When feedback is easier, services are better

14 Mar 16

Providers who make complaining easy will gain valuable insight from users and are better able to identify weak areas and put matters right

Complaints are an important source of feedback for service providers in both the public and private sectors. Both those made formally and those coming from more informal routes, such as social media, can reveal pressure points on services and underlying problems, as well as people’s preferences and needs.

Last year, Citizens Advice helped people make over 13,000 complaints about public services. These covered issues such as being chased by HMRC for debt caused by an overpayment or requesting an investigation into a family member’s fall in hospital. However, many people do not seek help or report their complaint at all.

Citizens Advice research has found that in the past two years almost 20 million people had a poor experience of a public service but just under five million registered a formal complaint. This suggests that as many as 15 million people did not make a complaint after receiving poor service.

For all providers of public services, this should be a cause for concern. When people do not complain, not only does the service provider lose the chance to make amends but also they lose the insight from that case that might prevent the problem from happening again.

A common reason for not making a complaint is a belief it will not change anything. People also fear being treated differently if they complain or think the process is too complicated.

Making a formal complaint should be straightforward and transparent. Offering a simple, easy to find web page for complaining, with an email follow-up that makes the next steps clear, can make the process less daunting and ease some people’s concerns that their complaint could be ignored or change how they are treated.

Providers can use consumer-friendly technology to make it easier for people to report problems. Some local authorities use apps such as FixMyStreet on their websites which make it easy for people to flag up problems like fly-tipping or potholes. Others use Twitter to respond to queries and informal complaints. Being clear when staff will be able to respond to tweets can help manage people’s expectations about when they will receive a response and reassure those who might otherwise worry their issue will not be acknowledged.

Complaints or queries raised through social media can also indicate where problems are. An analysis of 34,000 tweets made to HMRC revealed people were struggling to get through to the phoneline in the first two weeks of each month. This suggests staffing should be increased then to help manage call volumes.

Not everyone feels confident raising complaints without help or finds the internet a suitable channel. As the thousands of people seeking our help show, people may want to speak to someone about the options they have before deciding whether to make a formal complaint.

A one stop shop that acts as a triage for ombudsman services could advise people on making a complaint while guiding them through the system. This could prevent people being passed from pillar to post by different ombudsmen and regulators because they have not followed the right process. It would also create a single source of valuable data on where things have gone wrong in public services and how they could be improved.

Data captured from both formal and informal channels can paint an otherwise unseen picture of where work needs to be done to meet the needs of public service users. By encouraging more people to give their feedback and share their experiences, whether online or face to face, providers give themselves more opportunities to learn from mistakes.

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