Empowering consumers is more important than ever

ComplaintsConsumer rights champion, founder of The Complaining Cow blog, author and media personality Helen Dewdney discusses the value of consumer empowerment in light of dramatic cuts to trading standards services.

Uswitch undertook a survey in May 2014 and found that almost two fifths of consumers (38%) are unsure about their rights and 36% say they do not know them well. Only 4% claim to be truly confident.

I undertook a survey that found fewer than 45% people know their legal rights. However, complaining is on the increase and the figures fit in with the Ombudsman Service’s report on complaining. 38 million customers complained in 2013. But 40 million more complaints went unaddressed as people stayed quiet. Forty-eight percent and 52% respectively.

With cuts to Citizens Advice Bureaux (CAB) and trading standards services, consumer empowerment is more important than ever. Although there are a few consumer websites, quite often people don’t know exactly what to look for. For example, if they have had a problem with a holiday overseas they don’t know what regulations and laws cover them so can spend a lot of time searching for what they need. Although I am a seasoned complainer and have effectively complained for friends, family and myself hundreds of time to many different sectors, I frequently spent time seeking out the information I needed and I know what I am doing!

Over the last couple of years I have had so much feedback from people who clearly don’t know where to look or what to do when they know something is wrong. As I started to become inundated with requests for help it was quite clear that there really isn’t enough information out there to assist people in their consumer rights and that was when I started to write the book ‘How to Complain: The Essential Consumer Guide to Getting Refunds, Redress and Results!’

Whilst I was writing it I struggled at times to find the information I needed and I really had to persevere! I have to say the email service from CAB was superb and useful. However, these were usually specific questions relating to clarity around laws and for people who have ongoing cases or don’t have the internet it is becoming more and more difficult to get that individual personalised help that some people need due to these cuts.

Helen Dewdney speaking with the BBC

Helen Dewdney speaking with the BBC

For those people who do know how to complain effectively, we can threaten informing trading standards regarding breaches of law and poor practice. However, the rogue traders and indeed some well known companies will of course know that trading standards services’ budgets have been cut and so are less likely to investigate problems and will have to prioritise those which are getting the most complaints.

Consumers need to be empowered to feel confident in asserting their legal rights. Whilst many know they have rights to cover them when they have faulty items they are less sure of poor service from utility companies or if they are mis-sold a financial product for example. The consumer is actually quite well covered for most instances of poor service but making that knowledge available seems more important than ever before. People don’t know what they don’t know!

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