Irish Times January 30th 2010
MARKET ANALYSTS HAVE spotted the trend of the new savvy consumer, who shops around in search of value and zeroes in on special promotions. Loyalty is out and value-hunting is in as the recession bites. Having lost their faith in the normal pillars of society, consumers are fighting solo battles to maintain their financial sanity.
“We’ve gone from a situation where consumers didn’t know the price of anything to a situation where price and value is now everything,” Ian McShane, managing director of Behaviour and Attitudes, told a conference this week.
Switching your business is another way of shopping around; most notably, more than 200,000 ESB customers have migrated to Bord Gáis in the past year to benefit from lower electricity prices.
“Irish consumers have gained in confidence over the past number of years,” says Ann Fitzgerald, chief executive of the NCA. “The most recent wave of research shows that just under three in four Irish consumers are confident of their consumer rights. An empowered consumer culture is good for business and consumers alike.”
Brendan Burgess, who runs the popular askaboutmoney.com website, says people are more aware of their rights, and more aware of where to turn to for help. This is borne out by the soaring numbers of complaints being handled by the various regulators; the Financial Services Ombudsman has dealt with over 25,000 complaints since 2005 while the Small Claims Court handled more than 4,000 cases last year.
Burgess believes it is always worth a person’s time to make a complaint, even if the worst companies have well-practised routines for wasting consumers’ time.
“The market has changed and companies need business, so they are more sensitive than ever,” he says.
Companies as diverse as mail-order retailer Littlewoods and Rabobank actively scan consumer websites for complaints levelled against them, and attempt to defuse the situation as early as possible. Professionals often offer expert and free advice to people on the consumer issues raised on websites and in newspapers.
The complaints industry, traditionally the preserve of legal professionals, has diversified in recent years. The number of regulators and ombudsmen has proliferated and web-based services such as refund.ie or euclaim.ie have sprung up in search of commission-based business.
It isn’t all good news, either. Newly-acquired consumer assertiveness sometimes tips over into pettiness or bad form. A Dublin cafe owner says that while only a minority of customers complain, the experience is usually “memorable”. One woman recently complained about the choice of china available. Then she said the coffee was cold. “Fair enough – but then she told me the plates were too small,” the owner recalls. “Maybe it was the full moon.”
Yusuf Islam might agree; the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens got booed and slow-handclapped by boorish elements for failing to play old standards at his concert in Dublin’s O2 last year. Italian opera singers got similar treatment when they came here to perform Aida .
The NCA says its research shows that if businesses handle consumer complaints properly and effectively, their customers are willing to broadcast the good news of a positive experience.
“Looking after existing customers is less costly than finding new business, and I would call on businesses to encourage dissatisfied consumers to speak up about their issues with a view to maintaining repeat business,” says Fitzgerald.
Burgess isn’t so sure; encomiums devoted to particular businesses or services on his website are rare, and those that do appear are usually regarded as puffery by vested interests. Review sites such as Tripadvisor, where gushing praise alternates with angry grievance, confuse as much as elucidate.
The web also provides endless opportunities for aggrieved consumers to let off steam, whether that achieves anything or not. As psychologist Maureen Gaffney remarked this week, perhaps half in jest, if everyone was made to contribute €1 for every complaint they had, we could clear the national debt in double-quick time.