So, what's the question?

First published in Interiors Monthly October 2015

There’s only one question that needs to be answered when you are dealing with a complaint. It’s a simple one, and you don’t need a degree in furniture making or floorlaying to be able to answer it. But you do need first-hand knowledge that you won’t get while you’re working in your shop or warehouse, and you won’t get by sending someone else and listening to their opinion when they report back to you. You’ll need to go to the customer’s home and have a look for yourself, but that will be worthwhile use of your time because it will resolve the issue most quickly and it will improve your knowledge and understanding as you deal with new and potential customers.

It’ll be very tempting, of course, to send someone else. After all, they may be more experienced than you are. Or you may be too busy. Or you may be afraid the customer will be difficult to deal with. Or it’ll be so much easier/quicker just to get the manufacturer to send someone to look. Or you haven’t been trained to do home visits. Or [insert your own excuse here]. If you’re tempted, simply take them with you so you can learn from them. But if you’re responsible for resolving the complaint, don’t send them without you.

When I worked for a major national floorcoverings retailer we made it company policy for the store manager to do a home visit for every product complaint. It was not easy to enforce, but if a manager rang for help resolving a difficult complaint we always asked if they’d been out and, if not, insist that they did, so they could talk to us with direct knowledge and not someone else’s opinion. It made a huge difference and Managers quickly learned that a short visit usually meant a resolved complaint without the need to refer the issue, and they each asked the same question every time they went out and based their response to the customer on the answer they came up with.

There are independent experts who can help with the more difficult or less common issues, or where a customer won’t accept your opinion (usually a result of the way a complaint has been handled rather than because of the issue they’ve complained about). They’ve only gained their experience and expertise by visiting complaints themselves, and they’ve used the same benchmark question to help them assess and advise on every issue.

So, what’s the question?

If I was the customer and this was my home, would I be happy with this [insert name of product here]?

A home visit will give you valuable information about the product, the customer, and the environment in which the product has been used. Armed with that information – which is more than the customer will share with you in store, you can make an informed and rational decision. What’s more, even if you have to reject the complaint the customer will feel you’ve taken their complaint seriously and have first-hand knowledge of their issues. They’re more likely to be in a relaxed and receptive frame of mind. At the very least, the customer won’t be able to respond “Well, how do you know, you’ve not seen it?”

The Consumer Rights Act

First published in Interiors Monthly September 2015

Coming into effect on 1st October, the Consumer Rights Act brings together a number of different pieces of consumer law (including the Sale of Goods Act 1979, the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982 and the Unfair Contract terms Act 1977) into one. So most of us should be familiar with what it says. But there are some significant changes.

What remains unchanged? All products sold must be of satisfactory quality, fit for their purpose and matching the description and any claims made about them, even verbally and online. The products must be safe, durable and free from minor defects. If a product doesn’t meet these basic (and inescapable) requirements a consumer is entitled to a refund, repair or replacement.

But there’s been a lot of debate about when a customer is entitled to a refund or a repair and the new Act sets out clear timescales not only for this but also for delivery and refunds. It also makes installation (when provided by the trader) part of the product and not a separate issue.

The key changes that furnishings retailers should be aware of include:

1                     Delivery should be within 30 days unless you agree something different with the customer when they place their order

2                     The customer has 30 days from the date of delivery or collection to reject faulty goods and have a refund

3                     After 30 days the customer has the right to a repair or replacement of faulty goods (at their discretion). If the repaired or replaced goods are still faulty the customer then has a “final right to reject the goods” and so becomes entitled to a refund

4                     Repairs or replacements must be done “without significant inconvenience” to the customer and at the trader’s cost however long the repair/replacement takes

5                     After 6 months refunds can be reduced to take into account the time the customer has had to use the goods

6                     The 30 day/6 month time periods are extended by however long a customer has to wait for a repair or replacement

7                     Refunds must be given to the customer within 14 days

8                     Installation is not a separate service, it’s part of the goods: if the installation’s not satisfactory the customer can reject the goods

The flowchart (see the following blog post) shows, in simplified form, a customer’s rights when they make a purchase in your store (if they purchase over the phone or when they’re at home they may have additional rights to cancel – see the note). It can’t cover every situation, so please take advice or contact me directly if you have specific questions.

Standard terms in customer contracts (the small print on the back of your sales orders and/or website) have been unenforceable if they “cause a significant imbalance in the parties’ rights and obligations to the detriment of the consumer”, but in the new Act this is extended to all terms and conditions, even if they are individually negotiated with the consumer (ie not standard terms).

The Act also covers “digital content” including downloads and software, alternative dispute resolution and “enforcement” (who is able to take action against traders who breach the rules and how this is done, including your obligations to co-operate with any enforcement agency).

