Owning the problem: using complaints as an improvement tool

In books on management, there is often a tendency to look at the large or strategic issues that a company faces. The company has to have vision and a strategy for achieving the vision. Without a strategy or a vision, it will not survive for long. What is also needed, but often overlooked, is the need to deliver the daily work of the organisation. In particular, the need to solve the problems, especially complaints, that emerge.  Yet, this is where many firms often fail.

Complaints, in particular, present a particular challenge because there is no upside to workers to take responsibility.  Yet, that is exactly what needs to be done for a culture of customer service to emerge and thrive: you have to have workers willing to “own” the problem.  An example, of where that can go wrong can be seen in the Parliamentary and Health Service report.  Ann Abram’s report called A Breach of Confidence: http://www.ombudsman.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0012/6411 /PHSO-0108-HC-709-report-final-web-11012011.pdf

In this situation, the three organisations refused to own the problem.  Instead, they chose to blame someone else, even though they contributed to the issue.  The issue was not the complaint, but rather their response to it.  Instead of seeing this as an opportunity, a problem recognised that they did not know existed, they sought to avoid it and downplay it. Moreover, there are strong incentives now, with the power of the Information Commissioner to levy fines for breaches of the Data Protection Act, to make sure that an organisation is sharing and managing its’ customers personal information correctly.

To overcome this bias to avoid complaints and over report compliments, an organisation needs to develop an ethos whereby complaints are seen as a chance to improve. http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/how-to-use-customer-concerns-and-complaints-to-you.html

The goal is not to blame someone for a failure; rather the goal is to improve the service so the next person does not face the same issue.  By doing improving services in response to complaints, an organisation can develop a learning culture. At the same time, the organisation has to show that people reporting or fixing complaints are not in the firing line.  By encouraging staff to own problems, and not seeking to find ways to avoid blame, the ethos of an organisation changes to one that is customer driven and results orientated.

In the example above, the organisations did not see the complaint as something that they needed to change or improve. Instead of seeing it as an opportunity to reassess their data sharing relationships and how they audit changes to their systems, the focus was on making sure they were not in the firing line.  If the problem had been owned at the beginning, it is unlikely that it would have reached the Ombudsman.

Perhaps the question to ask is not how many compliments someone has received, or even how many complaints. Rather the question managers should be asking is what improvements have you made from complaints and how have you learned from that complaint.  In that way, an organisation can become a learning organisation. Then, if a complaint is truly intractable, the organisation’s reputation for learning, for customer service, and owning problems becomes an asset when facing the Ombudsman.

Given the amount of time organisations spend building their reputation and managing it, one would imagine that they would want to have the reputation for owning problems, solving them, and delivering good customer service. http://www.webershandwick.com/resources/ws/flash/WS_HBR_Reputation_Warfare_Electronic.pdf

In these difficult economic times, that is a way to keep customers.

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About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
This entry was posted in customer service, data protection act, information management, innovation, learning organisation and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Owning the problem: using complaints as an improvement tool

  1. Pingback: Words that kill customer service | Thoughts on management

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