest for a friend plus all repairs, £500 for a friend from EasyJet, and taking Tesco to court and winning.

If readers take one lesson from your book ‘How To Complain’, what should it be?

Assert your legal rights and remember it is the principle of the thing – if you are owed redress you should get it.

Where can I buy your book?

My website for a signed copy, or on Amazon.

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