Businesses benefited from higher levels of patience and sympathy amongst consumers during lockdown, as Covid-19 prompted an unprecedented drop in complaint numbers.
That’s the key finding of a survey of more than 6,000 consumers carried out by not-for-profit complaints handling body Ombudsman Services.
The average number of complaints per person plummeted from 3.7 pre-lockdown to just 0.95 in May – by far the lowest number in the seven-year history of the Consumer Action Monitor report.
But businesses are being warned to expect an increase in complaints as lockdown restrictions ease, with one in six people (16%) intending to pick up a complaint once life becomes more ‘normal’.
Four in 10 (41%) said they had become more tolerant of poor service during lockdown, with only one in ten (10%) saying the opposite.
Nearly two thirds of complaints (65%) went unreported to potentially culpable product or service suppliers during lockdown – up slightly from 62% pre-lockdown.
A quarter (24%) of consumers who were unhappy with a product or service, but chose not to complain to the company involved, did so because they were more willing to be lenient during lockdown.
The proportion of consumers who reported feeling anger, stress, exasperation, anxiety and other negative emotions about a complaint also fell significantly lockdown (see below chart).
Jodi Hamilton, director of relationships at Ombudsman Services, said the pandemic and lockdown had ushered in a new breed of “sympathetic consumer” – though this may prove to be a temporary phenomenon.
She said: “It appears that the pandemic and lockdown have made consumers more tolerant of problems and delays, more patient, more understanding – and much less likely to complain.
“It’s as though, collectively, the British public has decided to give companies a break during lockdown.
“The decrease we’ve seen in negative emotions linked to complaints also suggests that the pandemic has given many people a greater sense of perspective about consumer complaints. Put simply, people have had more important things on their mind.”
Jodi added: “It’s possible, of course, that consumers have simply been storing up complaints during lockdown and that as life starts to feel more normal, with restrictions being eased, we’ll see a return to previous complaint patterns.
“Our message to businesses is that it’s important to repay consumers’ patience and understanding during lockdown by demonstrating excellent customer service and complaint handling as complaint numbers increase.
“Repaying a consumer’s patience in this way will help to build brand loyalty and aid customer retention.
“We plan to conduct another survey later in the year to find out if the dramatic changes we’ve seen in attitudes and actions around complaining are a temporary phenomenon or something longer lasting.”
The seventh annual Consumer Action Report is due to be published by Ombudsman Services later this year.