Can't complain, won't complain

We Brits like to complain. We are renowned for moaning about the weather (with good cause), unreliable trains (ditto) and bad service in restaurants (quite often ditto). Mostly, however, the complaining comes to naught because it is done in private to our family and friends and nowhere near the people who might be able to do something about it.

This is because while we love a good grumble, we are not at all good at proper, effective complaining, something I imagine to do with our ‘natural reticence’, not wanting to cause a fuss and that fabled stiff upper lip.  As far as this is true, we can’t then have anything to complain about when we receive the same shoddy service the next time.

The sort of under-the-breath muttering that we excel at is neither good for the soul nor for competitiveness.  If no-one ever bothered to make a well-directed constructive complaint about their overcooked steak or having to queue for 20 minutes just to pay for a newspaper nothing would ever improve. 

I am firmly with Napoleon on this one when he said ‘when people cease to complain, they cease to think’, although he should have said ‘complain constructively’.  Useful complaining doesn’t just get something off your chest and, hopefully, resolved; nor is it just about preventing someone else having to suffer the same fate.  It is about demanding high standards and driving improvement, for the good of all. 

If that sounds a bit grandiose, take retail.  According to a 2011 survey by shopping comparison website Kelkoo, the British are the most likely shoppers in Europe to complain, but I reckon we still have some of the shoddiest service around. 

The French are the least likely to complain.  This could be because of a general laissez-faire attitude or because, in my experience, the French have made something of an art out of retail.  Napoleon knew what he was talking about when he called us ‘a nation of shopkeepers’. 

All of which goes some way to explaining why British consumers are so reluctant to complain about lawyers.  Five years after the Legal Services Act that was supposed to empower consumers, and over two years after the independent Legal Ombudsman (LeO) was set up, consumers are still reluctant to complain about their lawyer.

Research by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has found that only one in eight dissatisfied legal customers goes on to make a formal complaint.  This is largely due to uncertainly about how or where to complain and scepticism about whether complaining is worth the effort.  Even taking into account our apparent reluctance to complain, this is a discouraging statistic. 

The OFT found that many law firms are simply ignoring requirements that they signpost consumers where and how to complain.  This is against the rules and, perhaps more importantly, self-defeating.  It is extraordinary that lawyers have such antipathy towards consumer complaints, particularly when they constitute such an important source of intelligence in an industry with such an information imbalance and limited repeat purchasing.  

One in seven of the three million people using the UK’s legal profession every year are dissatisfied with the service they receive.  I can hear self-deluded lawyers up and down the land saying ‘ah yes, but that means six in seven are satisfied’.  To which I reply, if Tesco had ignored that many dissatisfied customers it would not be the UK’s most successful ever supermarket.

But it isn’t only the fault of the lawyers themselves.  The OFT also pointed out that many consumers are put off by the complexity of the system and wants to see it further simplified.  It’s got a good point.  Even after reform, there are still ten frontline legal regulators, some of which can approve new alternative business structures (ABS), an overarching Legal Services Board, the Legal Services Consumer Panel, the Office for Legal Complaints, a Legal Ombudsman, a claims management company regulator and, keeping an eye on the whole consumer market, the OFT itself.

This is further complicated by reserved and unreserved, regulated and unregulated activities.  I thought I could explain the difference, but reading the explanation in the OFT’s report made my head spin.  It's enough to know it is so complicated there is probably only a handful of people who understand it.  There is surely something to be said for simply reserving all legal advice and being done with it.

Obviously, the individual consumer doesn’t have to know all this, but even if the signposting were better and the LeO were genuinely able to operate as a single post box or gateway, there would remain the likelihood of complaints taking longer, costing more or, worse, getting lost. This is not how it was meant to be.  

Against all this, it is hardly surprising the Legal Services Consumer Panel recently concluded consumers are not empowered enough to drive competition in the legal market.  It’s never going to be easy to get us to shop around for things we don’t know much about, don’t need very often and probably wish we didn’t have to buy at all - even with credit cards we can go on the colour - but simplifying regulation would be start.

And when it comes to complaining, you’re virtually going to have to beg us to do it, because we’re British and, on the whole, we’d rather eat our own feet than make a fuss. 

Posted in: Consumer rights

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