Luxury retailers should be doing everything they can to keep customers loyal © Allesalltag/Alamy

Complaining is neither an art nor a science. It’s a ruthless and competitive sport. To win you’ll need tenacity, inventiveness, cunning, a good poker face, and an ability to role play.

The more training and experience you gain, the more success you’ll have. Generally speaking, expect to be the underdog. No matter how wealthy you are, even if you have a blue tick and a legion of social media followers to improve your chances, should you play a poor hand or lose your temper, your complaint will flop.

Big business will do what it can to hold on to your money, relying on the many who will take “no” as a final answer. That said, if you have a genuine complaint, grit, determination and a strategic approach will make it all worthwhile. During lockdown, I have been out of practice and I’m concerned I’ve lost my Midas touch.

Last Christmas, as a stocking filler for the other half, I bought a piece of tech from a large department store in Knightsbridge. Yes, that one. Arguably a foolish move as they aren’t the most competitively priced shop on earth. That said, if there’s a seasonal “must have”, they’ll have it in stock.

Anyway, I needed advice and the ability to return it if the gift wasn’t right (the internet isn’t quite there on those softer retail skills). So I blew £140 on a pair of “smart sunglasses” with video and Bluetooth capability.

Great gift, right? Wrong. It was the only present “fail” over the festive season. Even the £19.99 raclette and pierrade combo from Aldi was a success — and yes, if your gift selection doesn't include at least one item from the wonder that is the “central isle” then you really have missed a trick.

I was reassured at the time of buying the specs that they were the latest model (always an issue when buying tech) and could be returned for a refund or exchange if not quite right. But after Christmas, we didn’t get around to it straightaway — and then lockdown arrived.

So yes, I was massively outside the usual refund period. Still, I thought it was worth trying my luck as it turned out a newer model of the specs was available at the time of my purchase.

I parked outside the store in Knightsbridge (an indication of how few shoppers were around) and marched in, clutching the box, the receipt and my ’Rods loyalty card . . . only to be roundly rebuffed.

Yes, I said, I know I waited too long to return the product. But it was mis-sold! I chanced my arm, and went further up the tree — but got the same response. Have I lost my complaining skills?

Of course, had I returned the darn things in January, it wouldn’t have been an issue. And yes, I am aware of the tough time all retailers, especially department stores, are having right now. But you know what? Stuff it. Post-pandemic, luxury retailers should be doing everything they can to keep customers loyal. Even if a claim is out of date or the terms and conditions aren’t strictly adhered to, a good shop or brand will recognise a loyal customer when they see one.

A quick swipe of my loyalty card would have shown that for my previous purchase at that particular store, I’d dropped ten grand.

I fully expect to be mauled in the comments section below, but this escapade has put me back into serious complaining training. The British should take their cue from the Americans, who are less squeamish about demanding better service.

Now that restaurants are open again, what if a steak arrives overcooked or the chips are cold? Send it back and ask for a discount. If you open a packet of fish or meat from the supermarket and it’s putrid, don’t just tut and shove it in the bin. Return to the supermarket, stride in with purpose (and the receipt) to demand a refund AND a replacement product.

The other day, I was so excited about being out of the house that I didn’t even complain when regular chips arrived, as opposed to the sweet potato fries that I ordered. Seriously, I need to get a grip!

In recent years, I have had some notable successes. We all know what a nightmare energy companies can be. For years, I had battled with mine over how their algorithms wrongly calculated my bills. Part of the problem, as many people who live in large houses can tell you, is having more than one electricity and gas meter in your property. It’s a nightmare for standing charges, and although I gave frequent meter readings, the energy company was unable to work out the best tariff, and (without being informed) I ended up on the most expensive “standard” one. For years!

In exasperation after my complaint and subsequent plea to the energy ombudsman got precisely nowhere, I issued a rebuke on social media. And you know what? A senior manager got in touch, apologised and (in the end) settled my claim with a £3,000 payment. It might have taken six years but that paid for a lovely trip to the Caribbean. And, for now, I remain a loyal customer.

The number of (valid) complaints I have made to airlines over the years has been substantial. From lost luggage, to seats that don’t recline, to media systems that have no media or food that isn’t actually food.

The best — or worst — occasion was a personal trip to a party in New York. I was there for one night and had a carry-on bag, which they insisted went in the hold, despite me travelling business class. Never mind, I thought, until it arrived soaked in some airline effluent on the baggage carousel. Customer services offered £50 towards cleaning, but that didn’t cut it — I had to buy an emergency outfit.

Instead of dealing with obfuscating minions, I wrote directly to Sir Richard Branson (and this was before I had heard of the superb website ceoemail.com that makes it easier than ever before to find those at the top of the tree). By return I received a personal letter, an apology, a refund and enough air miles to take me on several replacement trips. And that’s why, more than a decade later, I’ll still travel on Virgin Atlantic rather than British Airways, who usually take three serious attempts of complaint engagement to settle any dispute.

Will I pay more for a flight, product or service if I know that the customer service is top notch? Absolutely.

Last month, I told you about how our house had been burgled. Hiscox, our insurers, have been incredible. They have been responsive, paid up quickly and without a quibble. First class. I’ll not be buying any of the replacement goods from Harrods though, that’s for sure.

James Max is a property expert and radio presenter. The views expressed are personal. Twitter: @thejamesmax

Letter in response to this article:

A plea for a new way to do capitalism post virus / From Reverend Phil Arnold, Calverley, West Yorkshire, UK

James will be discussing a selection of readers’ problems at the FT Weekend Festival. To submit your dilemma, comment below or email James via richpeoplesproblems@ft.com

Get alerts on Luxury goods when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article