Friday, 3 April 2015

How to complain

Last year a reader contacted us to tell us about the complaints procedure he’d seen at a hospital he’d recently visited. It had ten, yes TEN, steps. If you had a complaint about the service you received you were first required to contact the Supervisor in charge, then the PR officer, then the Matron, then the Hospital Manager, then the Hospital Superintendent, then the Ministry of Health toll-free number, then the relevant Director in the Ministry, then the Permanent Secretary, then the Minister of Health and finally the Office of the President.

Given that everyone in this sequence is a busy person and that some of them will be on leave, on training or attending typically endless Government meetings (I know, I used to work there) I can imagine that going all the way to the top of this sequence could easily take months. By the time your complaint gets to HE’s desk a year could have gone by.

How is that a complaints procedure? It seems more likely to be a complaints avoidance procedure.

It isn’t just parts of the Public Service that makes complaining difficult. I’ve seen complaints procedures (almost) as complicated in parastatals, banks and retailers. They seem to think that their way of dealing with customer complaints should be as complicated as their organisational structure.

And some organisations can become VERY complicated. Thomas Cook, a UK-based travel agency appointed a new CEO a few years ago, Harriet Green. She reported on a BBC program that when she arrived the organization it had, as a result of taking over 80 other brands, developed 11 levels of management between her as CEO and the people that mattered most, her customers. Her task was to simplify that and that’s one of the reasons that when she left two years later, saying her work there was complete, their share price had increased tenfold.

However, regardless of the complexity of an organization the way they manage complaints should be simple.

That’s why we always recommend the Consumer Watchdog Three Step Consumer Complaints Procedure. Feel free to use this whenever you feel the need to complain.

Step 1. Complain to the person who offended you. It doesn’t matter if it was the teller who short-changed you, the waiter who brought cold food or the bank teller who disappeared when you reached the front of the queue. That person is the person who you should first complain to. If they refuse to accept your complaint or don’t show suitable humility and contrition then you escalate to Step 2.

Step 2. Complain to the most senior person on the premises. That person’s title will be something like “Branch Manager”, “Hospital Manager” or “Restaurant Manager”. Don’t bother with supervisors, administrators or team leaders. Only the most senior person will do. Only if they fail to satisfy you should you go to Step 3.

Step 3. Complain to the most senior person in the entire organization. Their job title will be either “Managing Director” or “Chief Executive Officer”. In special cases you might accept people with titles like “Country Manager” or “Regional Manager” but it absolutely must be someone who has the capacity to frighten the person who originally offended you.

Of course some of you will say that companies have complaints policies and that customers must follow them. I say why? Why should I be forced to follow a procedure that was written for YOUR convenience, not mine? Which one of us puts the food in your table at night? You, who run the business or me, the person who gives you my money? Forget your policies and procedures, I’m the one who pays for things and I am therefore the one who decides who I complain to.

Regardless of the nature of your complaint and the complaints procedure a company asks you to follow there are also various techniques that will help you get the solution you deserve.

Don’t be rude. Despite the temptation (and it can sometimes be almost overwhelming) remain polite. Be assertive and stand up for your rights but remember that rudeness simply doesn’t help. We had a complaint recently from a customer who had a long-running problem with her bank. When we contacted the bank they acknowledged that they’d let the customer down but they wondered why she had to be so consistently rude. Why did she shout at people in the branch when they weren’t the ones who had caused the problem? Why did she think it was necessary to swear at their staff?

The bank told us that they were close to calling the customer in and handing over her balance in cash and showing her the door. And you know what? They would have been right to do so. No commercial organization is required to take your business, they can turn you away in the same way that you can leave and take your money elsewhere. Obviously companies are reluctant to do that because they want as many customers as possible and they want to protect their reputation but they will eventually kick out customers who abuse them.

So be polite when you complain.

You should also make it as easy as possible for the company to fix your problem. Give them a solution. Don’t be demanding but give them some idea of what they can do to make you happy again. If all you really need is an apology then make that clear. If you lost money because of their mistake then tell them how much and how you calculated it. Be realistic.

If you can remain calm, assert yourself and follow our three steps you stand a very good chance of getting exactly the result you deserve.

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