I strongly recommend a podcast on the London School of Economics website if you are interested in complaints – or just in how organisations can be improved. The podcast is called “Learning from complaints: the benefits to organisations of listening to uncomfortable truths” and features two academics Dr Alex Gillespie and Dr Tom Reader. You can find it here:
Amongst their many insights is the idea that complaints are so useful because what organisations want to hear is inversely related to what they need to hear – so they need to hear what complaints have to tell them. They describe complaints as being “like the black box” on an aeroplane because they record incidents and near misses that can be the basis for development – “every complaint is an incident report”. They also point out that complaints are free (unlike most kinds of market research).
One further insight of their analysis of large quantities of complaints data is that the number of complaints that an organisation receives is inversely related to the severity of the issues in them.
To simplify their argument, they are saying that there are open learning organisations which receive a lot of complaints that tend to be about less serious things. These organisations are generally well run.
In contrast, there are organisations that don’t receive a lot of complaints – they don’t encourage them or don’t make the complainant feel that there is any point in complaining in the first place. These organisations may receive fewer complaints, but bigger and more serious things go wrong and the complaints that they do get are about bigger and worse issues.
The bottom line of all of this is that complaints are a Good Thing – the more the better.
That is undoubtedly true. Except of course it doesn’t feel like that for the organisations that receive complaints and the people who have to deal with them. Who likes to have their work criticised? Whose instinct isn’t to support and protect their colleagues?
These personal elements can lead to organisations into strange positions. We act as the independent reviewer of complaints about a large number of organisations and it is amazing how often those organisations talk themselves into believing that some text on their website means the opposite of what it really does mean.
So complaints are valuable to the organisation but challenging for the individuals who deal with them. The only solution can be to be open to receiving complaints – while also supporting the staff who have to deal with them. This means both the staff throughout the organisation who deal with issues as they arise in the normal course of business and any specialist complaints team to whom they are often referred.
An organisation that sees complaints as a job for a small number of people who are left on their own is wrong in so many ways…
There is a lot to gain from handling complaints well. Organisations should make it a priority.