By Daniel Hunter

UK consumers face significantly less problems when buying goods and services than they did 5 years ago, but they are more inclined to complain when things do go wrong, according to a new report by the Institute of Customer Service (ICS).

The percentage of customers who experience a problem has decreased from 17% in January 2008 to 11.7% in July 2012, whilst the proportion of those that went on to make a complaint rose from 72% to 76% in the same period.

However, the report also warns that this overall falling trend in problems encountered has been slightly reversed in the shorter term, creeping back up from a low of 10.6% in July 2011.

Meanwhile, the research suggests that issues with staff behaviour cause the majority of customer complaints, and warns there still remains a significant proportion of ‘silent sufferers’ that leave organisations with little opportunity to resolve issues.

The report, Handle with Care, is based on the findings of over 3000 consumer responses from the UK Customer Satisfaction Index (UKCSI), the national measure of customer satisfaction.

People-related issues such as staff attitude and competence cause the majority (62%) of problems eliciting a complaint. In comparison, the quality or reliability of goods and services accounts for just a third (34%) of complaints.

When asked about the most annoying or frustrating service problems, customers cited ‘staff attitude’ (rated 8.5 out of 10), ‘staff competence’ (8.4) and ‘organisations not keeping promises’ (8.8).

The sectors experiencing the highest proportion of complaints relating to staff attitude and competence are local public services (44% attitude / 36% competence), leisure (36% attitude / 37% competence) and national public services (37% attitude and competence).

“Our research suggests that customers are most satisfied when complaints are dealt with immediately. As a result, organisations need to ensure that all customer contacts are handled consistently well, and that customers are not passed from pillar to post,” Jo Causon, Chief Executive of the Institute of Customer Service, commented.

Despite the increasing inclination to complain among UK consumers, the report warns that there still exists a worryingly large number of ‘silent sufferers’ — customers that have reason to complain but choose not to, leaving organisations with little opportunity to resolve their issues.

Twenty-four per cent of customers who recently experienced a problem did not make a complaint about it. Extrapolated across the UK adult population, this suggests that over one million people experienced a problem but chose not to make a complaint.

The sector experiencing the highest proportion of ‘silent sufferers’ is the transport sector, where 37% of customers recently facing a problem did not complain, followed by leisure (34%) and the public sector (local and national) (28%). The lowest proportion of ‘silent suffers’ is reported in the utilities sector (14%).

The majority of these ‘silent sufferers’ (51%) claim that their main reason for avoiding making a complaint is that they think it will make no difference. This cynicism is particularly high in relation to the transport and tourism sectors (66% and 67% of silent sufferers respectively).

Telecommunications and utilities customers also feel the process is “too much hassle” (cited by 27% and 28% of customers who had a problem but did not make a complaint).

It is critical that organisations implement effective complaints handling and encourage customers to communicate any issues. The research reveals that 73% of customers who have complained told someone else about their experience, spreading negative word of mouth to an average four people. The most dissatisfied complainers tell even more people — an average of 6.

“Our research shows that customers who have a bad experience are much more likely to tell others, and to tell more people, than customers who have had a good experience," Causon added.

"This means that it’s essential to try to prevent complaints occurring and, when they do occur, they need to be dealt with as quickly as possible and followed up to make sure customers feel the issue has been resolved.”

Despite an overall rise in customer satisfaction, the number of complaints and satisfaction with how they are handled varies considerably between sectors.

Almost a fifth (18%) of telecommunications customers report experiencing a problem while similarly high numbers report problems with local (16%) and national (17%) public services. The lowest numbers of issues were identified in the automotive (6%), tourism (7%) and services (8%) sectors.

When asked to rank sectors out of 10 for satisfaction with complaint handling, insurance (rated 5.2 out of 10), telecoms (5.2), local public services (5.1) and national public services (4.7) rate poorly while retail food (6.8) and retail non-food (6.9) top the board.

Retail food and non-food sectors receive the same high scores for speed of resolution (6.8 and 6.9 respectively), an important factor in dispersing complaints. Local public services (5.0), national public services (4.5) and utilities (5.1) rank lowest for complaint resolution.

“The type of complaint and satisfaction with complaint handling varies significantly by sector," said Causon.

"It’s particularly important for organisations in sectors where there tends to be a high proportion of complaints about staff competence or staff attitude to benchmark their complaint handling performance and support employees in anticipating and dealing with complaints.”

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