The Complaint Roadmap
Step 1: Getting Started
Things to Consider Before Making a Complaint
- Does your complaint involve a business, company, or private individual?
- Does the other party have a policy in place regarding your complaint?
- Did you carefully read and understand the company's policy?
- Did you agree to terms or a contract with the other party?
If your complaint is related to any of the subjects listed below, there may be certain things you need to keep in mind before being able to pursue a complaint.
- Refund and Exchange Policies - Businesses are not legally obligated to accept returned items unless they are defective. Be sure you understand the terms of the return/exchange policy, if it exists.
- Items Going on Sale after Making a Purchase - Merchants are not legally obligated to refund customers the price difference if an item goes on sale after a purchase, unless they have a price policy in effect.
- Contract Terms - Make sure you understand the terms of the contract to determine if there actually was a violation.
- Contract Cancellations - It is possible to get out of a contract under very specific terms. For example, if there is a mutual agreement, cancellation terms in the contract, or if there is a 'cooling off period'.
- Defective Products - Defective products can be repaired, replaced or refunded by the seller.
- Private Sales - It may be difficult to get compensation from a private seller if problems arise, since private sale contracts are not subject to consumer legislation.
- Claims or Holds Against Property - When making a purchase from a private individual, check to make sure there are no claims or holds (liens) on the property.
If you are unsure about your eligibility to file a complaint in these situations, you may wish to contact your provincial or territorial office responsible for consumer affairs for assistance. You can find contact information for each office on the Canadian Consumer Handbook.
In some cases you may not be eligible to file a formal complaint.
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Step 2: Know Your Rights in Canada
Consumer complaints may fall under federal, provincial or territorial legislation depending on the issue. The Government of Canada has legislation that was put in place to protect the rights of consumers. The consumer complaint process is a major part of this legislation.
Having a better understanding of your rights and who regulates them, before you make a complaint, will make the process go a lot smoother.
Below are examples of common issues regulated by the federal government and where you can get more information about your rights or making a complaint:
- Credit card fraud, and issues related to federally regulated financial institutions: Financial Consumer Agency of Canada (FCAC)
- False Advertising and deceptive practices: Competition Bureau
- Food safety and nutritional quality: Health Canada
- Vehicle defects, vehicle safety and transportation: Transport Canada
For a more in-depth list see our list of consumer legislation enforced by the federal government.
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Step 3: Know Your Rights in Your Province or Territory
Many consumer complaints fall under provincial and territorial legislation. It is also important to know that legislation and complaint processes may vary between provinces and territories. If you require further assistance or clarification, feel free to contact your provincial or territorial consumer affairs office.
Provincial and Territorial Legislation
Below are examples of common issues that are regulated by the provincial and territorial governments:
- Buying goods and services
- Purchasing or repairing motor vehicles
- Credit reporting agencies
- Collection agencies
If ever you are unsure of where to make a complaint, you may wish to consult your provincial or territorial consumer affairs office first.
Get to know your rights as a consumer by consulting our list of provincial and territorial consumer protection legislation.
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Step 4 – Preparation
Good preparation will help you present your complaint in a clear, concise and factual way.
Before you start, collect all the facts and any receipts and other documentation about your complaint. Keep your complaint information in a file and store it safely.
Keep the file available and easy to access so that you can explain your complaint accurately to service agents. This file may include:
- sales receipts;
- order forms;
- letters to and from the company;
- repair and/or service information;
- cancelled cheques;
- your list of the company representatives with whom you spoke, when you spoke to them, and key points discussed; and
- any other information you consider important to your case.
Tip: Never give away your original documents. Make copies as needed.
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Step 5: Contact the Business
Contact the Business
Before contacting a business with a complaint, remember to:
- Practice. Explain the problem to yourself a few times before contacting the service provider, business or merchant.
- Be polite. It can get you better, and possibly quicker, results.
- Stay calm. Don't resort to anger and threats.
When you call or visit the business, remember to:
- Ask if they have a customer service section that handles after-purchase/service issues.
- Request a complaint reference number and be sure to ask the company to update your complaint file when you provide new information.
- Write down the name, position and, if available, the employee number of staff with whom you are dealing. Keep brief, dated notes of key points discussed.
Three Keys to Effective Complaint Resolution
- Clearly, concisely and factually explain the problem. For example:
- The product received was not the one you ordered: it is the wrong size, the wrong colour, or a different model than the one you bought.
- The product you received was damaged in transport or during delivery.
