Learn to complain effectively, it will save you time, stress and money - and try these trigger words

The phrase ‘I want a supervisor’ can be less effective than ‘I want to log a formal complaint’

Trigger words were in the news quite a lot earlier this week after the Dublin District Court heard that Eir - a trigger word in itself for many people - relied on them when handling complaints.

As part of their training, the people on the front lines of the telecom company’s customer care were given a list of words and phrases that would see complaints escalated while a separate list - of more commonly used words and phrases - was likely to see those complaints ignored or put on the longest of fingers.

In the Eir manual, the trigger words that got the best of results included: “I want to log a formal/official complaint”; “I want a case reference number”; “I want a reference for ComReg”; “ComReg advised me to get a reference”; and “I have a ComReg reference”.

Anyone who used these phrases were treated as making formal complaints and handled relatively quickly.


By contrast, those who used phrases such as: “Get me your manager”; “I want a supervisor”; “I’m not happy”; “I want to escalate”; “I want to complain”; and “I want a manager callback”, found their complaints were often not dealt with for extended periods of time.

The news confirmed a suspicion long held by many people that there is a secret code to having complaints resolved and went at least some way to cracking that code. And based on what readers have been telling us in recent days, Eir is not the only company that has such a list and when certain phrases are dropped into conversations with customer service agents working with other telecoms companies, people have found that their concerns are dealt with faster and more efficiently.

Perhaps if they had access to the trigger words some of those left hanging would have had more successful outcomes.

Now, knowing these trigger words might not make any difference if you are making a complaint, but they might and it costs nothing to use them. It costs a lot - in terms of time, stress and cold hard cash if the complaints are allowed to go unaddressed.

And we’re not talking about small change or low level stress here either.

Last month the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) published a report titled Understanding Consumer Detriment in Ireland, in which it asked 4,500 consumers about the things that caused them stress or cost them money or time, in 2023.

It then totted up the cost with the final bill coming in at just under €1 billion - in a single year.

The CCPC put the average cost of the issues at €60 per consumer, which is how it arrived at its €968 million assessment with the expenses covering what people paid initially and what they spent on repairs and legal fees.

The research also found that some people were lucky when complaining while others were very, very unlucky.

Just over 10 per cent of people had issues resolved within a day, while a third reported getting satisfaction within a week, leaving two-thirds – or more than a million people – left waiting longer than a week to have problems addressed. One in 10 unfortunates said they were still dealing with serious issues over six months after they first contacted the seller.

But what rights to we have when it comes to bad customer care?

We contacted the CCPC to find out more and to see if it had any advice - above and beyond on trigger word primer - about what people might do to get the redress that they need.

A spokeswoman told us that “certain aspects of customer service are specified in consumer protection laws – for example, your right to information, your right to change your mind (online, phone and doorstep sales) and your right to a solution when a service or product is faulty”.

She added that in certain sectors like telecoms, utilities and finances, sectoral “regulators set extra customer service standards that companies must meet”.

She said the CCPC is “currently developing guidelines for traders on new consumer rights laws. These guidelines will further clarify the minimum standards traders have to meet when things go wrong”.

As to how people might effectively complain, the spokeswoman suggested that if people are let down by a service or product, they should “start by making a formal complaint to the business in question. When making a complaint, consumers should always follow up in writing and keep all documentation such as receipts, pictures, and all correspondence with the business”.

If someone has has exhausted the complaints process and where a regulator may not be available or able to intervene, “they may wish to take their case to the District Court using the small claims process,” the spokeswoman said.

“This is a way of taking a consumer case against a trader without needing to hire a solicitor. Despite what consumers may think, most complaints that go to the small claims process are settled through correspondence and there is no need for a consumer to hire a solicitor or turn up in court.”

But that does not mean everything is perfect as far as the CCPC is concerned. It has “long advocated for the modernisation of the small claims court to make it a more straightforward and accessible way for consumers to ensure their rights are upheld.

“We believe a number of key changes are needed to make sure more consumers can access a fair outcome when their rights are ignored. These changes include increasing the claims limit from €2,000, as well as a review of the fees charged to ensure the cost doesn’t discourage consumers from taking their complaint further.”

We would add that good record-keeping is essential when it comes to complaining.

Keep notes of what happened and when it happened. Write a quick timeline of your grievances – or at least the serious ones. If you are complaining about the milk you bought being sour that one time, such a timeline is probably not necessary. But for serious issues, record the sequence of events and include dates and times of phone calls or other conversations. Write down who you spoke to and what was said. You don’t have to be a court stenographer about it but document what has happened even loosely.

You should also set goals before you go into battle. Decide if you want a refund or repair. Decide if you want compensation or if you will be happy with an apology. Have it clear in your mind whether you want to leave a service provider or if you would be happy to stay if they dangle a discount in front of you. Giving the end result some thought ahead of time stops you making it up as you go along.

While it is good to have at least some notion of what you want, it is also important to be flexible and to listen to what is on offer – if there is anything on offer – and do not rigidly adhere to your starting position.

Read the terms and conditions ahead of any contact you make. Such documents are long and boring but if you want to make a complaint you need to make sure that if they drop the “oh, it’s in the terms and conditions” line you can be ready for it.

Try and stay calm even in the face of extreme provocation. It is likely that the person you are speaking to is the worst paid, most badly trained people you will deal with in any given firm so there is no point shouting at them. It will make you feel worse and them feel worse too. Polite but firm is the order of the day. It is always better to come across as a reasonable person who has been wronged instead of an unreasonable one who is wrong.

Oh, and don’t forget those trigger words.

You can contact us at OnTheMoney@irishtimes.com with personal finance questions you would like to see us address. If you missed last week’s newsletter, you can read it here.