How to complain

This section outlines the basic procedures involved in most complaints procedures and also gives tips on what to say.

Informal complaints

Unless the reason for your complaint is very serious, you should probably make an informal complaint first, on the telephone or in an interview. You may be able to get your problem solved, or at least learn more about it.

If your informal complaint does not resolve the problem, or if your problem is a serious one (for example you have been threatened or abused) you can make a formal complaint.

Formal complaints

Most organisations or companies have a formal complaints procedure. This is the system they use to deal with complaints. You should always use the complaints procedure if there is one. In many cases you cannot take any further action until you have done so.

Formal complaints should generally be dealt with promptly. This may still mean some weeks. The complaints procedure may set out how long an investigation should take, otherwise the person investigating your complaint may tell you. If they don't, ask.

Complaints procedures vary, but you can expect the following steps.

Complaint

Some complaints procedures require you to use a special form, and others just need a letter. See below for tips on what to say.

Investigation

Any investigation into your complaint should be carried out by someone who has not dealt with you or your home before. In larger organisations, they may be a ‘customer care manager’ or ‘complaints officer’. The investigator may:

  • ask you for more information
  • ask questions of the person or people that you are complaining about
  • inspect your home or estate.

The investigator should send you a decision letter, which should:

  • tell you what decisions have been made. This may include, for example, a decision to do what you wanted done, and/or to pay you compensation
  • explain the reasons for the decision(s)
  • tell you what you can do if you are not satisfied with the decision(s).

Appeal or further decision

A simple complaints procedure does not allow you to complain further. If you are not happy with the decision and want to take it further, you may be able to use alternative dispute resolution (ADR) or go to court.

More advanced complaints procedures allow for you to appeal or to take your complaint to a more senior person. Some complaints can be taken to a professional organisation or to an ombudsman. It depends who you are complaining about. You should usually take your complaint as far as you can before you use alternative dispute resolution (ADR) or go to court.

What to say

When you fill in a complaint form, or when you write a letter, you should:

  • make it clear that you are complaining. You can write ‘complaint’ at the top of your letter
  • make it clear what you are complaining about
  • state clearly what you would like done about the problem
  • take your time, and write out your complaint carefully. Write it out in rough first, before doing your final version.
  • type it or write it neatly in black pen
  • give necessary detail. Give your name and address, and information about what has happened, for example dates, names of people if you know them, and reference numbers or codes
  • not include irrelevant facts or comments
  • if you are claiming money, make it clear what the money is for. Be realistic about how much you can claim
  • be polite, and avoid sarcasm and rude comments
  • be honest and don’t exaggerate. Don’t make guesses about things you are not sure of
  • remember that most people want you to be satisfied with your service. Your aim is to convince them that your complaint needs to be put right
  • date your letter or form
  • keep a copy.

Take care about what you include with your complaint. Send anything that you need to illustrate your complaint, but leave out irrelevant documents, and don’t send anything that the organisation already has. For example, you don’t need to send your landlord a copy of your tenancy agreement. Only send photocopies and not originals.

Think about letting a friend read your complaint before you send it. You should be able to get more help and information from:

  • the organisation’s complaint leaflet or website
  • a professional organisation or ombudsman if there is one
  • Citizens Advice or another advice agency – use our directory to find one.

If you send your letter or form by post, take a note of when it was posted. If you have not received a letter or card acknowledging receipt within about two weeks, you should telephone or write to check that it has been received safely. If necessary, send a second copy, but always keep a copy yourself.

Last updated: 1 January 2014