- Service & Complaints Guides
- A Practical Guide to Handling Consumer Complaints
- Best Practices in Handling Customer Complaints
- A Guide for Consumer Complaints Management
- 6 Steps to Achieve Customer Service Excellence
"All executive departments that provide significant services to the public shall provide a means to address complaints and make information, services, and complaint systems easily accessible."
President Bill Clinton
When Americans have a problem with something, they tell someone about it. They talk about companies that have overcharged them, provided poor service or who have rude employees. In fact, research shows that people who have a problem are likely to tell eight to ten people about it. However, fewer than one in twenty people who have a complaint will formally complain to the company itself. Best-in-class companies welcome complaints because complaints are customer feedback which can be used to improve service performance/reduce cost, thus improving the bottom line. They make it easy for customers to complain, even encourage complaints, and then they bend over backwards to set things right and make changes so that future customers do not experience similar problems.
In the past, too many Americans have found a deaf ear when trying to complain about a problem to a government agency. Consider one man's experience when he tried to get a problem solved: "I had written in February . . . and again in June . . . Now it is September. I still have not had a satisfactory response . . . what do I have to do to get someone to listen to me?"
This man--legitimately frustrated by his inability to get someone's ear--would be even angrier if he realized how much "handling" his complaint cost. One study estimates that a written response to a single complaint escalated to the Congressional level may cost the agency and the taxpayer over $1,000 in staff time.
Fortunately, government agencies are beginning to change the way they look at and treat citizens who have problems. Spurred on by Vice President Gore's National Performance Review and its September 1993 report, From Red Tape to Results: Creating a Government That Works Better and Costs Less, government agencies are working hard to make the federal government work better and cost less. Already, the recommendations have resulted in more than $60 billion in savings and elimination of some 200,000 government positions (noted in President Clinton's State of the Union Address, January 23, 1996).
Customer service is an important part of the reinventing government efforts. Directed by President Clinton, government agencies have conducted focus groups and surveys and set customer service standards to respond to customers' needs. Agencies are starting to eliminate unnecessary regulations, cut red tape and address other root causes of citizen complaints. And many agencies are taking steps to improve how they deal with complaints. For example:
- The U.S. Postal Service has established a Consumer Affairs Tracking System that records and reports every customer contact. It uses state-of-the-art imaging and database management technology coupled with highly sophisticated correspondence generation software. This system is comparable to our best-in-business models. U.S. Postal Service also established a Call Management Initiative that will begin later this year to create a single 1-800 number available 24 hours a day. It will provide a centrally-managed consistent interface to all customers seeking information or problem resolution.
- The Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers have two formats for complaint and complimentary data collection. One is ongoing complaint tracking, the other is the annual survey. Patient Representatives throughout Veterans Health Administration have a tracking system for compliments and complaints. This system identifies trends that are occurring by specific problem, by a service, and or by an individual. The complaint codes are correlated with the National Customer Service Standards, which provide ongoing measurement. Alerts are sent to Service Chiefs identifying more serious problems. This allows the Service Chief prompt notification of the problem and provides expeditious resolution. The National Patient Feedback program is also correlated with the National Customer Service Standards. Annually, surveys are sent to outpatients and recently discharged inpatients. These surveys are used to identify trends that are occurring. Medical Centers are responsible for improving the areas where problems exist.
- In 1993, the Comptroller of the Currency established an ombudsman for banks that had problems with the Comptroller's rulings on banking regulations.
Citizens are starting to notice as well and are even writing letters, not to complain, but to compliment the people who work in government:
"I wish to thank you and your department for your expeditious and thorough consideration and solving of my problem. . . .Mr. . . . was able to provide me with the necessary information. In addition, when Mr. . . . received additional information that he thought might be useful, he forwarded it also. Mr. . . . follow up was a surprise and a good example of real interest in my problem. This kind of thoughtfulness and follow up is greatly appreciated."
"I'm still in shock at how fast FEMA responded to my need. I thought FEMA was just a lot of red tape, to make people feel they could get help."
"Human nature, alas, often has us eagerly voice complaints but keep silent when praise is warranted . . . My hunch is I speak for a large number when passing along a deserved WELL DONE for the fantastic job you do--often with limited funds and staff."
Part of the reason for the change is that government agencies are holding themselves to a higher standard. This study represents the efforts of ten government agencies and other interested parties to learn from the best in America's leading companies and find ways to improve their own complaint processes.
Why Tackle Customer Complaints?
Companies find that effectively handling customers with problems is critical to their reputations as well as their bottom lines. When customers complain and they are satisfied with the way their complaint is handled, they are more likely to purchase another product or service from the same company. Companies that resolve complaints on the first contact increase customer satisfaction and product loyalty, improve employee satisfaction, and reduce costs. Companies even encourage complaints. Most dissatisfied customers do not complain. By making it easy for customers to complain, more customers will come to you with their problems, giving you greater opportunity to correct your service delivery or production processes. Customers who get their problems satisfactorily and quickly solved tell their friends and neighbors, and they are not easily won over by the competition.
There is a bottom-line concern for government as well. As noted above, complaints can be costly. Repeated hand-offs increase costs and waste precious resources. When complaints are not promptly resolved, frustrated customers seek redress in different agencies or at different parts or levels of the same agency, resulting in duplicate effort and compounding costs.
