Customer complaints are rarely welcomed with open arms. Normally, they’re seen as either too tricky, too bothersome, or simply unwarranted.
That said, complaints that are handled correctly through an efficient control system can yield a treasure trove of useful information. In an ever-evolving organisation, learning about the way your citizens/clients view your service is essential.
When, in 2005, the then president of the Belgian Ministry of Mobility, Michel Damar, asked me to create a centralised complaint handling system for our organisation, I accepted. What I discovered was a chaotic backlog of user submissions. The ministry’s system contained little clusters of other internal complaint systems used throughout the organisation. Every department meanwhile used its own system, some of which kept track of their complaints, a majority of which did not. There was no quality check on answers, no response delay tracking, nor any analysis of frequently complained about processes (known as FCPs).
My team and I took steps to create a centralised complaint handling system. First, we had to reassure our colleagues. We explained to them that the complaint handling system was not to be used as an evaluation tool for individual employees. Rather, the goal was to learn about difficulties in operational procedures and even detect structural deficiencies. Besides the obvious customer service approach, this would, we explained, help the citizen get an answer to their complaint.
Soon we realised that the term ‘complaint’ could be confusing for our organisation. Belgium’s Federal Public Service Mobility and Transport has a lot of inspection services and so receives quite a lot of grievances about businesses breaking regulations. Those are not the ones that we wanted to target with this new system. Therefore, we needed a clear definition of the complaints we specifically wanted to make central. We settled on this (translated from Dutch):
You can send a complaint when you are not satisfied with:
- The services rendered or the product delivered
- The quality of the service
- Treatment by the federal public servant
- Application of the legislation
Next up, we had to determine the workflow as well as establish some concrete rules on how to treat these complaints. We focused on the usability of this system for the citizen, and established a clear timeline for responses (they would be read within no more than four days working days, and answered within no more than 45 calendar days). We also created a set of internal rules which made the flow from receipt to response smooth and efficient.
We had some practical challenges of course. These included the task of creating a unique email account, and eliminating existing mail accounts set up for complaints to avoid confusion. We also created a group of complaint specialists (SPOCs) within the directorates. This resulted in the workflow below:
Complaints could be sent by email, letter, fax (fax is still an available option, although it is almost never used) or phone, and logged via the centralised complaint system. The complaint desk does the encoding in the database, then the complaint is sent automatically to a competent directorate. To ensure neutrality, there is a provision that if a person is mentioned by name in a complaint, that same person cannot treat it.
Meanwhile, the complaint desk keeps an eye on the time limits imposed. Within four working days the citizen should get notification that their complaint has been read, and that the complaint should be addressed within 45 calendar days. This seems like a long time, but it is worth bearing in mind some of the topics our department receives complaints on are fairly technical.
The department formulates an answer, then sends it back to the citizen, as well as a copy for the complaint desk. The desk then does a quality check: Is the complaint admissible? Is it founded? Are the answers acceptable (in content, tone and clarity)? But even more importantly, the complaints desk has an alarm function. If and when a process or a subject gets more complaints than usual, it is their duty to report this.
Within the space of a couple of days, we received a whole lot of complaints about tuning regulations (rules governing the modification of vehicles externally and internally). Although we are not able to change actual laws, we were in this instance able to adapt the information found on our website to ensure it was clearer and produced fewer questions or infractions in future.
This leads me to what became our most important lesson. When seeking to improve one part of an organisation, it pays to look at the whole thing. Looking at something like complaint handling as an administrative duty only is too narrow. Instead, it is more useful to look at a process within its context and see what it can do to improve the overall performance of a department or organisation. Rarely is it the case that administrative processes succeed or fail in a vacuum.
At first, it seemed like my team and I were engaged in a kind of client satisfaction campaign, aimed at internal reorganisation with a focus on administrative simplification. Later, we realised that what we were doing hinged on recognising complaints as an essential management tool for the whole organisation.
Traditionally, we tended to use hard metrics to judge the organisation’s performance, marked out by such buzzwords as “balanced scorecards”, and “key performance indicators”. But aggregate numbers like this too often lack the nuance necessary to improve specific services. The whole picture of the performance of an organisation consists of four different elements. Here’s a breakdown:
- Incidents: on the basis of the complaints, we get an overview of incidents pertaining to the operational workings of the organisation
- Information requests: analysing the questions that are asked of the helpdesk gives us an idea of the subjects that are unclear and need more clarification with information directed at the client groups or some updates to the website
- Satisfaction surveys: on the basis of specific surveys or focus groups, we get an idea of the perception of our performance, helping us to understand How our clients experience the way we perform our jobs.
The way we approached complaints handling wasn’t revolutionary in itself, but it was pioneering in the public sector. It created a new way of looking at complaints. As a result, we now welcome whatever complaints we receive.
We prefer knowing that citizens are complaining to us rather than to someone or something else. Centralising complaints means we can detect structural deficiencies in our workflow sooner. Centralising complaints also enables us to ensure the right treatment of these issues, which enhances our reputation.
One unanswered complaint has the potential to snowball into a series of negative knock-on effects, especially if citizens sense their voices are not being valued. A government department that, by contrast, values each and every complaint as one more golden nugget in a treasure trove of insight is one primed to reap the rewards.