You have a duty to complain

I’m a great believer in complaints, recognising the truth that “every defect is a treasure.” Today I’ve complained to Lambeth Council and Virgin Media. Neither organisation will shift a millimetre nor be at all bothered, but they will have to respond–and writing down my complaint gives me some release. I argued five years ago in the BMJ that we have a duty to complain, and below is that blog again, together with my complaint to Virgin Media, which is mainly complaining about the difficulty of complaining.


Have you made a complaint recently? I don’t mean monaning to your partner about the weather or your neighbour’s barking dog but a written, formal complaint, If you haven’t, you should—because we are relying on sharp elbowed, middle class people like you to keep up and even improve the performance of everything—the NHS, the BMA, Liverpool Football Team, the WHO, the BMJ, your local library, and the weather.

I’ve been meaning to write this blog for ages because I fear that complaining doesn’t get the attention and praise it deserves. “Disgusted of Tonbridge Wells” is a figure of fun not reverence.

My latest complaint—now an hour old—is to Royal Mail. I work from home and was pleased to discover that I could print postage from the Royal Mail website, so avoiding the long queues at the post office (must get round to complaining about that). It’s a horrible, unfriendly website, and I got off to a shaky start by discovering that with my usual browser, Google Chrome, I could pay for the postage but not print it. I complained about that and switched to using Internet Explorer. Things then went well until just before Christmas when the whole site went haywire. I didn’t complain then, but it’s now been down for about two months—and so I broke off from my work of global significance to make a complaint.

In my time I’ve complained to the NHS, British Airways, GNER (maybe if I’d complained more often and more loudly they’d still be in business), Lambeth Council, Virgin Media, and various food producers. As students we complained that we weren’t “completely satisfied” by Heinz tinned steamed puddings on the philosophical grounds that “complete satisfaction” was impossible and were sent two new tins. We also thought it hilarious to complain to a soup manufacturer that we’d found a crab’s claw in our tin of crab bisque when we’d actually got the claw in a Chinese meal. Again we were sent two tins.

My complaint to the NHS had to do with waiting two hours with my mother to have her hip checked after hip replacement, a check that when it eventually happened took just a minute or so. I tried to be positive and pointed out that many hospitals didn’t have such routine follow up, that it could be done by phone, and perhaps wasn’t necessary at all. After much confusion I did get a response from the consultant, saying that they would discuss my suggestion. Whether anything changed I don’t know, but I’d like to know. Perhaps I should complain that I wasn’t told the outcome.

We may be slow to complain because we think that we don’t want people complaining about us. We are brought up to see complaints as bad things, and it was one of the revelations of my life when—at about age 35—I first heard the idea that complaints are good things. “Every defect is a treasure” is one of the mantras of continuous quality improvement—because it provides a direct route to doing better. And for everybody who takes the trouble to write and complain there are probably 500 people thinking the same but who hadn’t complained in writing.

When I was the editor of the BMJ we thus assiduously collected, analysed, discussed, and responded to complaints. I can remember jogging on a beach and somebody telling me that “the BMJ is rubbish because it doesn’t publish enough randomised trials.” That complaint went into our collection. The commonest complaint we received was “the main trouble with the BMJ is that there’s too much of it. Can’t you close down for a few weeks and give us all a rest?”

Some editors thought it unbalanced that we collected complaints and not compliments, so we began to collect those to. But compliments are dangerous—because they are less likely to be true than complaints, encourage complacency, and don’t provide a clear way to improve.

So it is your civic duty to complain. See if you can manage three before the end of the week. Once you get started it’s easy.


Dear Virgin Media,

I have several complaints about Virgin Media.

  1. It’s impossible to complain online. It should be easy to complain, but it isn’t.
  2. You provide a telephone number to which to make a complaint, but when you ring the number there is no option to make a complaint. I tried and eventually succeeded in speaking to a person, who gave me the address to which to complain, but before that I ended up at several dead ends.
  3. Your website does not give an address to which to make a complaint. It should. (On looking for the address of CISAS, I discovered that you do give an address for complaints in a PDF. So now my complaint is that it’s not prominent on the website.)
  4. Now to substance of my first complaint. My broadband regularly goes down–for a few minutes and sometimes longer almost every day. This is annoying because I work from home.
  5. When we watch television programmes on catch up they a) usually take a very long time to appear and b) regularly (perhaps one in four times) go down, causing us to have to start again with connecting to the programme.

You will probably wonder why I don’t switch to another provider. One day I probably will, but I fear the hassle.

I’d like you to fix all these things, and I’d like you to write to me giving responses. I don’t want somebody to ring me.

Yours sincerely

Dr Richard Smith CBE

Copy to: CISAS, 70 Fleet Street, London EC4Y 1EU



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