Just as costs compound when there is a poor complaint system, trust also erodes as citizens become frustrated with a non-responsive bureaucracy. Indeed, there has been a cumulative erosion of public confidence in government. Thirty years ago, 70 percent of Americans trusted the federal government to do the right thing most of the time. In 1993, only 17 percent of Americans said that they trusted the government.(2) There are many factors contributing to this decline in trust and confidence, particularly the huge volume of regulations that did not make sense to the public and the high cost of government. However, we learned from our benchmarking partners that an effective approach to resolving complaints is invaluable in winning the trust and loyalty of our customers--the public.
There are costs associated with a poor complaint system and there are benefits associated with a good one. Studies have shown that handling customer complaints well can be a critical part of a turnaround strategy. If a complaint is handled well, it sustains and strengthens customer loyalty and the company's image as a leader. It also tells the customer that the company cares and can improve because of their contact. In government agencies, it promotes public confidence in government services.
Customer complaints also represent valuable information about recurrent problems. They can point the way to understanding the root causes of customer problems and help an organization target core processes that need improvement. If acted upon to improve core processes, customer complaints can be a source of information that can reduce costs as well as improve services.
What do the Best-in-Business do?
Federal employees initiated and led this consortium benchmarking study to learn from the best-in-business how to design and implement a world-class complaint and customer response handling system. That's what benchmarking is all about--systematically learning from the best-in-business and using that information to improve one's own performance.
We asked some of America's leading companies to help and they did. They had a lot to offer. The customer service revolution means that, today, most companies strive to exceed the expectations of their customers with problems. The study team got a surprise when it looked for best practices; some best-in-business practices were found in government organizations that have practices that rival the best in the private sector. The team is grateful to each of the businesses and agencies for sharing their experiences.
Each study team member reviewed how their agency currently handles customer complaints and identified key areas where they wanted to learn how the best-in-the business did it. They reviewed written literature, met with experts, and identified benchmarking partners. A team member from each participating agency led one site visit and shared the results with the others; this way the team could benefit from visits to ten companies and agencies at the lowest cost.
The team defined a customer complaint as any indication that the service or product does not meet the customer's expectations. This definition reflects the fact that some companies do not even use the term complaints, they call them problems or opportunities. The team found variation in what companies did, but the best companies used similar approaches to handling complaints. They are:
- Train and empower their front-line employees to resolve most complaints during the first contact.
- Make it easy for customers to complain through the extensive use of centralized customer help-lines, 1-800 numbers, complaint/comment cards at the point of service, and easy-to-use customer appeal processes.
- Enter complaint data in fully automated and integrated information systems, and analyze and use data to identify and fix root causes of dissatisfaction and to determine future directions for product and service improvements. By centrally collecting the data, at the headquarters level, this valuable information can be incorporated into the strategic planning process, assuring future competitiveness.
- Consider complaints as customer feedback and opportunities to improve, alongside other measures of customer satisfaction.
- Use various organizational arrangements, but have important similarities, such as seeking to maximize resolution at first point of contact and dedicating a cross functional team to collect and analyze data and report complaint information to top management.
- Credit their overall success, at least in part, to a pending organizational crisis, normally related to their survival or significant loss of revenue.
Agencies that participated in this complaint resolution study are using its results to make changes in their own complaint handling systems. Indeed, benchmarking that consists only of field trips to world class companies is known as "industrial tourism." For a benchmarking study to be worthwhile, an organization needs to understand the gap between its own performance and best practices and take actions to close that performance gap. Already:
- The Patent and Trademark Office is using the study's findings along with reengineering efforts to design a Patent Assistance Center and redesign an existing Trademark Assistance Center as one-stop sources for Patent and Trademark information.
- The U.S. Postal Service is using what it learned from this study as a guideline to reevaluate its complaint handling function for 1996. U.S. Postal Service is also responding to inquiries and complaints received over the Internet.
- The Department of Interior, in several of its Bureaus has developed and used surveys to get customer feedback. They are incorporating lessons learned from this study in their ongoing Customer Service initiatives, i.e. Customer Service Standards and Customer Satisfaction Measurements.
- The Customs Service conducted a gap analysis, designed recommendations, and prepared an action plan for FY 1996 which includes two goals: (1) training for their Air Passenger Service representatives, and (2) automating an input system to improve the tracking of complaints and compliments.
- The IRS team prepared a FY 1996 action plan to develop cost estimates of processing the Problem Resolution Program (PRP) and Application Taxpayer Assistance Orders (ATAO) cases and to develop a network of Problem Resolution Program coordinators to better address cross-functional issues that cause problems for taxpayers.
The goal, of course, is for government to listen to its customers (1) routinely through surveys and (2) when products or services do not live up to expectations, through an effective complaint handling system. We know that we've only begun, but we're working hard. We expect a number of agencies will use this report to begin reengineering their complaint handling processes.
Other agencies can make use of this benchmarking study as well, by answering the questions about your organization included in How Does Your Organization Measure Up? See Reinventing Complaint Resolution, Appendix 1, for how to use this book to strengthen the complaint system in your organization.
Table of Contents
- Executive Summary
- Leadership Strategies for Satisfying Customers
- Information and Analysis
- Human Resource Development and Management
- Managing Customer Expectations and Satisfaction
- Complaint Process Management
- Business Results
- Appendix I: Reinventing Complaint Resolution
- Entire Guide