Jasmine Birtles: This is why we should whinge all the time

4 October 2019

I wouldn’t say I’m a complainer but… oh no, thinking about it, I actually am


As Brits, it’s pretty much against our religion to make a fuss. But that’s not to say we don’t enjoy complaining to each other in this country. We whinge, whine and moan all the time while at the same time telling each other that we “mustn’t grumble”. The problem is we just don’t do it constructively, or indeed profitably, enough.

It’s such a lost opportunity. Not only could we be complaining in order to help businesses improve, we could also be getting decent money back for our troubles.

My friend Tira Shubart (she is American, which helps) is adept at complaining to gain. She has had a £50 voucher from a bank and enough air miles to get her to Paris and back, together with a giant chocolate Easter rabbit from a top airline.

She says: “To paraphrase Ivana Trump, ‘Don’t get angry, get satisfaction.’ For example, a credit card company sent me an incorrect monthly bill. I rang up and graciously told them that

I was shocked as I had considered them one of the great institutions of the western world (that’s always a good gambit, I find). The charming man who answered my call apologised on behalf of the company and issued me a chunk of air miles to make me feel better. And it did!”

I have heard from people who have worked in complaints handling that persistence wins the prize in most cases. Their advice is to write or email (or both) asking for a specific amount of money you want to receive in compensation. That will be refused but then you should write again, asking for that money and repeating the (reasonable) reasons why. It could be the amount of time, stress and anxiety caused or simply the cost of mending the item for which you want compensation. If that is also refused (which is likely) you then have to write a third time and it’s probable that you will get something then – maybe half or a quarter of what you originally asked for.

Tira agrees with this plan, particularly when it comes to dealing with financial institutions. She says: “Start by deciding what you want in compensation. How much stress has it cost you? Then stick to that figure as you go through the complaints procedure.”

She adds: “Remember, nearly all businesses will pay you something in the end, if only to end the flow of letters and documentation they have to deal with.”

The big issue with complaining, as my brother discovered recently, is the time and effort it can take. He spent a few hours emailing and phoning a delivery company that had decided to slap a £12 ‘admin fee’ on to a product he bought online from India plus a customs charge that was more than 100% of the value of the item. The nasty admin fee was struck off after a couple of phone calls but the customs overcharge is still an ongoing wrangle. As he said to me, his hourly rate is much more than the charge in question, but for him it was the principle that mattered.

Happily, there are now websites and companies that can help us through the process. Social media is increasingly the go-to place for getting a quicker response to complaints, although for compensation it’s still best to write direct. There are free complaints letter templates on sites such as Which? and the Money Advice Service, and for financial issues – and who doesn’t have those? – there is the Financial Ombudsman Service. There is also Resolver.co.uk, which is a good, quick way to get straight to the people who could potentially sort things out for you.

Mind you, ultimately you need to be sure that your complaint is a reasonable one. Anyone who has been on the other side of a customer dispute knows that not all complaints are equal.

For example, in 2012 the bank robber Arthur Bundrage demanded $20,000 from a New York bank. When he got home, he discovered that the teller had given him rather less than he had asked for. Furious at this poor service he stormed back to the bank to demand satisfaction, only to find the door shut and the police waiting for him.

Another criminal who robbed a Wendy’s outlet in Atlanta a couple of years previously was so annoyed at the small amount of money he had found in the till that he called the restaurant twice to complain about it.

Tourists also often seem to leave their brains behind, given some of the complaints tour operators have had.

“On my holiday to India, I was disgusted to find almost every restaurant served curry. I don’t like spicy food at all,” complained one.

Another moaned: “None of the hotel staff were English, and the tea didn’t taste the same as at home.”

Maybe a wet weekend in Whitby would be the best compensation for that kind of complaint. 

Jasmine Birtles is a financial journalist and founder of MoneyMagpie.com.

Email her at columnists@moneywise.co.uk.