31st March 2020

Better complaints handling pays dividends

Brett Barningham, Managing Director of State and Local Government, Civica ANZ

This article first appeared in Government News in March 2020

At a time when citizen expectations are on the rise, failing to handle complaints appropriately is a missed opportunity to improve and avert avoidable crises, writes Brett Barningham.

What is a complaint, and why do complaints matter? These were the key questions posed by Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass in her report into councils’ complaints handling, released late last year.

Glass surveyed all 79 Victorian councils to revisit the issue she first examined five years prior. The main aim was to see what more can be done to ensure local councils make it easy for citizens to complain, respond to complaints effectively and learn from complaints to improve services.

A key finding is that inconsistent definitions and processes are hampering efforts to improve complaints management. Without a clear definition of a complaint, it is harder to properly collect, capture and analyse complaints. And it is difficult for bodies such as the Ombudsman to compare practices across councils and point out areas for improvement.

Another challenge raised in the report is that a lack of suitable infrastructure is making it harder for councils to collect data. Central Goldfields council, for example, could not provide the number of complaints it received last year to the Ombudsman, saying they were “unable to accurately calculate the number of complaints received due to inadequate systems”.

The cost of getting it wrong

It’s time we thought of complaints as a gift – and one we can’t afford not to accept. Properly managed, they can be a very valuable tool in terms of understanding your product service offering and getting free feedback from citizens.

At a time when citizen expectations are on the rise, failing to handle complaints appropriately is a missed opportunity to improve and avert avoidable crises. One only has to look at the banking industry to see how failure to tackle customer issues early on can escalate into a full-blown reputational threat, resulting in increased scrutiny, and dwindling consumer trust.

In the case of councils, it’s not just citizens who bear the brunt of poor complaints management and definitions. When citizens are not easily able to register complaints they are more likely to make an angry phone call into the council, demoralising staff. Without a proper system in place, they can feel disempowered to properly identify, manage and address complaints, increasing stress, absenteeism and attrition.

By failing to record and act on complaints, councils risk undermining their relationship with members of the public, compromising their integrity and reputation. They will suffer wasted time and resources if the aggrieved person escalates the complaint to senior managers, ministers or complaint bodies like the Ombudsman, or costly legal action.

Steps to improve complaints management

As noted by Glass, the first step to better complaints handling is to have a clear definition of what you’re dealing with. Too many councils have a very narrow definition of a complaint, interpret it narrowly in practice, or have definitions that vary from other councils. Think of a complaint as an incident when someone is dissatisfied with a service they receive or an interaction they have.

It’s also important to act fast. The Ombudsman’s report highlights how some councils only record a complaint if it had been made several times. That’s a reduced opportunity to have visibility of complaints and to act on emerging issues. Across many industries, it’s often minor issues that occur again and again but don’t get recorded that end up becoming much bigger problems.

Technology can make it a lot easier to handle complaints comprehensively and carefully. Dedicated complaints management solutions are enabling organisations to pick up and record complaints across a variety of channels – including websites and social media, for example – and apply analytics to spot trends and better understand the root cause.

These solutions can deliver a powerful range of tools to complaint handlers and managers, assisting with the quick resolution of customer dissatisfaction and preventing recurrence of emerging issues and helping staff manage cases within specified timeframes.

Software can also highlight and examine escalation rates. This is valuable as it can help keep track of how the organisation is performing in terms of responding to complaints. All of this data can also go into identifying opportunities to improve staff training in certain areas, as well as creating an opportunity for councils to publish data on how they are handling complaints.

While some organisations will simply want to stick their head in the sand, when it comes to complaints, it’s simply a matter of ‘better out than in’. Making it easier to define, collect, address, analyse and publish complaints data is a sure-fire way to enhance the quality and efficiency of council services, increase engagement and trust with the community. By doing so, we’ll create better workplaces and communities.