Benefits of an effective complaints handling system
An effective complaints handling process is crucial for public and private organisations because it helps to identify issues, which supports development and improvement. Understanding the principles around complaints management will help you handle them appropriately, ensuring your organisation experiences positive change.
Complaints encourage communication between both the organisation and the user. By quickly engaging in communication and discussing the problems at hand, problems will be understood sooner and hopefully resolved effectively.
Fundamental to the process is a workplace which welcomes complaints and sees them as a vital source of information. You can tell a lot about the culture of an organisation from the attitude they have to complaints handling.
At Verita we are experienced in complaints resolution and often come to organisations when something has gone wrong. The range of responses that we see to adverse events striking – from organisations that are really keen to work with people from the outside to see out how things can be put right, to those that hate the idea of having to engage. No prizes for guessing which are the best run organisations.
The Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman’s guidance ‘Effective Complaints Handling for Local Authorities’ provides insightful information on how organisations can manage and learn from complaints. The report highlights that a vital component of effective complaints handling is using the feedback to bring about positive organisational change.
Effective complaints procedures
For a complaints procedure to be effective it should be flexible and tailored so each complaint can be determined on its own merits. It also needs to comply with the law if there is a statutory process to follow.
Handling complaints quickly and effectively prevents the situation from escalating by avoiding subsequent complaints that a response has yet to be received. This applies to whichever method has been used to make the complaint. So, whether it has been put in writing as a formal complaint, or made verbally, it should be handled equally.
An effective complaints procedure should adhere to the following principles:
- Make the complaint process easy
- Be open and transparent if something went wrong
- Explain clearly the logical decisions made which lead to the error
- Put it right
- Implement the lessons learned
It is important that the right people are involved in the complaints process so that when issues are identified the changes can be actioned effectively. As well as this, a good reporting process ensures complaint handling procedures have been followed correctly and the relevant changes have been implemented.
How to handle complaints
We have worked with many dedicated and talented complaints teams in different industries and organisations. We find effective complaints handling happens when teams are championed at board level and are at the heart of the organisation are strikingly more effective than bolt-on complaints teams.
Some complaints teams are centralised, some devolved to local services or branches: the exact structure, policies and procedures are less important than the place and priority the organisation attaches to people who have cause for complaint.
Organisations should care that a client or customer has taken the unusual step – and it is unusual – to make a complaint. They should know that sorting out the problem, explaining what happened, matters – to them both.
So, what should be done when receiving a complaint? There are several stages which should be followed to ensure it is handled effectively:
- Identifying the complaint
When identifying the complaint it is beneficial for all parties to write to the complainant setting out your understanding of the complaint and what will happen next.
- Defining the complaint
Think about how the event has impacted the customer and define the complaint from the customer’s point of view
- Investigating the complaint
Consider whether the complaint requires an independent investigation or whether it can be managed internally.
- Making a decision
Be clear about the decision and what is being done to put it right. Consider whether the complainant requires support to understand it. Write a letter outlining the complaint, the investigation steps, the decision and how it was made, the next steps, what the organisation has learned and what changes are being made, and how they can challenge the decision.
- Ensuring it doesn’t happen again
Put the lessons learned into action by involving the relevant departments and ensuring the necessary changes are effectively communicated and implemented.
Apologise if something has gone wrong, it is not an admission of guilt, it is a sign of respect to your customer who has been impacted by the event.
In the NHS, reluctance to be open and honest, with a genuine apology when things have gone wrong, comes at a high price for patients, their loved ones, frontline staff and the organisation. In our experience, many doctors fear the patient’s response and regulatory or disciplinary consequences of admitting to an error. Organisations may focus on the reputational and litigation costs.
In situations involving complex, sensitive issues including avoidable harm or death, staff are upset and it can be difficult for an organisation to make an objective and independent assessment of what has happened and why from within. Getting this right is crucial for determining the right way forward and this includes getting the right source of advice. And it really is OK to say sorry; an apology does not mean an admission of legal liability.
The NHS have provided advice on saying sorry to help those involved with these issues as it is the right thing to do when things have gone wrong and can help to heal the hurt.
The law supports apologies. The Compensation Act 2006 says “an apology, an offer of treatment or another redress, shall not itself amount to an admission of negligence or breach of statutory duty”. Often organisations fail to make an apology due to fear they will be exposed to legal action. A clear apology can form part of the recovery process for a victim and can save the reputation of a business.
Handling complaints thoughtfully
Here at Verita, our Complaints Team investigated the following issue which is clearly not a good example of effective complaints handling:
A letter arrived for Sarah from A.N. Other Public Body (APB).
It said: we miscalculated a payment to you and sent you more than you were entitled to; you have to pay us back; here are our bank details, or you can send a cheque to the address above. This is an only slightly abbreviated version of the letter.
Sarah wrote back: you miscalculated twice before you paid me (late) in the first place; you do not say what sort of miscalculation this is – how do I know it is not wrong again? And an apology would be nice.
A very nice person from APB’s complaints team telephoned Sarah. He apologised. He said the letter was poor and that they had made it sound as if Sarah was at fault. This was wrong. He apologised. He said they would write with a proper explanation. He apologised.
The second letter from APB arrived for Sarah. It said: this is an explanation for the miscalculation. It is now correct; you have to pay us back; here are our bank details … again, only a slight abbreviation.
When is an apology not an apology at all? When it comes from a bolted-on complaints team ‘over there’ (however pleasant they may be) and not from the people responsible for the error (who still come over as dismissive and unrepentant) the complainant stays dissatisfied and may feel that others will suffer from the same, unaddressed mistake. Services do not improve, behaviour stays the same, the cost of error adds to the cost of running a complaints service.
Effective complaints handling in your organisation
Over half of all customer complaints received by organisations are not managed properly, according to figures from a previous poll we ran. The figures, received from over 1,000 respondents in a Twitter poll showed organisations were failing to address complaints properly, which could lead to serious issues not being addressed by senior management.
According to the poll, 23% of respondents said their organisation managed between 75-100% of complaints well, and a further 22% said their organisation managed between half and three-quarters of complaints satisfactorily. Worryingly, more than a third of respondents (37%) said their organisation only managed a quarter of complaints well, with a further 18% putting the number at between a quarter to one-half.
Verita managing director, Ed Marsden, commented: “Our experience shows that the way customer complaints are managed usually reflects how effective the organisation is overall. Effective reporting and an open culture from the shop floor to the board is essential for any public or private organisation. Whilst there are some positives in the polling, I am concerned at the number of poorly managed complaints. I would urge all organisations to review their complaints procedures, and to make sure any issues they find, some of which could be serious, are dealt with rapidly.”
If you are looking to handle complaints more effectively, Verita provides independent complaint resolution consultancy to NHS, education, charities and the public and private sectors as well as a complaints handling training course.
You can read this effective complaints handling case study where we assisted a Healthcare trust to clear a backlog of complaints, designed an improved complaints handling system, and provided training to ensure staff were clear about their role in effective complaints management.