If you’d like to read the Act for yourself, or at least have a copy on file you’ll find it online at: and you’ll also find more information by searching for the Act on the Citizen’s Advice website (

Please remember that whilst this article has been carefully researched it isn’t intended to be legal advice and shouldn’t be treated as such

The Missing Link

First published in Interiors Monthly August 2015

Being a retailer has its problems. Not least of these is that you are selling products to consumers who have rights (and, let’s not forget, responsibilities) that you can’t avoid, but that may be very different to the rights you have to claim from your supplier. Consumer law is designed to protect the consumer from unscrupulous traders but even the best of retailers must comply. But suppliers have their own terms of trading with retailers that are not covered by the same legislation and the two may not match, leaving the retailer responsible for obligations to their customers that the manufacturer will not support.

In practice, most issues are sorted out amicably, but it can get even more confusing when another link is put into the chain of supply: installation. Poor installation and/or poor service from the installer can cause customer dissatisfaction, reduce the life of a product and even damage the product beyond repair. Imagine these scenarios:

·         A laminate floor starts to swell causing the flooring to lift and the edges of the boards to chip

·         The castor of a bed breaks shortly after it was assembled by a delivery company

·         A kitchen cabinet crashes to the floor eighteen months after it was fitted

·         A carpet comes loose and can’t be restretched because it appears to have shrunk

Are these manufacturing faults? It would be easy to jump to that conclusion without investigating the problem and gathering the evidence to show exactly what has gone wrong. And who can you use that has the right expertise and a degree of impartiality to give you an honest appraisal? I lost count years ago of the number of times a manufacturer’s report identified that there was “no manufacturing defect” but diplomatically stopped short of saying the fitting was poor or the product was incorrectly specified – and as a result the customer’s genuine complaint was rejected. Or the installer/fitter did the inspection and couldn’t identify the shortcomings in his or her own work, again to the detriment of the consumer and the retailer’s reputation.

If you use installers/assemblers for any of your products, how good are they? Do you keep a note of the customer feedback you receive and analyse this to spot trends and identify any shortcomings? Better still, how thoroughly do you check their quality of work and service before you take them on, using references or practical assessments? And do they inspect their own complaints? Or do you ensure that any negative feedback is checked by someone else who’s got the knowledge and experience to give you honest feedback?

As a retailer, it’s your reputation that’s at stake. Those who provide even a part of the service that your customers receive can make or break your future, so it’s worth taking care to ensure they uphold your values and standards consistently.

When you’re in doubt, or can’t see what’s going wrong, a good independent consultant can help to identify the issues and give you the information you need to get things sorted and protect your reputation.

Mind the gap!

First published in Interiors Monthly July 2015

In St Peter’s Basilica in Rome is a chair believed to date back to the 6th Century, one of the oldest chairs in existence. It’s so well worn it’s only put on display once a century. When I was a child, we had furniture in the front room which was only ever used when we had guests, so it probably would have lasted just as long.

But in today’s world, how long should a piece of furniture last? Some suites are not just sat on, they’re lived in – our lifestyles have changed dramatically, but have customer’s expectations moved with the times? I visited a fitted bedroom installation where the customer had labelled every minute “fault” with a post-it note (see picture) and his expectations were clearly considerable if you counted them!

Every time you sell, two sets of expectations meet on the shop floor: the customer’s and yours. Identifying the differences and managing the customer’s expectations is crucial to a successful transaction. Failing to do so will doubtless mean a complaint.

The customer’s expectations will be based on, amongst other things, their previous experiences (and that of their friends and relatives), the price they’re paying and their perception of your brand. Yours may be based on your technical knowledge and on your experiences with that product or supplier.

But there’s a third factor that must also be taken into account: how will the furniture be used and cared for? It’s not unknown for a customer to assume a suite needs no maintenance at all! So it’s important to ensure you give a customer the right advice as well as the right product - how you sell is therefore as important as what you sell. All too often the customer’s expectations and perceptions only come out at the time of a complaint, so listen to your complaining customers carefully. Their complaints may be more about the gap between their expectations and yours than about faults with the product, and if you learn from this you’ll be able to make sure similar complaints are avoided by more care at the selling stage.

Guarantees, of course, can influence a customer. They are a great way to show confidence in your product and will help a customer’s decision to purchase. And they also affect the customer’s expectations about the durability of what they’ve bought. They mustn’t be worded in a way that would dissuade a customer from making a reasonable complaint: no reasonable consumer would expect any item of furniture to last only a year, so a one year guarantee cannot stop the customer making a claim after two or more years, and could actually make a customer think twice about buying a product. In fact a customer has the right to make a legal claim up to six years after purchase and even longer if a guarantee promises a longer life for the product, and they have statutory rights which cannot be over-ridden by any guarantee.

How long should a product last? That’s a question worth considering every time you’re with a customer. Ask the right questions to understand their expectations so you can ensure they’re realistic and make sure what you sell meets or exceeds them. That way you’ll all be happy, and for a long time!