I read this HBR blog and thought about how it could be applied to complaints. When a problem occurs, an organisation will often wait until someone before trying to fix the issue. As most organisations do not work actively to prevent or pre-empt complains, the complaint becomes an important improvement tool. Yet, when the customer does decide to make a complaint, they are often faced with the standard complaints or contact page. There is rarely, if ever, an effort to help the customer complain properly or in a way that helps the organisation.
How organisations signpost complaints procedure tells you their value.
What we find are complaints pages or forms that have free text fields or contact details of the complaints team. Some organisations have an online form that has some questions to prompt a better complain. The standard approach is to ask the person complaining to explain the problem, give some details for context and to explain what they want done. The organisation hopes customers will use this online form and make a clear and concise complaint. Alas, this is hardly, if ever, the case. Instead, something like the following occurs.
Long letters without a point except to complain
The complainant decides to write a long letter, usually by hand, so you know immediately they are not going to use the online form. In some case, they may type an even longer letter or email. Usually the complaint wanders over various topics, and expresses personal attacks. Such complaints are usually poorly constructed and usually not well written.
The reader struggles to understand the complaint, the issue and struggles further to consider what might resolve the issue. Invariably they end up it finding a solution that best fits what the organisation wants. In many complaints, the organisations gets caught up with the extraneous, emotive issues like insults, and fail to recognise or resolve the problem. They focus on the complaint and not the problem. As a result, the complaint and not the problem becomes the issue.
What I have never seen, which is why I am proposing it, is an organisation that educates its clients and customers on how to make a complaint. By that, I do not mean explaining how to register a complaint. I mean educating the customer on the best way to write a complaint letter. I have never seen an organisation give advice and help or even a link to material to help the customer complain.
Why organisations resist complaints
I understand why most organisations will resist or reject this approach. Many senior managers view customer complaints as a hassle to be avoided. In many organisations, the complaints are seen as something to be minimized because they see the customer as the problem. The customer is a problem client, or a serial complainer. If they show the organisation was at fault, then it becomes defensive. Yet, by educating the public on how to complain, they could help themselves in a number of ways.
How educating the customer to complain can help your company.
First, it would show a commitment to customer service. Such an approach suggests an organisation confident of its complaints handling. At the same time, it shows an organisation that is willing to learn.
Second, the organisation would get better complaint letters. The letters would more likely to be polite, focused, and propose a solution. (See the list below for links to various web sites with advice on how to write a complaint letter).
Third, the complaint letters would be structured. An on-line form can capture the main points with systematic instructions on what is required. If the complaints are structured, they are easier to direct to the appropriate team.
Fourth, the process allows you to triage complaints and prioritize them. If you educate the public on how to complain, you can suggest your preferred style. With a preferred style, form or structure, the organisation can triage complaints and prioritize them. For example, if you use a form or required structure, then you can indicate that a concise complaint will get a quicker response than one that rambles and does not have a coherent structure.
Fifth, a structured approach focuses on the substantive points rather than secondary issues. The letter focuses on the proposed solution. The focus changes from the complaint to the substantive issue: the problem to be solved and the proposed solution.
Sixth, the proposed solution means that you do not have to solve the problem yourself. You are looking at how to make the solution happen. If you cannot solve the problem, then you discuss the proposed solution. By proposing a solution, it saves the organisation from having to expend a lot of effort trying to propose a solution that the customer will not find satisfactory.
I cannot guarantee this approach will transform customer complaints. However, it would help to reduce the 20 page letters and it would help to find solutions. Most importantly, it would help to find learning outcomes for the organisation. The learning outcomes will be derived from the proposed solutions. By improving complaints, you can save money as the customer helps you to improve.
 Please note that this is different from “feedback” or “customer engagement”. Instead, this is about the point at which a complaint is going to be prepared and developing a way to make it easier for the customer and develop it as a learning tool for the organisation.
 The following list of sites on how to complain was chosen at random from the internet. I am not endorsing them nor do I have an interest in them.
 Here is an interesting psychological insight into why customer and companies fail at handling complaints. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-squeaky-wheel/201105/complaint-handling-where-companies-and-customers-both-fail