Consumer gripes increase but many complaints go unheard by businesses

Ombudsman Services | Jun 21, 2019

Consumers have nearly twice as many gripes about businesses as last year but are increasingly choosing not to complain directly to the company concerned, according to new research.

The latest annual Consumer Action Monitor (CAM) report by Ombudsman Services found that the average number of issues and problems per person has increased from 2.5 per person in 2018 to 4.2 this year.

That’s the highest number in the report’s six-year history. The figure covers all issues and problems that consumers experience when dealing with businesses – including those that don’t result in a formal complaint.

Many people are taking to social media, grumbling to friends and family, suffering in silence or simply switching provider rather than logging an official complaint with the company.

The report suggests that a combination of disillusionment, distrust and dissatisfaction is putting consumers off the traditional complaints process.

Key findings from the report include:

  • A majority (55%) of consumers take to social media to share the complaints, issues and problems that they experience when dealing with businesses.
  • More than a fifth (21%) of consumers say they trust businesses less now than they did a year ago.
  • Most millennials (62%) say complaining fills them with dread and 38% would rather grumble on social media than actively complain to a business.
  • 70% of vulnerable consumers suffer in silence rather than complaining, compared to 47% of the rest of the population.
  • Baby boomers (56%) are much more determined than millennials (31%) or members of Generation X (41%) to actively drive a complaint forward to a business.
  • The vast majority of people (88%) believe new technology should make complaining easier, yet 60% believe the traditional complaints process will continue because of the need for the ‘human touch’.
  • The retail sector received the lion’s share of complaints this year, with 24% of consumers saying they’d had an active complaint about online shopping, followed by offline shopping (20%), energy (14%) and telecoms (12%).
  • Londoners are 2019’s most prolific complainers, with an average of 3.9 active complaints per person, followed by people in the North East (3.4). The East of England had the lowest number of active complaints per person (2.1).

Matthew Vickers, chief executive at Ombudsman Services, said the report showed the rise of the “passive, disillusioned complainer.”

He said:

“Our findings show that while consumers have more gripes and issues with businesses than ever before, the way they are choosing to complain or voice their dissatisfaction is changing.

“As trust in business declines, most complaints are now passive – with consumers sharing their frustration with friends and family but doing little else.

“Younger generations in particular will often simply suffer in silence or switch to a different provider or supplier rather than complaining to a business.

“This is a shame, because complaining directly to the business will enable it to make improvements and raise standards for the benefit of other consumers.

“The challenge for businesses is to win the trust of consumers so they feel able and willing to come forward with a complaint when something goes wrong.

“A business that achieves this stands more chance of retaining customers and growing sustainably.”

He added:

“This year’s Consumer Action Monitor shows there is a long way to go when it comes to helping people in vulnerable circumstances navigate the complaints process.

“We found that 67% of vulnerable consumers don’t even know where to begin when it comes to complaining (compared to 44% of the rest of the population], while 64% are filled with dread at the thought of complaining and 63% find the process highly stressful.

“This combination means that people who identify as vulnerable are often simply not bothering to complain.

“This needs to change, so it’s encouraging that regulators and businesses in the sectors in which we operate are working hard to improve access for vulnerable consumers."

Ombudsman Services is a not-for-profit organisation that handles and investigates unresolved complaints in the energy and telecoms sectors.

Access the 2019 Consumer Action Monitor report here.