Advocate for your Rights: Got a complaint? Here’s how to give it some impact

By Grant J Everett 

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Panorama will be bringing you a series of articles that discuss and describe the various means of self advocacy, also known as “sticking up for yourself”. First up, Grant J Everett looks at the basics of making a consumer complaint… 

Late last year, Flourish Australia’s Buckingham House service at Surry Hills, NSW, hosted a series of free talks called ‘Talkin’ Together’ that were put together by Being and the Department of Free Trading. They were aimed at assisting people to get the most out of the new world of NDIS. This article draws mainly on the fourth workshop ‘Making a Complaint.’ 

What you can do if you have an unacceptable experience with a service provider, including an NDIS service provider? Your complaint could be about any number of things: your landlord making sexually inappropriate comments, the gas company claiming you haven’t paid your bill when you know you have, your mobile phone provider changing the terms of your contract without any warning, or a bakery selling you a curry pie that’s gone bad. Not all complaints are dealt with on the spot. Sometimes you need to go ‘up the chain’ to get satisfaction. 

It’s okay to complain 

Lydia, one of the Talkin’ Together facilitators told us that even though she works for the Fair Trading Commission, she would still feel reluctant to complain in her day-to-day life. She said that most people are wired up in the same way. However, all organisations, companies and government departments in Australia must adhere to certain standards. You are entitled by Australian Consumer Law to complain if a service provider fails you, and if the complaint concerns a safety issue, then time is of the essence. Legitimate complaints aren’t “whinging”, and they can help a service provider by showing them where they’re falling short so they have a chance to make improvements. If you don’t say something, they might not even know there’s an issue, and that means other people might experience the exact same problem. 

So while there’s no guarantee one complaint will fix everything, any good business or service will sit up and pay attention whenever a customer is disappointed. The further a complaint is escalated before something is done, the deeper the stain it will leave. In the age of social media, one-star reviews tend to last forever. 

When it comes to getting a good outcome from your complaint, the ideal result is one of the 3 Rs: Refund, Replace and Repair. 

Senior Independent Advocate 

Making complaints can be a frustrating and daunting process. Fortunately, Flourish Australia’s Board employs a Senior Independent Advocate specifically to look into complaints from the people who access our service. The Senior Independent Advocate does not report through management and so can operate without fear or favouritism! Read more in Panorama #69, September 2018 pp. 38-39. 

Step-by-step complaint checklist 

1. It’s okay to say something if your rights and/or expectations are not being met 

2. Think it over, and talk to someone you trust 

3. Focus on the issue, be clear about what you have a problem with 

4. Write it down 

5. Practise what you want to say 

6. Back-up documents are good, but it’s okay if you don’t have any 

7. Tell them what you want to happen; you’re the boss 

8. Tell them what will happen if they DON’T fix the problem 

9. When do you want the change to happen? 

10. On the day, you can bring along someone you trust, like an advocate 

3Rs

When it comes to getting a good outcome from your complaint, the ideal result is one of the 3 Rs:

1. Refund

2. Replace

3. Repair

Get serious! 

If you feel that you aren’t being heard, mentioning the NSW Fair Trading Commission will make anybody sit up and realise you aren’t kidding around. Fair Trading has a “no wrong door” policy where they will help you connect up with an advocate or external department that will best meet your complaint. So even if you don’t know the difference between the Commonwealth Ombudsman and a vanilla flan, Fair Trading can provide you with contact details and advice. You can call them on 13 32 20 between 8.30am and 5pm, Monday to Friday, or visit their website. 

www.fairtrading.nsw.gov.au 

Seeing the complaint process in action 

At the end of the day facilitators Lydia, Steve and Alisha performed a roleplay to give an example of the complaints process. Lydia played a cleaner who had been paid with NDIS funding to clean Steve’s house, and Alisha was the case manager who Steve would call to complain. 

As soon as Lydia the cleaner arrived, she was behaving inappropriately towards Steve: flirting, offering to swap private numbers, and asking him to meet her down at the pub even though that is not what Steve wanted. To make matters worse, she didn’t even clean! And while Steve didn’t want to get anybody in trouble, he was concerned that Lydia would continue to not provide the help he was meant to receive. 

When Alisha received Steve’s valid complaints about the non-cleaning cleaner, she showed what NOT to do: she was dismissive, acted as though every complaint couldn’t be true and it was all in Steve’s head (gaslighting, in other words), as well as being rude and snappy. To top things off, Alisha told him that even though Lydia hadn’t cleaned a single thing, she was still going to get paid the amount agreed upon from Steve’s NDIS funding. The result: Lydia will continue to get paid without lifting a finger, meaning Steve won’t receive the service his funding is meant to pay for. This is a bad result. 

Alisha did a second take on receiving Steve’s complaint about the non-cleaning cleaner, and showed how it’s MEANT to be done: she apologised to Steve for the poor service, took down the details of his grievances, and explored what she could do to fix the issue. Steve was allocated a new cleaner for next time, and his NDIS funding was not debited for the cleaner who didn’t do her job. Success!

If you don’t say something, they might not even know there’s an issue, and that means other people might experience the exact same problem.

In the first scenario, Steve was basically fobbed off over the phone. In the second scenario, his complaint was taken seriously and acted on. The latter is better for everyone, because solving problems ASAP will prevent a situation getting bigger and more explosive. 

Sharing stories about our negative experiences 

The Making A Complaint forum encouraged audience participation, and we heard stories about the complaints process from the people who were attending the group as well as the facilitators themselves. 

Participants 

• Anthony Plunkett shared a story about his negative experiences with the customer service of a certain telecommunications provider, and how it scared him off from dealing with this telco ever again. 

• A certain Panorama journalist described how he was able to get his in-warranty clothes dryer fixed when it stopped working, despite not having the receipt. Spoiler: he was able to quote what date he bought it and under what name, as well as where it had been delivered. 

Facilitators 

• Lydia bought some oysters from the Markets, and one of them turned out to have a worm in its shell. When she called the fishmonger to warn them, however, they fobbed her off and told her to wait to speak to the manager on Monday. While Lydia’s motivation was to prevent other customers getting sick from eating bad oysters, she was made to feel stingy and petty for complaining. Eventually enough was enough, and Lydia marched down to make it clear that this service wasn’t adequate, and something needed to be done. 

• Steven told us about a major plumbing issue in his apartment that ruined most of his property beyond repair. At the end of the complaints process he was eventually awarded $8,000 in compensation, which was a huge help in regaining what he had lost. 

About the Talkin’ Together groups 

Buckingham House hosted a series of “Talkin’ Together” groups, each dedicated to teaching valuable life skills like how to avoid scams and learning the basics of contracts. While each of the four classes were self-contained, their content was complimentary. Talkin’ Together was provided on behalf of the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) and the NSW Government, as well as being a joint effort by BEING, the Office of Fair Trading and NEAMI. 

Thanks to Alisha Bourke, the Project Coordinator from BEING, Lydia from the NSW Fair Trading Commission, and Peer Worker Steve from NEAMI. 

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