Streetwise has passed a significant milestone in fighting for readers’ rights.
The weekly column has obtained more than £100,000 for News readers in compensation and refunds, fearlessly taking on organisations ranging from back-street used car dealers to the UK’s top banks and stores.
It’s almost two and a half years ago since Streetwise in its current format first hit the newsstands.
When I took on the role of standing up for consumer rights I have to confess that even coming from a business and consumer protection background had not fully prepared me for what I’d taken on.
The staggering levels of sheer incompetence, administrative blunders, mismanagement, and even nigh-on criminal behaviour at companies across the UK still had the power to surprise.
The popular perception of consumer journalists as superhero caped crusaders flitting around newsrooms effortlessly taking on a relentless stream of reader complaints couldn’t be further from the truth.
Like all forms of investigative journalism it’s serious, sometimes tedious, hard grind. Every story involves investigating company backgrounds, checking out who the bosses are, and knowing how the law applies to the issues involved.
Frequently specialist experts and government departments have to be consulted, and contact with former trading standards colleagues and professional bodies maintained for helpful views and comment.
With notable exceptions, few companies hold their hands up and admit to wrongdoing. Surprisingly perhaps, it’s the small firms rather than the familiar high street names that are the worst, perceiving customers with legitimate complaints as an enemy to be put down or ignored at all costs.
Needless to say I’ve lost count of the times a small business owner has bellowed down the phone questioning my parentage. And being regularly threatened with legal action is all part of the job – but none has ever been followed up.
Above all, the column tries to be fair. I always give companies the chance to explain and put across their side of the story. After all I only have the reader’s word for what took place, and part of the job involves weeding out readers who’ve failed to reveal the whole story or tweaked and fabricated their own actions or that of the firm involved.
Another no-go area is naming individual company employees, even if they’ve made a complete mess of handling a reader’s complaint. I never want anyone to lose their job as a direct result of something I’ve written.
But significantly, the sheer numbers of readers who contact me have not had a square deal. Many large firms pop up in my inbox with monotonous regularity. BT, Vodafone, Santander, Scottish Power, British Gas, SCS, Talk Talk, EE, Barclays, and Currys to name but a few.
Online retailers have proved a particular thorn in readers’ sides. Rarely a week passes without someone emailing me with a complaint about an online outfit that’s failed to deliver an order or refund them for goods they’ve ordered but never received.
Of course it shouldn’t be like this. It should be unnecessary to name and shame to get action. I accept everyone makes mistakes, but firms of any size and standing shouldn’t neglect investing in their customer service set-ups so that furious and sometimes tearful readers have no choice but to contact the media.
On the other hand the most gratifying aspect of the job is receiving grateful thanks from readers if I’ve solved a problem for them, particularly when I’ve recovered large sums of money or compensation. Rarely have I not been thanked.
Less rewarding are the number of readers who contact me with their problem but I’m unable to help them because of the sheer volume of similar complaints I receive. I know they must be disappointed, but there simply aren’t be enough hours in the day to answer them all.
On the downside, many readers can be outraged about being treated unfairly and write long missives containing a blow-by-blow account of their story.
Frustratingly, they forget to include their full contact details to enable me to take on their case. When I chase them up and I don’t get a response, they’ve wasted their time, but more importantly mine.
So, if I had a wish list, what changes would I like to see in order to help complaining readers get a square deal?
Top of my list would be an outright ban on traders demanding full payment up front for services. The number of readers who’ve handed over thousands of pounds for building and home improvement work only to be left in the lurch and struggling to get recompense from cowboy tradesmen, has to be experienced to be believed.
I’d like to see consumer protection extended to outlaw all hidden charges, with a single transparent up front cost for a product or service, and traders prevented from dodging their responsibility for refunding or replacing faulty goods once the manufacturer’s one-year guarantee has run out.
I’d also like to see companies deal with complaints quicker, and a clampdown on phone and home entertainment providers changing their terms and conditions in mid-contract.
But there are still some reasons to be cheerful. In taking on many of the most powerful companies in the land I’ve encountered heartfelt instances where they’ve bent over backwards to help readers. They’ve expressed genuine remorse, provided generous compensation, and gone out of their way to tackle institutional problems and learn important lessons.
Readers may rest assured I’ll continue to champion their cause with companies large and small when they’re short-changed, and expose those who really should hang their heads in shame.
Your caped consumer crusader is unlikely to be out of a job very soon.