With new research from the Institute of Customer Service finding that customer service complaints have hit their highest level on record and are costing UK businesses more than £9b a month in lost staff time, putting the consumer at the heart of your business is more important than ever, writes the Furniture & Home Improvement Ombudsman’s Judith Turner – but what are some of the legal definitions of ‘consumer’, and what additional considerations make a consumer much more than just a legal definition for a business? 

The history of contract law, from its 19th century origins in horse sales, had no regard to uneven bargaining positions. Apart from scenarios where a buyer could not inspect goods (usually because they were being shipped from abroad), contracts, when entered into freely and voluntarily, were held sacred, and enforced by the courts of justice.

The Sale of Goods Acts 1893 enshrined common law into statute and still retained application until the 1970s, nearly a century later. Alongside domestic developments, much of the impetus for consumer rights has arguably been driven by the EU, where the role that consumer activity plays was considered integral in the success of the single market. 

One of the stated aims was to protect consumers from abuse of powers from sellers or service providers, and an emphasis on the quality accessible – hence the need for enhanced rights, aimed to protect consumers more explicitly and create a level playing field to ensure consumer rights are a prominent and initial consideration when a business considers who their consumers are and why their rights matter.

For the purposes of the Consumer Rights Act 2015, a consumer is an individual acting for purposes which are wholly or mainly outside of their trade, business, craft or profession – which has implications for those to whom the often-enhanced consumer remedies are available.

For the purposes of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Contracts Regulations 2008, an average consumer is defined by reference to their being reasonably well informed, reasonably observant and circumspect, whereas a vulnerable consumer is said to come from a clearly identifiable group who may be susceptible to the practice or underlying product because of their mental or physical infirmity, age or credulity in a way which the trader could reasonably be expected to foresee – for example, hearing aid products advertised to customers with hearing impairments.

Other attempts have been made to define vulnerability not as separate and distinct groups, because anybody can face circumstances that make them vulnerable – either temporarily or permanently. These might include physical or mental health, debt or unemployment, bereavement or becoming a victim of crime. Another factor indicating vulnerability might be the potential for customers’ circumstances to change suddenly – certainly something that the coronavirus pandemic shined a spotlight on – and it’s vital that all customers are treated fairly to help mitigate the impacts of these.

On our journey to define a consumer, we can see that there are nuances that make one single definition, such as that given in the Consumer Rights Act 2015, tricky to apply. Businesses should therefore be providing an inclusive service with commitment to accessibility, and remove barriers to complaining. Some of this is already prescribed – for example, to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010, and the way in which special categories of personal data must be dealt with for the purposes of GDPR.

Similarly, when in dispute with a consumer, timely signposting to alternative dispute resolution, such as the ombudsman, is vital to ensure accessible redress for every consumer – not least those that find themselves in vulnerable circumstances, unsure of how to enforce their rights.

The ombudsman can provide important insight to the businesses that register to it, in terms of consumer complaints and their legal remedies. However, we also emphasise the wider benefits of best practice in designing customer services processes with the needs of all consumers in mind – thereby concluding that inclusive service by design can lead to inclusion by default.