Why we need research to address the problems associated with dealing with complaints

Whether you are a private sector business or a public sector organisation, complaints happen! It may be a mistake, an accident or an error on the part of the organisation or the consumer, but it is the way that the organisation deals with the compliant that is key.

Organisations have often adopted a defensive approach when dealing with complaints but our research focuses on changing the culture from one of defensiveness and avoidance to one of valuing consumer complaints as drivers for service improvement.

The driving principle is that learning organisations can gain valuable insights from complaints. If organisations learn to view customer complains as an opportunity to make improvements and deal with them in a more positive manner, they can be used to improve service delivery, customer experience and satisfaction, organisational reputation and the general health of the organisation.

Queen Margaret University research on this subject has been developed by a multi-disciplinary team (business academics, consumer experts, dispute resolution experts etc) and pinpoints ways to improve the experience for all parties affected by complaints including:

  • the consumers who make complaints;
  • the complaint handlers who deal with complaints;
  • the employees who have been complained about; and
  • the organisations involved.

We have done this in a variety of ways. Our dispute design research identified how Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) schemes have developed in an ad hoc and piecemeal fashion that is confusing to consumers.

In response, we developed an innovative dispute design model which emphasised the need to identify clear objectives when designing dispute systems and how choices over system and process design can help learning and deliver systemic change as well as deliver better customer experiences.

Our research also highlights the importance of consumer voice in the context of learning from complaints. Our research based on over one hundred case studies from across the UK public sector commissioned by NESTA, concluded that effective systems and processes for consumer voice enables complainants to identify problems and gaps between expectations and delivery. Insights from these complaints can then be used to drive innovation and service transformation.

We also conducted research on the on the importance of participation in complaint handling processes. This research shows that consumer participation in complaints processes used by consumer ADR schemes is essential highlighting the distinction between genuine and tokenistic participation.

We also collaborated with colleagues in Australia highlighting how complaint processes need to be designed to take into account the needs of vulnerable consumers highlighting how complaint systems that meet the needs of vulnerable consumers can improve complaint handling for all.

Finally, research lead, Jane Williams, is a collaborator on research with the University of Glasgow on a project which looks at the impact on public service employees of being complained about. This work addresses another gap in research literature available on this subject. This research demonstrates that complaints can have a significant effect on wellbeing and work practices and reduces the potential for organisations to learn from complaints.

(1) We improved the complaint handling skills of complaint handlers - we have achieved this by developing qualifications based on the good practice identified in our research findings.

(2) 768 complaint investigators and managers from 120 organisations have undertaken our research informed qualifications. This includes 38 English local authorities, 13 UK Government departments and 23 alternative dispute resolution (ADR) and ombudsman bodies.

(3) Our research has impacted on the complaints policies of private and public sector organisations to create a culture of welcoming complaints for the learning. Changes introduced have included improved their complaints handling practice in a variety of ways including improving the speed by which complaints are dealt with , removing extra layers of bureaucracy, sharing learning from complaints and improving customer feedback mechanisms.

(4) Our research has also ensured that public sector employees who have been complained about are also supported when complaints are received. We collaborated on research with the University of Glasgow on the impact of being complained about on public service employees. This research demonstrates that complaints can have a significant effect on wellbeing and work practices and reduces the potential for organisations to learn from complaints. This research has been developed into best practice guidelines and contributed to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) updating their Model Complaint Handling Procedure. A number of organisations have also amended their policies to ensure that employees are also supported when complained about to help change the culture around defensiveness and avoidance.

(5) In recognition of our teams expertise and the practical relevance of our research on complaint handling practice over the same time period we were commissioned for six research projects from BACS payments Ltd, Citizens Advice, Legal Ombudsman, Office of Road and Rail Ombudsman Services and Water UK. We were also commissioned to carry out independent reviews of three consumer redress schemes in New Zealand and Australia.

· Jane Williams, Senior Lecturer, Queen Margaret Business School

The following academics also played a key role but are no longer employed by QMU although they continue to work closely with us.

· Carol Brennan, Reader, QMU (retired)

· Chris Gill, Senior Lecturer (now at University of Glasgow)

· Carolyn Hirst, Lecturer (Honorary Research Fellow)

· Gavin McBurnie, Lecturer (Honorary Research Fellow)

Research and Knowledge Exchange Development Unit

Show Contacts

Research and Knowledge Exchange Development Unit

Kim Stuart Head of Research and Knowledge Exchange Development Unit 0131 474 0000
RKE - Vivian Rutherford Research and Knowledge Exchange Officer 0131 474 0000