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Handling Complaints Systematically

November 7, 2013 by Dr. Jon Warner in Complaint Handling

Handling Complaints Systematically

In order to handle complaints in a systematic way, any organization, no matter what its size or type, needs to have an active communication process. The main components of this process should ideally contain the following:

A System for Management intervention and control.

Some complaints will point to serious problems with major processes in the organization about which only management can effect change. This might be processes such as the invoicing system, delivery policy, payment terms, product or service guarantees etc. All organizations therefore need to think very carefully about how serious complaint information (individually based or trend related) is acted upon, when and by who. This may be placed in the hands of one responsible person (such as a customer service manager) or a coordinating team or committee, or left to individual team or department managers. In every case however, a system of careful checking and control (to ensure that action is being taken efficiently and effectively) needs to be in set up and properly maintained.

Front-line customer handling staff involvement.

In many organizations, front-line staff hear almost all of the complaints but are excluded from seeing any collated data or any trends and patterns in the feedback. This acts to exclude a critical population of people and causes two significant problems for an enterprise that adopts such an approach.

  1. They preclude further explanatory input and potentially useful elaborative detail that front-line staff can almost always provide, including where systematic changes for the better could be made to deal with organizational ‘bottlenecks’ or common areas for complaint.
  2. They preclude front-line staff from access to information that that is likely to be extremely useful to them in dealing with future customer complaints (either helping them to describe future changes in the pipeline or being able to offer a possible solution about which they were not previously aware).

Organizations therefore need to carefully think about front-line staff involvement including specifically who should be involved as well as how, where and when they are to be communicated with.

Customer feedback and involvement.

Customers start the whole feedback process when they lodge a complaint in the hope that it will catalyze positive action of some kind (and at the very least some response communication). So often however, even if an individual complainant gets some feedback (which doesn’t often happen) the rest of the customer base (most of which do not even bother to complain) are left feeling just as disaffected as they were before. If complaints are resolved or improvements made as a result of feedback, this is a ‘good news’ story. Every enterprise should therefore work hard to ensure that its communication processes tell customers what is positively happening, especially when better service to all is the result.

The debate about whether a front-line person can do much to change the systems or processes of an entire organization (where many complaints often suggest that this is needed) constantly rages inside many enterprises. Those who say ‘no’ to this question often quite legitimately feel that they are just one voice, have insufficient responsibility or power to make big changes or may even cause the organization to see him or her as a trouble-maker, if he/she were to comment widely at all. Those who say ‘yes’ to this question suggest that if individuals do not speak up and shake the complacency of the organizational system from time to time, then no-one else will do so and real improvement will not occur. This debate is not easily resolved and often reflects the overall culture which prevails in a particular organization. However, both individuals and the wider enterprise can look for guidance from the research into the approaches that are adopted by “best practice” service organizations.

Best practice service organizations often ensure that senior and middle managers in all areas are directly encouraged to appreciate the sort of complaints that are regularly made. This may be achieved through regular briefing sessions, specific meetings on the subject, or even by asking managers to talk to customers, on the phone or face-to-face, (thereby keeping in touch with real customers and real issues at the ‘sharp end’). This approach helps to make the culture much more conducive to seeing complaints as a great opportunity for the organization to improve. This results in greater empowerment of front-line staff. Also in these best-practice organizations, front-line staff tend to feel much more comfortable in ‘speaking up’ and actually take personal and individual responsibility for ensuring that significant process problems identified by complainants are taken seriously by the organization (and by senior managers).

Such an open customer service oriented culture inevitably means that the ‘voice of the customer’ is captured by many ears and even more importantly, major trends are discussed extensively (at many levels of the enterprise). Individual complainants subsequently get quicker and better resolutions and all customers are likely to get ‘continuously improving’ service quality (thereby reducing the need to complain and eventually even becoming a quiet advertisement to attract new customers). Of course, these best-practice service organizations are not built or emulated overnight. Nonetheless, they all had to start somewhere, and often one committed person is all that is needed to commence the journey!

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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One Comment

  1. philipJuly 4, 2016 at 12:33 pm

    a good read indeed

About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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