Alex’s blog: the shift to online and what it means for the consumer

5 min read
November 20, 2020

I’ve often talked about how the nature of complaints has changed during the course of the Covid-19 pandemic. Arguably, Resolver has seen a similar number of complaints across the board during these past few months compared to a pre-Covid era, but that has perhaps masked the fact that complaint volumes – and issues themselves – have surged in some areas while others have seen a drop.

While some of these trends are not surprising, where I’m disappointed, in fact on occasion angry, is exactly why these complaints are happening in some areas. And that largely boils down to the lack of fair treatment by some companies towards their customers. 

I have noted that in the main, consumers took to Resolver to complain about the urgent and the unavoidable in a bid to be reasonable and show patience. That’s why we saw complaints rise for online shops, deliveries, and travel firms and fall for restaurants and essential services like banking and energy. I have also noted the possibly surprising fact that in those ‘regulated’ sectors – where there are basic rules for how to treat consumers – customer satisfaction has gone up

But in some cases, company responses have clearly fallen short of acting in the best interest of their customers. For me, this has been at best unnecessary and easily avoided, at worst more calculated and deliberate. And it should not be allowed to continue. 

There are some positives 

First off, let’s take the trend that has been commented on for years but exacerbated greatly as a result of the changing nature of life at home – the shift to ‘transacting’ online.

For businesses this is probably a good thing, particularly if digital is their preferred medium. It’s pushed those consumers that were perhaps resistant to switch to digital services to do so – and in some cases has meant ‘conversion’ to being a digital consumer. 

I know friends and family members who have now said to me that they’ll ‘never go back’ to physically going into a supermarket because they love their weekly delivery. And I can see why people who have got used to conducting virtually their whole lives from home have fallen in love with the convenience and speed that being an online consumer can offer.

But what about when things go wrong? This is where I feel that many businesses have fallen down at a time when they could have used the experience to directly show their customers why they stand out. Some of the complaints I see relate to arguably simple frustrations that could have easily been sorted if there was a means to do so. But more worryingly some are going against basic consumer protections and laws, to avoid resolving issues, while others are using the fact that their business model falls outside legal protections to arguably exploit their customers in a way that is morally, even if not legally, wrong in my eyes.

Being the voice of the consumer – rather than consumerism

Let’s take companies that took away what I would consider ‘standard’ methods of getting in touch, such as a phone number or a direct email address – or those that didn’t have these in the first place. This has forced consumers down the road of faceless communication methods such as chatbots, which not only eliminate the opportunity of a two-way channel of communication, but hardly instills confidence that your issue is a priority. In some cases there has even been no means to contact a company at all if something has gone wrong – so no recourse to try and get it put right.

Furthermore, when using some of these services you may actually be affording yourself less protection as a consumer. Coupling that with an inability to complain and make contact and the situation is at best frustrating, at worst highly stressful and detrimental. Take online marketplaces. They’re a popular choice and I can see why. In some cases you can search for everything you want in one place, in others you can get good ‘deals’. But because you are effectively buying via a third party rather than a direct seller, you are not covered by the same consumer protection in many cases that you otherwise might be. 

Why can’t we complain?

It is therefore unacceptable to me that these businesses who are so willing to sell to consumers in ‘one click’ can’t offer as slick a way of direct contact to sort out issues, even answer queries in what are and will remain uncertain times. And why should companies simply be allowed to dictate how (or if) customers can get in touch rather than considering what their customers might prefer?

I do understand that it wasn’t just consumers shifting to leading their lives from home and that in many cases staff at these companies had to do the same while trying to perform their jobs under an avalanche of complaints. We saw an overnight increase in urgent demands as people needed to cancel flights, order essential goods and services online and get help with refunds. But that was then and I do feel consumers in the main were patient and understanding at the time. Six months on and I feel companies should be returning that same goodwill or at the very least a basic level of fair treatment. 

If companies continue to make it hard to complain then I’d warn that they shouldn’t be surprised if consumers choose not to use them. But should this be left to chance, or should that be a choice? For me this is vital, particularly when we apply it to the more vulnerable, hard to reach groups, who are in many cases having to make the biggest shifts to move their lives online. We’ve seen a significant rise in complaints from consumers with known vulnerabilities to shops in particular, but I’m not sure much effort is being made to cater for those that have had to make this shift through perhaps no choice of their own, despite said retailers being more than willing to sell.

I often argue that over-regulation can inhibit innovation, but right now we can see that consumer protection rules are providing some comfort and a bedrock of customer service that is leading to increased satisfaction. All businesses must be focused on driving customer service innovations that drive longer-term loyalty and result in establishing the confident, savvy online consumer. What a great measure of success that would be in these challenging times. 

If you’ve had an issue with your move to online shopping or bookings, Resolver can help.Start your complaint now for free.

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