Why are complaints so difficult?

Feb 25 08:49 2011 Alison Miles-Jenkins Print This Article

Many people find complaints handling stressful.  As a UK leader in this field, I have helped many businesses and high profile public sector organisations handle complaints better.  My latest top ten tips here will help any organisation handle complaints more effectively. 

Why is it that complaints are so hard to deal with?  Recent news from the UK banking sector continues to report that UK Bank complaint handling is not up to scratch.  In some cases fines have been levied for poor complaints handling. There has also been a detailed report issued by the Ombudsman about NHS complaints handling,Guest Posting which has lessons for many organisations outside of the NHS given that it deals with a wide variety of difficult complaints. It can usefully help anyone interested in managing complaints well. This report reinforces the message that many people find complaints difficult.

The pain of complaints

The pain many businesses suffer when handling complaints often includes increased costs of dealing with customers. This is caused by:

  • more and repeated contacts from customers who often try a multi-channel approach by phone, in person or in writing and even social media campaigns such as using Twitter, Facebook, etc.
  • requests for money back, discounts or simply compensation
  • escalation of the complaint to more senior staff tying up resources
  • and worst case: litigation can be the last resort of the complainant

Your people will suffer great stress with all of this complaints work too.  But it need not be like that.

Great complaints handling

If you want to get the benefits of great complaints handling, where do you start? The answer lies in part with knowing a complaint when you see it and having staff trained to deal with the complaints effectively.

So apart from training in handling complaints, what else can be done? A good place to start is to review your complaints handling process. What you are looking for is a process that identifies a complaint quickly so that it can be dealt with as a complaint effectively from the outset and not inadvertently overlooked.

As the report recently published by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman identified: “When a complaint is made, delays in responding, or a failure to listen, to apologise, or take into account individual needs can make an already difficult situation worse.”  This advice points not only to good complaints resolution processes but to having a healthy attitude towards complaints. This attitude is often harder to acquire than a process improvement. This is because a culture of effective complaints handling needs you to show leadership to your people and to get some effective training and coaching to help staff resolve complaints effectively.

Ten tips for great complaints handling

To help you resolve complaints more effectively our top ten tips for great complaints handling are:

1. Develop a great complaints handling process

Look at your process for resolving complaints.  If you were trying to complain how would you find it? Would it be easy to use? Do you think that it is fair, efficient, transparent and quick?  Can you improve it to be easier for your staff and customers to use, reducing the costs of complaints handling?

2. Look out for complaints

Catch complaints early: when things go wrong for a customer get there first. Make sure when a customer complains you identify the complaint as a complaint and deal with it as such.

3. Apologise Apologise Apologise

An apology can be a powerful remedy. It may be that all you need to do is to say sorry. The complaints handling research has revealed that acknowledging that something has gone wrong and saying sorry is often all that is needed.  This makes for a constructive conversation. Apologies are free, easy to deliver and can help the complainant move on.

4. Explain what went wrong 

People complaining are doing so because something went wrong for them, or at least that is how they perceive is. So don’t explain what happened in a way that sounds like you are making excuses.  Instead, explain the reasons that caused the complaint.  Make sure the customer does not feel like they are being given excuses. If a mistake has been made, then say so.  The second biggest factor for doctors and dentists when handling complaints is that there is no acknowledgement of mistakes.  That really annoys their customers, the patients. The same could well be true for your customers as it is often hard for employees to acknowledge that a mistake has been made, they may need to be given permission by you to do this.  They may need some training to help with this.

5. Provide reassurance

Reassure the complainant that steps will be taken to stop the issue starting all over again.  Often people who complain want to know that it won’t happen again or to someone else. Make sure that the lessons learned are not lost. You need to have a way of doing this which should involve:

  • better training for staff
  • improvements in processes or systems
  • and simply better communication earlier to explain what might go wrong at the point of purchase.

If the customer knows the risks when buying then they make an informed decision and that can help.

6. Own the complaint

Don’t be defensive.  If a complainant gets the feeling that you are evading the issue, making excuses and not trying to help it will only make matters worse.

7. Have a great attitude. 

Enjoy sorting the complaint out. Often the attitude of your people when dealing with the complaint can really make all the difference.  A poor attitude is likely to make the complaint worse and the complainant will then often seek to escalate the complaint to a higher authority.  This ends up involving you in more cost and time to deal with the complaint. Consider having some of your team trained to become experts in handling your complaints.  This can reduce the overall training cost and provide you with a small team of dedicated complaints handlers rather than have all your people struggling to handle complaints.

8. Put it right as soon as you can

Find out what the complainant thinks will solve the problem and try and deliver that, as fast as you can.  Taking action is as important as apologising.  This may also mean reviewing a decision or process, so don’t delay on this.

9. Remain customer focused

Be customer focussed.  It may sound easy but it is not.  Emotions often run high in complaints handling and need acknowledging.  If the complainant knows by the way you react you are trying to resolve the matter that will make all the difference.

10. Give your people support

Support your complaints handling employees. Those who deal with complaints need it.  The emotional strain on your people can be hard to cope with. Having an opportunity to debrief with a colleague and provide support can help.  Coaching can be a great way of assisting with this.  Do you have a supportive and coaching style in your team? If you don’t, you might want to get some help.

Complaints handling made easy?

Complaints handling is not easy.  It is often something that is difficult to do.  But it need not be like this.  It is possible to handle even the most challenging complaints well.  After all consider the Ombudsman I mentioned earlier who is often dealing with life and death issues in the NHS. Her team are getting compliments from complainants about their help in solving complaints. You could be getting those too.

Alison Miles-Jenkins

Managing Director

Training To Achieve (UK) Ltd

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About Article Author

Alison Miles-Jenkins
Alison Miles-Jenkins

Alison Miles-Jenkins has a great expertise in complaints handling.  She is heads up a leading UK management consultancy who help businesses and public sector organisations handle complaints more effectively. This includes working with teams to take the strain out of handling complaints well.

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