Consumer activism on the rise

by Communications Team | Feb 10, 2014

  • 38 million customer complaints in 2013 – a complaint every 1.2 seconds

  • But 40 million more complaints went unaddressed as consumers suffer in silence

Britons are more likely than ever to take action against companies they’re not happy with, although millions still choose to ‘grin and bear it’.

New figures from the first ever Consumer Action Monitor reveal that there were 38 million complaints (1) about products and services last year – equating to a complaint every 1.2 seconds (2).

And Britons are keener to take action when they have a problem, with nearly a third (32 per cent) saying they are more likely to complain about poor service now than they were a year ago(3).

The most common sectors for complaints were energy (17 per cent), retail (17 per cent) and internet telecoms (14 per cent), with transport (5 per cent) and holidays (6 per cent) also attracting consumers’ ire (4).

But the new measure, from Ombudsman Services, also reveals that many who have a problem still take no action, with 40 million problems not pursued thanks in part to the perception that complaining is ‘not worth the hassle’(5). These disgruntled customers deem the process of complaining to be potentially tiresome with time and effort identified as the main reasons holding them back.

This is explained in part by evidence that the legal process daunts consumers, with only around one in twenty (6 per cent) problems addressed through the small claims courts(6). 

Cynicism about companies adds to this sense of frustration, with more than a third (36 per cent) of people believing that big businesses are only interested in money and don’t care if something goes wrong with a product or service, a sentiment that also highlights the importance of trust between businesses and consumers(7).

Those that do take action are most likely to contact the company responsible first, but many disputes are now escalated to other independent third parties, with ombudsmen an increasingly popular route. Indeed Ombudsman Services reports that energy complaints alone have doubled in the last year(8).

Millions of consumers are also resorting to more direct action to get their problems dealt with, with social media frequently used as a way to gain companies’ attention. This method is proving much more effective than traditional media (27 per cent (social) vs. 9 per cent (traditional)). 

 Commenting on the findings, Chief Ombudsman Lewis Shand Smith said: 

“Given that consumer trust in companies is low, the time is right for businesses to embrace third parties as a means of resolving disputes.”

“The research shows that nearly a third of people would be more willing to buy a product or service from a company offering such a service, so transparency clearly has a big role to play in shaping consumer opinion and enhancing brand image.”


 For a full copy of the CAM report please visit: Consumer Action Monitor research report


For the 2014 Consumer Action Monitor, Ombudsman Services commissioned ICM research to carry out a nationally representative survey of adults aged 18+. A total of 2,023 people were questioned throughout Great Britain (exc. Northern Ireland), with representative quotas for gender age, region, social grade, work status and tenure all accounted for. The research was conducted between 3 and 5 January 2014.


1. According to a nationally representative survey carried out by ICM Research. The survey of 2,023 people was carried out between 3and 5 January 2014. Complaints figure gained by multiplying the mean number of complaints per person to a supplier and/or third party (0.8) by the GB adult population (ICM: 47,358,000) = 37,886400.

2. Figure gained by dividing the total amount of complaints (38 million) by the amount of seconds in a year (31,536,000) = 1.204.

3. When questioned, 657 people out of 2023 said they were more likely to take action against a product/supplier than 12 months ago.

4. From 722 people out of 2023 who complained to a supplier and/or a third party, 118 complained about energy, 117 about retail, 95 about internet telecoms, 37 about transport, and 43 about holidays.

5. Figure gained by extrapolating the mean number of ‘conceived complaints’ per person to represent the UK adult population (47,358,000). Of 119,430,000 total ’conceived complaints’, 39,768,000 were thought about but not acted upon (33 per cent).

6. 218 people out of 2023 complained to a third party. 11 of these people went through a small claims court (6 per cent).

7. Out of 2023 people questioned, 722 people said that they agreed with the statement “Big businesses are only interested in taking your money - if something goes wrong with a product or service, they don't care about you” = 36 per cent.

8. Data from Ombudsman Services: Energy: 2,095 total complaints were received by OS for supply/network energy issues in Oct-Nov 2012, vs. 3,693 in Oct-Nov 2013.

9. Out of 218 people that complained to a third party, 55 (27 per cent) complained via social media and 19 (9 per cent) to traditional media sources.