Consumer complaint checklist

How to make a consumer complaint that gets results.

Want to make sure your complaint is heard?

You've spent time carefully researching what product to buy or which service provider to use. And you're happy with your purchase … till something goes wrong. Or maybe it was bungled from the very beginning. What should you do when things go wrong? If you want to make a complaint, follow our checklist for your best chances of being heard and achieving your desired response.

Step 1 – Before you complain

Before you complain, take some time to go through the following steps. This will help to keep you focused on the real issues and what you want done:

What is wrong?

  • What exactly is the problem with the product or the service?
  • Write down some points so you have them clear in your head.

What are your rights?

  • Check through the CHOICE website and look at the ACCC and state and territory fair trading or consumer affairs websites for more information. For example, if you bought a product or service after 1 January 2011 you have rights under the Australian Consumer Law. If it was before 1 January 2011 you still have rights but they are not the same.
  • Be a bit careful about forums which might not always have accurate information. If you think something doesn't quite sound right, check in a few other places.
  • If you have a problem which is complicated and/or potentially worth a lot of money, consider paying for some legal advice. It might seem expensive but it might also save you a lot of money in the long run. If you can't afford to pay for legal advice, consider approaching a community legal organisation.

What do you want?

  • Do you want a refund, a replacement, a repair? This will depend on whether there is a minor or major failure.
  • Do you just want an apology? Sometimes you might just want to make the organisation aware of what's happened and make sure it doesn't happen again.

What documents do you have?

  • Gather together documents such as your invoice or receipt, packaging, photos, emails or letters.

Make some notes

Write down some important points such as:

  • date of purchase
  • date the problem occurred
  • what you have done so far
  • conversations – when, where, who, what was said
  • any reference number.

Don't delay

  • Take action as soon as you can. The earlier you try to fix a problem, the more likely you'll be successful.
  • If you keep trying to use something that is breaking down, you might make the situation worse.

Step 2 – Complain

Talk to the business

  • Usually you can get a long way if you talk to the business first.
  • Be polite.
  • Explain what has happened and what you want to happen.
  • If you are not getting anywhere ask to speak with a supervisor or manager or the owner. Sometimes employees don't know enough about consumer rights.
  • Remain calm; try not to get upset.
  • Take some notes of the conversation either at the time or later.

Follow up in writing

  • Send a letter or an email.
  • Make sure you have the correct contact details.
  • Be clear and polite.
  • Set out clearly and simply what is wrong and what you want done.
  • Use natural language and don't try to sound like a lawyer (even if you do have some legal training).
  • Include details about date of purchase, date the problem occurred, what you have done so far.
  • Send copies (not originals) of relevant documents (but not too many).
  • Give them a reasonable time limit to respond. This might be 7 or 10 or 14 days depending on the type of product or service.
  • Say what you'll do if you can't fix the problem, such as taking your complaint to your state consumer protection agency or the ACCC.
  • Give your contact details (email and/or phone) so they can get back to you quickly.
  • Keep a copy of your letter and any response you receive.

You might find our templates and phone scripts helpful.

What if it doesn't work?

If you don't get a satisfactory reply from the business, you can make a formal complaint to the fair trading or consumer protection agency in your state or territory. See our page of contacts and links.

There might also be a specific industry body that can deal with your complaint. Have a bit of a search around on your favourite internet search engine using the words "consumer complaint" and "[insert relevant industry]" and see if you can come up with a consumer advocate or other organisation you can phone for advice.

There are some ombudsman services for specific service providers like Telcos, energy and water and financial services and also for government bodies.

If you still can't get your issue resolved, you might want to take further action by lodging a claim in a magistrates or small claims court or in the Civil and Administrative Tribunal in your state or territory. But if you take this path, you should seriously consider getting legal advice as there will be costs involved and you may find it takes way too much time and effort for little reward. Remember the old saying: "Don't throw good money after bad". 


Need more help? The CHOICE Help service is free for CHOICE members. Our consumer advice experts will help you understand your rights and can advocate for you.

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