Um, excuse me? Excuse me, could I get some attention here? Outrageous. I have made a simple request that is firmly within my rights – that you read this article – and you’re treating me like I am some… nobody. I am more than happy to escalate this, you know. Can I at least speak to a human being?
Thank you. Now, did you see the news that online chatbots are among the very worst ways to make a complaint, while speaking to a human customer services agent tends to produce the best results for the aggrieved consumer?
A new Which? survey of 5,000 consumers didn’t yield the most earth-shattering results, but it was certainly frustrating to hear, given the increasing number of retailers that embraced automated chatbots during Covid, in some cases removing all other contact details.
“It’s absolutely no excuse anymore, chatbots make it difficult to complain and all consumers want is a frictionless experience,” complains Scott Dixon, a consumer rights expert who runs thegrumpygit.com.
“Chatbots are based on AI, so they’re programmed to deal with very straightforward enquires. But when customers go off-script and need a real person, they get caught in a loop. Firms are still using Covid as a reason for using them and it’s unacceptable. Customers have given leeway for far too long.”
Dixon’s prediction is that companies which rely on chatbots to deal with customer complaints eventually won’t have any customers to wrong – instead, consumers will gravitate to rivals with a more personalised approach.
However the company does it, though, there’s always a complaints procedure, and where there’s a procedure there’s a skill to getting the best results.
“We are reluctant to complain in this country; we don’t like to make a fuss. But complaining, if done properly and in the right manner, is good,” says Dixon. “It’s obviously good for the consumer and also good for the retailer to raise their game.”
So, chatbot, phone call, letter or in person – there are ways and means of getting what you want…
In short, they’re best avoided. “I always try to find an alternative,” Dixon says – even if there isn’t a visible alternative on the company’s website. Generally, he takes it “straight to the top table” by using a website such as CEOemail.com or Companies House to find out who’s in charge, then tries to email them directly.
“They won’t see it, but they will have a senior customer service person who will deal with escalated complaints, and they will.”
But if you are faced with a chatbot and decide to engage it in some back and forth, he recommends testing out some phrases the AI may be programmed with to trigger a human follow-up.
“You could try things like ‘I want to leave’, or ‘please escalate.’ Using words like ‘vulnerable’, ‘elderly’, ‘urgent’ or ‘I need to speak to a real person’ might work, too...”
Again, best avoided if possible, but Dixon will always take the name of the person straight away. A quick, “and who am I speaking to?” is all it takes, because once you have their name, and note the time and date on which you are talking to them, you’ve started a paper trail.
“It’s easy to lose track of phone calls, and these days, a lot of the people you talk to are at home, so they aren’t able to get the manager if you ask to speak to their superior,” Dixon says.
“So note their name straight away – if you leave it until the end of the call, or at a moment when you’re clashing, they might refuse to tell you. The key in all these methods is to be clear, concise, stick to the facts and know your rights. I’d always follow-up with an email acknowledging the call took place.”
Here’s where “clear, concise, know your rights” is most important, Dixon says. You should strip the emotion out of your argument and instead just stick to the facts, citing the evidence, and proving you know what you’re talking about.
“There are basic things like making sure it is spelled correctly and cross-referenced, but you should also give them a timeline not just of what’s happened so far, but when you would like it sorted by, and what you will do if you don’t hear.”
A little mild threat goes a long way. “Yes, if they’re not prepared to accede to a reasonable request, you should ask for a final decision or deadlock letter [confirmation that the company is unable to assist you anymore]. Once you have that, you can refer it to the relevant ombudsman.”
Which?'s survey ranked social media as no better than chatbots, but "Twitter is very useful for complaints," Dixon believes – providing you know what you're doing.
“Tag the company, but put a full stop before the name [so it is a public post, rather than only the company seeing it], and give a succinct, polite description of your issue. More often than not they’ll ask you to direct message them, and that gets you straight to a human.”
You can also appeal to injustice-hunting journalists. “If you like, tag in various local and national media, or journalists working in that area,” Dixon says. “This ramps up the pressure on the company to respond.”
The oldest method is still the best. “They can’t avoid you, so you’re ideally placed to speak to the manager. It’s low-hanging fruit.” Again, keep emotion out of it (and keep your cool), know your rights, and be clear and simple.
“A lot of shops will fob you off by saying you should have taken out warranty, but that’s why you should be clued up on your rights. The Consumer Rights Act of 2015 means that you never need to buy a warranty off the shelf, because it states items ought to be fit for purpose, as described, satisfactory quality, and last a reasonable length of time. People will realise you know what you’re doing, and you’re likely to get far further.”
The more of us that do that, the better things should get.