As we release our data on the complaints Resolver has seen over the last six months, I’m struck by how fundamentally life has changed for all of us during lockdown.
It’s stating the obvious to say the pandemic has brought unprecedented change (and for many, hardship) in 2020. Yet one of the most important things I’ve seen in particular has been how reasonable people have been with businesses and organisations providing key services.
More than half a million complaints have been made using Resolver between April and September 2020. Extraordinary numbers by any stretch of the imagination but not a huge increase on the previous period – just an 11% rise.
We’re pretty used to large numbers at Resolver – we helped sort out our six millionth case in August – yet many of the people I speak to expected Resolver to have seen record breaking volumes of complaints over lockdown. As is always the case, the devil in the detail. Here are a few of the surprises and trends in our latest data.
What people are complaining about has changed
When I look at the individual complaints people are making, what’s particularly striking is the fact that complaints over lockdown are fundamentally different to what people complained about in the previous period.
Though there have been some big increases and decreases in complaints, the issues people seek help with are different. Pre-lockdown, complaints about shops tended to be focused on the quality of goods, mis-selling and delivery issues. Delivery is still a major deal (the second most complained-about issue) but during lockdown, issues relating to the availability of goods and the difficulty in contacting businesses or cancelling and getting refunds dominated. For instance, complaints about airlines completely switched from delay compensation to problems with refunds, rebooking and vouchers.
What’s notable are the common themes. Businesses ignoring existing laws and regulations, with statutory refunds and consumer rights flouted. And basic customer service failures, with people simply unable to contact companies. These things dominate the complaints in every sector… and are increasing in proportion each month.
What people aren’t complaining about is also notable
At the start of lockdown we asked our users to be as fair and understanding to businesses where possible. While many people were entitled to refunds for cancelled flights and packaged holidays, helping these businesses stay trading was also the responsible thing to do. Finding the balance between confirming consumer rights while supporting struggling firms (which are also major employers) has been a challenge, but I felt it was the right thing to do.
In the main, people across the nation have done the same. While we helped with around 80,000 holiday-related complaints, the big source of frustration for many people is being misadvised by businesses or being given conflicting advice. This panicked more people into seeking refunds where before they might have taken vouchers for cancelled holidays.
In fact, our data shows that people complained about the things that were urgent or unavoidable, like trying to buy food online or get refunds before businesses went bust and they lost their money.
In other areas such as finance, complaint levels remained consistent but didn’t noticeably increase. In this sector, the complaints we saw switched to issues with disputed transactions, unauthorised payments and other surprises that might have been lurking in bank and credit card statements, that only now have come to light.
Looking at our complaints data as a whole, one word springs to mind: necessity. People sought help for things that they felt were essential or unavoidable. They behaved responsibly.
Customer service problems are a serious and concerning trend
For well over two years now, we’ve been warning about the steady erosion of customer service by businesses across all sectors. By far the most disappointing and worrying trend for Resolver is the acceleration of this over lockdown and the deliberate removal of telephone numbers and emails, sometimes only being replaced by chatbots and online forms.
These methods of dealing with customers have been shown to be woefully inadequate and the source of an extraordinary amount of frustration. Well over half of our lockdown complaints – 260,000 cases – explicitly mention not being able to contact a business. And the vast majority of complaints mention customer service in some form, with a tenth of cases being exclusively about customer service failures.
Why are businesses so reluctant to listen to what their customers have to say directly? After all, complaints don’t go away just because you don’t want to listen to them. The good news is there are indications of a tipping point being reached and, along with Resolver, many newspapers, broadcasters, consumer rights groups and Government bodies are now directly challenging businesses that are making it hard to complain.
What the future holds
Resolver’s complaint statistics represent the UK’s largest overview of how businesses and organisations are performing across over 100 products and sectors. Yet even though our data runs right up to the end of September, changes in our society are already moving so fast that the next few months are shaping up to be just as volatile and challenging as before.
Early indications suggest that the significant amount of patience extended to businesses by the public is coming to an end. Our users are telling us that after seven months, they expect customer services to be in place, delays in resolving problems to be over and new solutions to service challenges to be in place. Put bluntly, if you’ve found a way to take your customers money, you also need to find a way to provide a decent level of service to them.
It’s clear that as a nation, we must all continue to adapt – and we expect businesses and the organisations we need and rely on to change and adapt even more quickly. There aren’t any easy answers, but we can find solutions to even the most pressing problems by learning the lessons from the last few months and listening to people when they seek help.