No complaints – successful or suspicious?

October 12th, 2017

I recently read a case study for a project up in Queensland which equated no complaints with success. It made me sigh internally, thinking that as a mature public participation industry we should surely be past that level of naivety in evaluation measures for complaint management within stakeholder engagement. (For a good framework of evaluation measures do check out our ebook on evaluating community engagement.)

A recent experience of trying to lodge a complaint also caused me to reflect on how organisations manage complaints and grievances, and how they measure success. I have a relatively new but faulty product from a company and have been trying to get it fixed or replaced. All their responses to me have been via a text message from a no-reply phone number (claiming they could not reach me on the phone – untrue), or a no-reply email address telling me that my case is closed since they couldn’t reach me. It took a lot of effort to hunt down a phone number and eventually speak to a person. Apparently my call needed to be escalated to a manager who they assured me would call me back within 24-48 hours. This was last week and no call back as yet. What does this achieve for the company? The problem hasn’t gone away just because they’re not hearing it, and it has escalated the level of frustration which is only going to make it harder for them to resolve this when they do eventually face up to it.

Stop hiding complaints

Over the last twenty or so years of training people in stakeholder engagement, I have encountered many ‘creative’ ways in which organisations try to hide the number of complaints they record. The most “interesting” one revolved around how a complaint was defined. The first two calls from a stakeholder had to be recorded as an equiry only, no matter what the issue was. If the stakeholder called for the third time and said the exact same thing, via the exact same channel (phone or email), only then would it be recorded as a complaint. I asked if this process was ever made transparent to the stakeholders. I don’t need to tell you the answer to that!

I have described this example to many other organisations, only to be sheepishly told that they have something similar in place too.

Successful grievance management must look beyond the number of complaints received

If organisations only look at the number of complaints, and judge their process or team on that number alone, the behaviour it encourages is for staff to find ways to hide the number of complaints. It may make management feel good about the low number of complaints, but meanwhile out there in the real world the frustration and anger has not gone away, it just keeps growing.

Too many alliance contracts, public-private partnership type of contracts for infrastructure projects in particular still link the number of complaints to the risk-reward calculation for the contractors. Is it wilful ignorance or just laziness?

The long term impact of ignoring or avoiding complaints is far more serious when you think about the impact on your reputation, the  trust you have eroded with your stakeholders, and the difficulty the next team who need to work with these stakeholders faces.

So much of community engagement work involves repairing the damage left by the last process or project.

More useful evaluation measures for complaint and grievance management

I usually encourage our clients to change the focus of their KPIs away from the number of complaints to process and outcome related measures. It takes a bit of convincing on my part, and bravery on their part, as we are so pre-programmed to think that a complaint is a bad thing. The reality is that the majority of projects, policies, programs have negative consequences for some stakeholders. The challenge lies in how we manage those grievances. Instead of just looking at the number of grievances.

It would be far more useful to look at:

  • How quickly did the team respond to the complaint?
  • How did the stakeholder rate the handling of their complaint (the process)?
  • How did the stakeholder rate their satisfaction with outcome of the grievance process (the outcome)?
  • Was the grievance management process adequate for the level and severity of the grievance? Are there appropriate checks and balances built into the process?
  • Is the process monitored and audited at a regular basis?

You will notice that all of these are factors we can measure and control and they are a truer indicator of team performance. If you genuinely want to motivate better behaviours within your team,  you need to give them measures that are within their control. They cannot stop the drilling of a tunnel under people’s houses and the ensuing complaints for example, but they can manage the process to minimise impact and address issues when they arise.

If you genuinely want to build long term relationships with your stakeholders, you need to stop hiding from their complaints. 

Have a look at our latest ebook on Grievance Management for some additional tips on best practice approaches.