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The outliers of complaint management

The field of complaint management is often portrayed as difficult, time-consuming and not for the faint of heart. Experts in complaint resolution, however, realise that the complaints process is a natural component of customer engagement and – when viewed strategically – is best approached as an opportunity to recruit a champion of your product or service. After all, the passion and emotions required in lodging a complaint are equally as potent when applied to extolling your company’s virtues.

The majority of unsatisfied customers vote “with their feet,” as the saying goes; that is, they simply opt to do business with your competitors. Deciding to lodge a complaint is a conscious decision that, typically, is done when the customer experience significantly differs from expectations. As long as there is an engaging, fair and reasonable resolution process in place, then most complainants will usually be satisfied to some extent – if it’s done well, then your organisation may be welcomed back into their good graces.

You may notice that, in the paragraph above, we mentioned a number of qualifiers: “majority,” “typically,” “most” and “usually.” This is an acknowledgement of the outliers in the world of complaint management: persistent and, in some cases, vexatious complaints. These types of complaints are not common, but they are capable of occupying a good portion of your resources as well as potentially wreaking legal havoc.

In today’s blog article we will explore the perils of persistent complaints, how they can evolve into vexatious complaints and look at potential resolutions / best practices.

The persistent complaint

A persistent complaint often features some, or all, of the following features:

  • Raising the same complaint, or similar complaints, multiple times. The definition of “multiple” often differs, but a minimum of three times is a starting point;
  • Seeking the same resolution regardless of historical context (e.g., original complaint is still being processed, original complaint was already settled, etc.); and
  • The complaint itself may or may not be reasonable, but the actions taken to repeatedly pursue the complaint are unreasonable (e.g., contacting using various methods, refusing to cooperate with the resolution process, re-submitting minor variations of the original complaint and branding them as new complaints, etc.).

Step One: Focus on Process and Analysis

Ideally, the complaint resolution process should be an engaging partnership between the company and the dissatisfied customer. This means listening to the customer, apologising without blame, becoming a partner with the customer in solving the problem and then finding a solution without needlessly shifting the complaint up the chain of command. These best practices go a long way to defusing situations that can quickly get out of control.

It is also important to step back and look at the big picture:

  • Is the complaint isolated or is it a recurring issue with other customers?
  • Does the complaint have merit? Do not dismiss a persistent complaint simply because the customer is not following your own internal processes.
  • Does your profiling indicate that this is how the particular customer usually interacts with your organisation? Discern between a customer who contacts you repeatedly (but is eventually satisfied) vs. a customer who is bordering on vexatious.

The true persistent complaint, however, is one in which these methodologies do not work. Often a solution is presented and the customer will – illogically—continue to complain simply for the sake of complaining. This often crosses the line into a vexatious complaint whereby the customer tries to inflict harm on your organisation. In these cases, the complaint itself becomes somewhat moot, as the customer’s focus shifts to needlessly using up your resources to fix an unresolvable problem.

Step Two: Resolving the Unresolvable

The vital first step should always be to ensure that your processes are well-grounded in terms of complying with the law. Ensure that your resolution process champions transparency at every step: all affected parties should be aware of what’s going on. This means informing your customer of all decisions as they pertain to your resolution workflow.

Ideally your Complaint Team is using a robust software solution that automatically captures & saves all actions and communications. This valuable data will be required if the situation degenerates into a legal challenge. If you have not yet formalised comprehensive Policies & Procedures for Persistent and/or Vexatious Customers, then it would be wise to do so without delay.

In these situations, a different mindset is required. A customer who becomes vexatious is no longer interested in finding a resolution nor are they going to suddenly change their mind and support your cause. A vexatious customer, as unfortunate as it is, seeks to inflict harm on your support infrastructure by persistently consuming your resources. The result is lost man-hours, which equates to an impact on your bottom-line.

While your organisation cannot control the frequency of vexatious complaints, you can control how you deal with them. A powerful defence in your arsenal is to control the flow of information so that vexatious customers cannot deplete your resources.

To maintain fairness, steps to control communication should be taken in progression of severity, from minimal action to more serious measures. Some potential ideas include:

  • Limiting communication to one form (e.g., mailed letters);
  • Placing restrictions on the amount of time that your Complaint Team is allowed to spend investigating the vexatious customer’s complaints;
  • Narrow the focus by assigning one member of your Complaint Team to the customer – all communications should be routed directly to the designated team member; and
  • Banning usage/sale of your services/products to the customer, if applicable.

If the reduced communication does not stop the customer, then all communication should eventually be stopped. The customer should be formally informed of this decision, preferably by your legal team.

At this stage, if communication attempts continue, then the vexatious customer has likely transitioned into a state of harassment, which can then be addressed via legal channels. Ideally this will be averted, as relying on solicitors to resolve customer issues would undoubtedly lead to increased costs with little monetary benefit.

An ounce of prevention…

While often applied to healthcare, the Benjamin Franklin quote, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is quite applicable to any industry (Franklin was, in fact, discussing fire safety). In the world of Complaint Management, persistent complaints are a reality of the customer engagement process and are often stopped in their tracks early on… provided that your organisation is adequately prepared.

Key methods to address issues before they become problems include:

  • Resolution Process Workflow: Your resolution process workflow should be well-defined and effectively communicated to all members of your Complaint Team. Training sessions for all employees, regardless of their seniority, should be actively pursued;
  • Policies & Procedures: Procedural documentation should not be relegated to forgotten hard-drive folders or gathering dust in a file cabinet. They should be organic documents that change as your company grows. More importantly, they should be proactively implemented and supported across your enterprise. A strong policy & procedure document explains what to do in difficult situations and has the capability to protect your organisation from those who would inflict harm;
  • Early Identification: Use historical data profiling to learn about your customers and how they communicate with you. This information is extremely helpful to your Complaint Team who, in a pinch, need to quickly tell the difference between a repeatedly chatty customer and one who is persistently draining your employees’ time & energy; and
  • Understanding the Big Picture: When a complaint is continually presented to your Complaint Team, your organisation needs to have the capability to quickly determine its merit and validity.

There is often a fine line between a valid complaint – albeit presented abnormally – and an unreasonable complaint. If too many resources are dedicated to solving meritless complaints, then time and money are both wasted. Conversely, if a valid complaint is summarily dismissed because its presentation wasn’t in accordance with your regulations, then you have lost valuable feedback and potentially alienated a loyal customer. Constant training, guided by those with experience, can help your Complaint Team to more effectively distinguish between these two scenarios.

With over 25 years of industry experience, iCasework is uniquely positioned to empower your organisation to effectively implement a comprehensive complaint management system. Our flagship product, UsefulFeedback.com, has enabled dozens of clients to align customised complaint management features with specific business requirements.
Interested in how UsefulFeedback.com can help your organisation reach its service goals while driving customer engagement across your enterprise? Give us a call at +44 (0) 207-624-4991 or visit us online at UsefulFeedback.com to book a demo.

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