Why is learning from complaints important?
Complaints are a valuable source of information to an organisation as they provide an opportunity to learn and develop. Individual complaints from people who use your service are helpful in identifying and dealing with a systemic problem within the organisation. Otherwise, real assurance cannot be given to the complainant that the issue will not happen again.
Despite the positive aspects of learning from complaints, it doesn’t feel like that for the organisations that receive them 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 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.
How do we learn from complaints?
So, complaints are a powerful tool to drive learning and improvement but challenging for the individuals who deal with them. The only solution can be for organisations to change how they feel about complaints and be open to receiving them, 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.
Complaints are not just a vital 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.
I strongly recommend this podcast about learning from complaints on the London School of Economics website which highlights how complaints are a free source of information (unlike market research) that can form the basis for development.
Featuring two academics Dr Alex Gillespie and Dr Tom Reader, it says 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.
Barriers to learning from complaints
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 Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman’s guidance on complaints management highlights that complaints should never just be a ‘back office’ customer service function. The ombudsman, Michael King, 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.”
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.”.
It is so easy – and basic human nature – to want to swat complaints away rather than seeing them as a learning opportunity. Doing that is a big mistake though. 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…
Using complaints to aid development
There is also 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 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.
In order to learn from complaints there needs to be a review of complaints policies and procedures so that the process is simple and open. An action plan should be set out both for the organisation to learn from the complaint, as well as personal development of the individual. As well as this, any findings from an investigation should be incorporated into training for the rest of the organisation.
There is a lot to gain from learning from complaints. Organisations should make it a priority.