- The product does not perform as advertised.
- Emphasize your desire to solve the problem and have a positive relationship with the business. For example:
- You are a repeat customer of the business and you have been satisfied with the service until now. You would like to resolve this issue so that the relationship can continue.
- You are a new customer of the business and you don't feel this is a good way to start a relationship that could be a long-term, positive one for you and the business.
- Be ready to propose a solution that will resolve your complaint. For example:
- Most reputable businesses will listen to a customer who has a problem and who proposes a reasonable solution to resolve it.
- Set a reasonable deadline for the business to respond to your offer.
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Step 6: Put it in Writing
If your first attempt doesn't resolve your complaint, then write a letter or email to the general manager, president or owner of the business.
You can use the Roadmap's sample complaint letter found below to help prepare your own complaint letter or email.
You can also download a copy of the complaint letter to edit yourself.
Sample Complaint Letter
(Your street address)
(Your city, province or territory and postal code)
(Your email address, if you have an email address where you can be contacted)
(Name of contact person, if available)
(Title, if available)
(Consumer Complaint Division; when you have no contact person)
(City, province or territory and postal code)
Dear (Contact Person):
Re: (account number/reference number, if applicable):
On (date), I (bought, leased, rented, had repaired, etc…) a (name of the product with serial or model number or service performed) at (location).
Unfortunately, your product has not performed well (or the service was inadequate). I am disappointed because (explain the problem: for example, the product does not work properly, the service was not performed correctly, I was billed the wrong amount, something was not disclosed clearly or was misrepresented at the time of sale, etc.).
To resolve the problem, I would appreciate (state the specific action you would like: money back, store credit, repair or exchange, etc.). Enclosed are copies (do not send originals) of my records (include receipts, guarantees, warranties, cancelled cheques, contracts, and any other documents associated with the purchase or service).
I look forward to your reply and to you resolving my problem, and will wait until (set a time limit: usually 10 working days is sufficient) before seeking help from a consumer protection agency or filing a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. Please contact me at the above address or by telephone at (home and/or office number with area codes).
Enclosure(s) – Any copies of your records or paperwork
cc: (Indicate who will receive a copy of this letter, e.g., product manufacturer, consumer protection agencies, etc.)
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Step 7: Take it Further
Need to Take Your Complaint Further?
If your complaint hasn't been satisfactorily resolved after contacting the business and submitting a complaint in writing, then your next step is to see if there is a complaint handling body that can help you.
Depending on the nature of your complaint, you may need to seek help from:
- national complaint handling bodies;
- federal government departments or agencies;
- provincial or territorial complaint handling bodies; or
- provincial or territorial government departments or agencies.
Where to Get Help with Your Complaint
Finding the right place to direct your complaint is not always easy. Complaints fall under different jurisdictions, and there may be a federal, provincial or territorial regulator that will handle your complaint if it falls under their mandate.
In Canada, most consumer complaints related to buying goods and services are regulated by the provinces and territories and not the federal government.
In general, if you are unable to solve a dispute directly with a business and there is no national or provincial complaint handling body, you should then contact your provincial or territorial consumer affairs office for assistance.
If you are unable to find assistance with your complaint, there is always the option of pursuing legal action.
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Step 8: Going to Court
If you are unable to resolve your complaint or find a regulator to handle your complaint, then legal action may resolve the complaint.
Legal action should always be your last resort.
If all else fails, legal action may be able to resolve your complaint. Small claims court and, less frequently, class action lawsuits are two possible options. If instead you decide to sue, act within the time limitations for filing a lawsuit. Consider the costs and benefits and seek legal advice.
NOTE: The Complaint Roadmap is not a substitute for legal advice.
Small Claims Court
Small claims are a relatively simple and less expensive way to resolve disputes than many court proceedings.
- The maximum monetary dollar limit of claims varies by province or territory. Check the monetary limit in your province or territory and whether the subject of your case can be heard before that court.
- There may be a fee to file a claim, plus additional costs may be applied for serving orders, payments to witnesses and travel expenses.
- You do not need a lawyer to go to small claims court.
- Small claims courts allow each side to explain their story and do not expect consumers to know legal technicalities.
Class Action Suits
Individuals who have suffered similar losses or injuries, from time to time, band together to form a class action suit to recover damages and share legal costs.
- Class actions are available in most jurisdictions in Canada.
- A class action is a potentially complex legal procedure that may take several years to conclude.
- Consider the costs and benefits of a class action, seek legal advice and read about it before you join one.
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