This year’s annual review of the complaints consumers raised through Resolver is like no other.
The global pandemic undoubtedly set the scene for certain issues taking centre stage and others perhaps taking a backseat. I’ve often said that each case we see tells an individual story – and that has definitely not changed. But some of the themes and context around the issues we saw complained about over the past year worried me, sometimes more than the initial issue itself.
We’ve identified a raft of emerging problems – ranging from those that are a frustrating bugbear to those genuinely causing detriment. They include the immediate – and ongoing – struggles to get in touch with organisations, specific impacts on vulnerable consumers and the large-scale confusion around how to secure a refund or cancellation of a product or service. And in our backdrop of almost 900,000 complaints across more than 100 products and services, we have also uncovered new ways to scam consumers, the perils of purchasing from online marketplaces and the trend of buying now and ‘paying later’.
The year that was
High complaint volumes are as much a symptom of demand as they are reflective of company performance. But what I have been struck by this year, more than any, from our data is just how difficult it can be to simply get in touch with a business to lodge a complaint and then to get an appropriate resolution. A third of those complaints made through Resolver this past year were a direct result of fruitless attempts to contact providers directly. Digging beyond the numbers reveals just how significant a source of pain and frustration this became for consumers.
Looking at the sectors that accounted for the bulk of our complaints, namely online shopping and deliveries which accounted for around a quarter of the total, it’s clear that problems getting a refund, a timely response – or a response at all – dominate. Interestingly, when you look at regulated sectors there has been a drop in complaints year on year and certainly less of these types of these basic customer service issues. Instead, serious issues concerning consumer detriment, including cases raised to finance companies relating to fraudulent activity and to energy providers regarding the switching process, were on the rise.
And it’s hardly a surprise, I’m sure, that the travel sector took one of the biggest knocks this year in terms of sentiment for how complaints are being handled. The chaos of flight and holiday cancellations has meant uncertainty for both consumers and operators, but it is the one sector that has seen a drastic, sustained dip in satisfaction among its customers for how issues were handled. This is undoubtedly, to a degree, a symptom of sudden demand but you can see some companies have been able to respond and rebuild their satisfaction levels much more quickly than others, and how certain lessons that could have been learned at the start have failed to resonate.
The year ahead
But what lies ahead for us all as we face more travel chaos, increasing financial worries now that we don’t have initiatives such as payment ‘holidays’ to attempt to ease burdens, and (dare I say it), uncertainty for how soon we will get ‘back to normal’?
The first area I would point to is changes in ways to buy – and pay – for products and services, such as ‘online marketplaces’ and ‘buy now, pay later’ (BNPL) credit arrangements. Consumer law and regulation is notoriously slow to catch up to innovations and anticipate the harmful unintended consequences. We’ve already identified many issues where such ‘third party’ style arrangements have meant broken communication chains and no clear path for recourse when something goes wrong and as such companies have little incentive or pressure to solve the consumer issue.
We’re expecting an acceleration in consumer ‘claims’ such as those made through Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act to credit card providers, largely driven by the lack of refunds for travel plans and the difficulty to simply get in touch with firms. Consumer awareness is also increasing as in recent times we have seen a lot more promotion, not only by consumer organisations but by the companies themselves, of the protection benefits of paying by credit card. We may also see more claims of mis-selling as the year continues, as people have become more attuned to what may constitute mis-selling activity and will react accordingly.
Finally, during 2020/2021 we saw people chasing or being denied refunds for cancelled flights or holidays. We all know that many people accepted or were given no option but to accept vouchers. We are already seeing increasing complaint volumes about getting and using vouchers, and are predicting many more complaints in the year to come about expiry, unfair terms or issues using them.
The year of ‘can’t complain’
What is clear from our data is that the ‘excuse’ of a pandemic should not be a blocker for treating customers fairly and decently. Some companies and indeed sectors maintained levels of performance in complaint resolution, but others fell down significantly. And it’s become apparent that this has gone beyond those perhaps previously rarer incidents where consumer laws or rights have been ‘forgotten’. When contact is being prevented, or consumers are simply being ignored, or told by an organisation that it’s ‘not their problem’, I feel that this should be a wake-up call for how businesses can genuinely step up and deliver for the people who are helping them to survive.
We release our annual data not just to reel out a roll call of ‘big’ numbers. These statistics not only give us a gateway to what really matters to consumers and how those issues affect them in the real world – they serve as a timely reminder that behind every set of numbers lies individual stories of how issues, processes and communication channels can significantly affect consumer relationships and our trust in organisations.