Handling complaints – food for thought from the Ombudsman

It is hard to say interesting things about complaints management, but the Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman’s recent guidance ‘Effective Complaints Handling for Local Authorities’ does a good job.  For anyone involved in complaints handling – or just in learning from customers – it is well worth a read.

In the best organisations, complaints are never just a ‘back office’ customer service function, the Ombudsman, Michael King argues.  He says that well run organisations, “put public concerns right at the heart of their corporate governance – where they should be – to ensure the voice of the citizen is firmly embedded in their risk management and accountability systems.”  This is a really important point that applies whether you are in the public or private sector.  It is so easy – and basic human nature – to want to swat complaints away.  Doing that is a big mistake though.  Complaints are not just a vital (and free) source of information, they are an early warning system to threats that could cause you problems in the future.  So, the question when a complaint arises must always be not whether the complainant is “right or wrong”, but what lies behind it – and what can be learnt from it.

You can tell a lot about the culture of an organisation from the attitude they take to complaints.  At Verita we 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 Ombudsman goes on to comment that while most authorities use complaints as a barometer of external opinion and as an early warning of problems that might otherwise stay unseen, “the best take that a step further and use critical feedback to drive a sophisticated culture of learning, reflection, and improvement.

References to being ‘a  learning organisation’ is something that has become a mantra.  What is interesting, however, is how people react when told something that they don’t want, or didn’t expect to, hear.  By definition, learning from an event must mean that you know something different afterwards than you did before.  A moment of change – maybe feeling confounded or confused is therefore inevitable.  Nevertheless, it is often those most convinced that they are ‘learning organisations’ who are most resistant to being challenged.

The Ombudsman’s report is also very good at emphasising that an effective  complaints process is flexible  – that there no right or wrong way of doing things.  What matters, the report emphasises, is that the organisation listens (i.e. investigates robustly) and is open to what is found.  Breaking the process down in this way to what is really core – putting the focus on the outcome rather than the process, is welcome.  Again, it is so common to find organisations who are clear on what they are meant to do, the process that they are trying to follow, but struggle to articulate what they are trying to achieve.

Finally, there is an emphasis in the report on the most important part of the process – putting things right, both for the individual concerned, and for the organisation.  It is really important to remember that making sure the same thing the same thing doesn’t happen to others is often the main motivation of people who are complaining.  After all, the thing has already happened to them and nothing will take that away.  The knowledge that it won’t happen to someone else is often the best reward that is possible.

It is always worth thinking again about complaints processes.  This report provides plenty of food for that though.

If you would like to learn more about complaint handling then please contact Kieran Seale on 020 7494 5670 or [email protected].


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