Anyone can handle a complaint, they say. It's not that difficult they say...uh oh! Pass me my soapbox...

Whenever I hear anyone say this – and believe me they do – it sends a shiver down my spine – and not in a good way. In fact, it makes my blood boil, because as it happens, I believe it takes a rather special set of skills to be a good complaints handler. It’s a professional role – and yet across the many industries I have worked with, I still see struggles in viewing it in that way. 

I’ve worked in complaints now for over 25 years. And (wait for it) I love it. Not in a get-all-soppy-about-it-every-complaint-is-a-gift sort of way. Do me a favour! That kind of thing – and I have seen a lot of people at a lot of conferences talk that way about complaints – makes me roll my eyes.

Between you and me, what I really want to say is that when I hear that kind of thing being said it makes me want to vomit. While thinking about trying not to vomit (or wondering whether I should mention the word vomit again in this blog – too late, I did it) it also makes me wonder whether these people have ever dealt with a customer screaming in their face/down the phone at any point in their life.

Granted, when I sat in front of my school’s careers adviser all those years ago, I didn’t beg to become a complaints handler. Instead, I sort of fell into it (as many people do). With my hopes dashed of being an air hostess – I’m vertically challenged and back then there was a minimum height requirement that I wouldn’t have met even with my highest of heels. I decided a bank would be a solid place to start.

So, cue a few years under my belt at the bank and I decide that it is time for a change. Back then the kinds of people who ended up in complaints teams tended to be a rag-tag mixture of people. Hardly anyone went there by choice if you get my drift. But I did. What on earth made me do that?

Without wishing to sound as vomiting-inducing as the people I’ve just slated, I love the challenge of getting to the bottom of what’s really going on, solving the problem and making a difference. And most importantly talking to people on a level. As me. To them. As them. I’ve always been interested in how we as human beings react when various things hit the fan. As it turns out we act and react in many ways.

So, what’s my point? Complaint handling isn’t easy. People can be difficult, people can be rude. It can be stressful. You can use up all your best lines and pull every skill you’ve picked up over years of complaint handling – and you still fall flat on your face with a customer. And then you must pick yourself up and dust yourself off for the next one, giving your all to make that difference.

I believe the advent of mass complaints and automated decision-making tools created this myth that anyone can handle complaints. I have my doubts, but perhaps they can. For me, (and I know Sarah feels this too),  keeping it human and on a level, means that not everyone has the skills and talent to handle them well, leaving both sides in a position to rebuild a relationship.

You need to be a particular kind of person to be good at handling complaints. And this means, yep, not everyone can do it. There. I said it. But sadly, I still meet too many people working in complaints teams who don’t really want to be there. It’s not a natural environment for them and it shows. They struggle. They are unhappy. They feel misplaced, and their confidence suffers as a result. It’s a horrible thing to see and it doesn’t work for anyone – for them, the customer or the business.

Good complaint handling is an art. It requires the right people. It requires the right mindset. It requires people who like people. People who can talk to people their way. People who can problem solve and understand the bigger picture. People who like what they do. And in return those people need to be invested in, supported and given a clear career pathway.

And wouldn’t be amazing if in years to come people (and the industry) saw complaints handling as the profession it is.

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