Disputes about when a complaint began and whether eight weeks has elapsed

Guidance last updated July 2019

Disputes about when a complaint began and whether eight weeks has elapsed

We sometimes see disputes from companies because they consider a complaint that we have accepted for investigation to be less than eight weeks old. There can be a difference between a customer’s perception and a company’s perception of when a complaint began.

This guidance aims to clear up that confusion.

Broad principle

The broad principle that Ombudsman Services applies is that a complaint begins when a consumer makes an expression of dissatisfaction to a company.

The consumer does not have to be direct in telling the company that they are dissatisfied or that they are complaining.

In many circumstances, it is evident that a consumer is dissatisfied (and expressing dissatisfaction) because they are highlighting a problem or a potential problem to a company.

From the point that a customer first makes a company aware of a problem, the company has an opportunity to fix that problem.

To summarise:

  1. A customer highlighting a problem or a potential problem is highly likely to be expressing dissatisfaction; and
  2. The company has the opportunity to resolve the problem or potential problem from the point the customer makes them aware.

Therefore, we will generally perceive a complaint to have started from the date the customer makes the company aware of a problem or a potential problem.

We accept that some companies may log the first report of a problem or a potential problem as a query rather than a complaint.

However, we need to make an independent decision about when the complaint started and we will follow the above principle.

Example scenario

“My bill is incorrect”

A customer calls their energy supplier and explains that their bill has been overestimated. The energy supplier apologises and asks the customer to provide meter

readings. The customer provides meter readings and the energy supplier confirms it will issue a new bill.

The customer waits four weeks and does not receive a new bill. The customer calls the energy supplier and complains that they have not received a new bill despite the commitment on the previous call. The energy supplier apologises and agrees to send a new bill.

The energy supplier looks into the complaint and realises that not only is the bill overestimated but the customer readings suggest it is also transposed. It calls the customer and asks for spaced readings, which the customer provides. The readings confirm that it has been transposing readings. It needs to rebill the account and doing so will create a large credit balance. However, this needs to be sent to a separate team to be completed and the rebill and credit will need to be signed off by a manager.

A further four weeks pass without the customer getting an answer to the complaint. The customer sends an email asking for an update. The energy supplier responds to apologise for the delay and says it hopes to provide an update shortly.

A further two weeks pass and having had no resolution to the complaint, the customer contacts Ombudsman Services.

Differences in perception

The customer will likely perceive that their complaint began nine weeks ago when they contacted the supplier to let it know that their bill was incorrect.

The energy supplier might perceive that the complaint began five weeks ago when the customer called to complain that the previously agreed action had not been taken.

Ombudsman Services’ view

The customer first contacted the energy supplier to tell it that their bill was incorrect more than eight weeks ago. This was an expression of dissatisfaction that alerted the company to a problem. Ombudsman Services would conclude that the complaint began at this point. We would also conclude that the energy supplier had had a reasonable opportunity to resolve the complaint. We would consider the complaint to be inside our terms of reference and accept it for investigation.