Complaints handling good practice
Customer complaints are inevitable, no matter how well a service is provided. Although no-one likes to receive a complaint, they do bring some benefits as a way of better understanding people’s views and expectations, and generating the learning needed for service improvement. Complaints should always be acknowledged and dealt with as efficiently and effectively as possible so that the people using your services recognise that their opinions and feedback are valued.
Identify someone in your organisation to act as complaints manager and develop and oversee the implementation of your organisation’s complaints procedure. If you're a very small organisation this should be someone in a position of responsibility with experience of working with customers, someone able to make decisions and influence service change
Allocate people able to support the complaints manager in the investigation of complaints. Team leaders or service managers may be appropriate. Investigators should be of suitable seniority to resolve the issues raised in the complaint. It's important that the person investigating has had no previous involvement with the issue or complaint, so having more than one investigator is usually necessary
Ensure all members of staff and anyone else involved in delivering or managing services, such as volunteers and board members, are aware of your complaints procedure and how to direct people wishing to make a complaint
Arrangements need to be in place to communicate with complainants by both letter and email. If you're able to, use a generic customer feedback email address (rather than an email direct to a member of staff). Promote this email in your complaints procedure
Information about how to complain should be available and easily accessible (see promoting your complaint procedure here).
Taking a complaint
When someone makes a complaint it can cause a mix of emotions, particularly if you've been working very hard to provide the best service you can. Try to keep your emotions in check, however disappointed you may feel.
Find a quiet and private place to speak. Ensure confidentiality. If the complainant is angry or irate you'll need to find ways of diffusing the situation. Offer them a seat. Explain that you're listening (you can demonstrate this by taking notes). Keep your tone calm.
If you're involved in the complaint being made, you may find it appropriate to ask an independent person to speak to the complainant instead, or to at least sit in on the discussion. However, don’t pass the complainant from person to person. No-one likes to repeat the same information over and over.
Do your best to consider the experience of the customer and how you would feel in their shoes. You don't need to verbalise this, but it can help you to take all the information on board.
Don’t let the complaint become personal. Complaints can often relate to a particular member of staff or volunteer. Encourage the complainant to keep the discussion factual, and encourage them to steer away from making personal comments.
Listen carefully, record all the information you're given, ask questions if you need to clarify the complaint and better understand the outcome the complainant is looking for. Avoid the temptation to provide excuses or argue back. Don’t appear defensive. This may only exacerbate the situation.
Try not to provide a detailed response on the spot, unless the complaint is straightforward and can be resolved instantly. It's usually sensible to take time to reflect, and you don't want to pre-empt the information that will be included within the investigation and resulting response.
Once you understand the complaint you may wish to offer an apology. You can apologise for the customer having had an unsatisfactory experience and has felt the need to complain, without jumping to any conclusions concerning the outcome of the complaint. Any number of factors could have contributed to the issue, and your organisation might not be at fault.
Check that you've recorded contact details, and confirm that a response will be provided in line with the timescales set out in your complaints procedure.
Dealing with the complaint
Complaints should always be resolved as quickly as possible. The aim is to make the customer feel as though their problem is being treated as a priority, without being rushed.
Communicate effectively. Keep the customer updated on progress. If there are going to be delays then explain that more time is needed to investigate, and inform the customer when they can expect a response.
If you're responsible for overseeing the complaint but you're not the investigating officer, keep in touch with the investigating officer to ensure they are on track and have the information they need.
Keep all complaints moving towards a solution. Try not to let a complaint get stuck without reaching a satisfactory outcome for the customer. Your complaints procedure should include stages for review and escalation to the commissioner or an independent body.
Keep comprehensive records from the initial problem to the final response.
Checking your process
Clarify what will be taken as a complaint. For example it's common to set the rule that issues more than 12 months old may not be included because significant time will have passed, and make an investigation very difficult to carry out.
Ensure complainants are being informed what to expect. You should acknowledge complaints and provide the name and role of the person who will investigate the complaint.
Check that your staff and/or volunteers know what's expected of them.
Check all available methods of making a complaint are working effectively – for example email, telephone, in-person complaints, written complaints and online forms.
Check that the method you're using for recording complaints is effective. Are all complaints being recorded in the right way? Is all the right information being collected? Are records being stored correctly (consider good practice in data protection and information sharing)?
Ensure you've built appropriate commissioner referrals into your complaints process. This is particularly important if you provide services such as social care or housing. If a commissioning organisation has placed someone in your care they should feature within your complaints process. The ombudsman will see the commissioner as responsible for complaints, so they should review your complaints after you've provided a comprehensive response at stage 1, answered all issues raised by the complainant, and have nothing more to add. Ensure you agree how this will be managed with your commissioner.
Some types of complaints may be referred directly to the commissioner, so make sure this is clear within your procedure. For example, if complainants have concerns over levels of funding, policy decisions, decisions taken by the commissioning body, or issues related to the contract these will require a commissioner response.
Ensure the way you're working is in line with your complaints procedure. Your procedure should include timescales for acknowledging and responding to complaints. It can be helpful to use performance measures if you're responding to a higher volume of complaints and need to monitor responses.
Once you've confirmed the measures you'll use to ensure you're managing complaints and customer feedback effectively you should try to incorporate this into your regular performance reporting. Quarterly reporting is usually adequate, but if you have a high volume of complaints or have concerns about an area of service consider monthly or more regular monitoring until issues are resolved.
Provide reports to your commissioner on a regular basis (as agreed within your contract – quarterly is recommended).