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Public sector complaints: handle with care

Source: Public Sector Executive Jan/Feb 2013

Jo Causon, chief executive of the Institute of Customer Service, outlines the latest research into public sector complaints and explains why it is imperative that customers are handled with care.

The public sector is currently facing huge challenges as the full impact of Government spending cuts hits frontline and support services.

As budgets are squeezed and staff are placed under increasing pressure, the Institute’s latest research into complaints in the UK highlights the particular challenges faced by organisations in the public sector.

Public service organisations deal with large and diverse groups of customers, many of whom rely on essential services, and in some cases don’t have a choice or alternative. At the same time, customers’ expectations of service are continually rising, driven by their experience of competitive, multi-channel offerings in the retail sector.

Cause for complaint

Our Handle with Care report, based on analysis of 26,000 customer responses shows that, across the UK, almost 12% of people have recently experienced a service problem. More than three-quarters (76%) went on to tell the organisation in question about their issue.

The public sector generates an especially high proportion of problems compared to the national average – 17% of customers experienced a problem in the national public sector, and 16% in local public services. Yet at the same time, a lower-than-average proportion of public sector customers (72%) actually go on to complain about their issue.

The reason many people avoid making a complaint to public sector organisations is because they believe it won’t make any difference, or will be too much hassle (25%). In some cases, this may be related to issues of policy, which organisations can’t change. But the reason is significant because customers who don’t complain for the reasons above are much less satisfied than those who don’t like complaining or don’t have time to complain.

When customers were asked about the type of issue they complained about, staff attitude and staff competence emerge as key areas of concern for all sectors.

In local public services 44% of complaints cited staff attitude as an issue; in the national public sector the proportion was 37%, compared to 31% for the UK economy as a whole.

Yet, customers in the public sector were less likely to complain about the quality or reliability of goods and services or the cost of services. Instead, respondents were concerned about organisations not keeping their promises or commitments – 16% of complainants in local public services and 14% in national public sector cited this, compared to 13% overall in the UK.

Although public sector organisations can do little about the absolute reduction of services, our research suggests that there are opportunities to improve the ways in which complaints are handled.

Handling complaints

One of the biggest single factors influencing customer satisfaction with complaint handling is the response customers encounter when they first raise their problem or complaint. Our research shows that 35% of complaints in the UK (across all sectors) are met with a response of ‘seemed uninterested’.

However, where complaints are met with a positive and helpful attitude, customer satisfaction with the handling of the complaint is significantly higher. This suggests that an employee’s response when a complaint is first raised is crucial in setting the tone for the way the customer views the whole experience.

For example, where customers felt an employee ‘listened carefully and wanted to fully understand the problem’ they gave a satisfaction score of 4.4 points (on a scale of 1 – 10) – higher than customers who felt the employee ‘seemed uninterested’.

There are a number of key steps organisations can take to improve customers’ experience of reporting complaints or problems. These include providing a choice of methods to make a complaint; undertaking root cause analysis of what’s causing common complaints, agreeing a timescale for resolution, and following up with customers after the issue has been resolved.

But perhaps the biggest single thing organisations in public services can do to support both their employees and customers, is focus on developing employees’ emotional intelligence skills. This will help them anticipate and deal with problems, and make sure customers feel they are being treated as individuals.

Despite the challenges identified in our research, there is no question that the desire and ambition to implement consistently good service exists in the public sector. Some 20% of the Institute’s membership is made up of public sector organisations. All are members because they believe in the importance of having a customer service strategy and are committed to developing and improving the experience they give to customers.

In this difficult environment, managers must take the lead and ensure that staff feel valued and supported; addressing these issues may even alleviate some of the pressure on employees.

To really change customer opinion and motivate staff, the public sector must embed the notion of world-class customer service into the management structure of its organisations. Customer care must not be seen as an ‘add on’. It requires a personal commitment from the chief executive, and all management, to ensure that all aspects of the organisation’s culture, people, systems, processes and strategies are focused on delivering the best possible customer experience.

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