Sarah's done with talking, because it's time to pull on our collective big pants and deal with what's coming

We’ve both been saying it for a while now, but we’ve been nervously looking at the horizon watching everything coming together for the perfect storm, or shit show as I like to say. While we don’t for one minute claim to have been the first to be saying it, the voices joining us in this warning are growing louder, which tells you all you need to know…it’s time for us all to put on our collective, big pants, roll up our sleeves and get prepared for what is going to be a bumpy few months, possibly years in complaints handling.

That means enough talk, enough gazing into the middle-distance feeling a bit overwhelmed…it’s time to start taking action. And that’s what this blog post is all about, because I think it pays to gauge what’s coming, grasp the importance of doing something now, and start to take some action to make things better for your business, your customers and your staff.

So what’s coming and when?

The problem is we don’t actually know the numbers, the areas of the industry that are going to be impacted for sure, or even the exact time and date that the increase in complaints numbers will happen. But, what we can say with 100% certainty is that everyone is going to be feeling the impact of the bigger picture. And it isn’t pretty.

  • Furlough is coming to an end. For many this was a critical life-line during lockdown, but unfortunately, it now seems to precede a lot of redundancies
  • The guidelines that the FCA put in place telling businesses what support should be offered to customers, are due to end on 31 October (at time of writing)
  • Brexit deadlines loom large on, you’ve guessed it 31 October
  • Small businesses are struggling and many of them have taken out loans through the Coronavirus schemes that the government put in place. A high proportion of this lending will prove to be unaffordable in the short, medium and long term
  • Some insurances have proven to be next to useless for people that have taken them out to help with this situation
  • Banks have started charging on their overdrafts again

And just one last little touch paper of knowledge to light before I back away – customer service complaints have consistently been high since COVID. What does this last little nugget mean? Heightened emotions, increasing vulnerability and people facing problems they’ve never faced before (‘new vulnerability’). This all means not only are you going to see complaints about products, a lack of support and perceptions about your business, you’re also going to see increased issues around how your staff have conducted themselves. 

I could go on, but let’s face it, I think I’ve painted a grim enough picture for us all and we can all now gauge the impact of what’s coming.

Why prepare now though?

Why not? Moving on to the next bit…

No, you’re absolutely right, to question this, because I’ve already said that we don’t know when the complaints numbers are going to increase. But, has there ever been a time when someone has criticised you for being too prepared in complaints..?

For us, when we work with businesses, we always say it pays to be prepared. If you’re having a quiet time with complaints (yes it can happen), then it’s time to offer staff training to help them in the busy times and look at your processes. If you’re having a busy time, then it’s about making sure you’re monitoring to see where the weak points are, support your staff and making sure you have a list of things to be worked on when things calm down.

What can I do then?

And so, now I’ve totally scared the pants off you, never mind you thinking about pulling them on, it’s time to take action.

It’s not even that the start needs to be big and dramatic. In fact, I’d suggest that having had to deal with COVID already your staff are bound to be a bit fatigued by this experience, and so too are your customers. And so these three tips are focused on the three easy wins you can achieve just by asking the right questions of the right people.

  • What are your frontline staff seeing?

I’ve worked for many (many…), years on the front line, and I can tell you from bitter experience that there is nothing more demoralising than seeing the same issue time and time again. It doesn’t matter if it’s a simple issue to resolve, it gets really boring, hearing the same issues and coming up with the same fix. And, again speaking from experience, bored staff, don’t offer a good quality of service.

Let’s face it, that issue that keeps getting raised by customers, that staff keep having to address, will only increase once complaint numbers increase in the months ahead. So, it’s well worth taking the time to ask your staff what are they seeing time and time again? What are those queries that they are constantly having to field that lead to an increase in customer dissatisfaction? On a scale of 1 to 10, how fed-up are they with seeing this nonsense?

Not only do you have valuable information, you also have a ready made scale of priority. Not only does it mean they are happy to know you’re doing something about it, it shows you’re listening and prepared to do something about their concerns.

Because, putting it bluntly you’re going to need their support in the months ahead.

  • What do your customers need to know?

Nothing is more frustrating to a customer than not knowing. Whether it’s not knowing why your phone lines are still only available for reduced hours some six months after lockdown, or why it is that they’re having to wait so long for a response to their emailed query…it really doesn’t matter what ‘it’ is, it’ll guarantee an increased amount of contact from a customer that is unsure and needing reassurance or answers.

Putting this into context, increased contact puts more pressure on your processes – more calls, means longer waiting times and more staff, struggling to keep on top of things. It also increases the likelihood of staff becoming frayed around the edges and less able to provide a good standard of service consistently. That then increases the chances of that interaction resulting in dissatisfaction.

There is no better way to counteract this than communication. If you’re seeing a pattern in enquiries, then provide a FAQ about this subject on your website, or put something out on your phone line, in the introduction, or something in your mailing to your customers to show that you have a finger on the pulse.    

Do this and not only does it support your customers, but it means that your staff aren’t fielding repeated enquiries about the same thing time and time again.

  • What are the quick and easy fixes you can make to your complaints process?

And lastly, what are those niggles and irritations in your complaints process that you know staff and customers hate? Is it that they have to work around some quirk in your system in order to do something simple? Or is it that they are being asked to do something counter-intuitive in your process that they have found a workaround for?

Between us, we have experience of senior leadership and working on the front line. And so we know what it means when it comes to asking the right questions of a process.

As leaders, when we start to review parts of a complaints process, in terms of what works and doesn’t, we have a very high level idea of what’s going on. But, ask anyone on the front line staff, who actually has to work with the processes and you’ll be given some incredible insight into what’s working, what the issues are and why they’ve had to have workarounds.

Yes, it might well be that you’re met with some colourful descriptions of the process that’s in place, or the tools they have to work with, but if you can spot the nuggets of real information – it’s absolute gold!

It also shows to those on the front line that you’re prepared to listen, take on board what they’re saying and work to improve it for them. Which means you have an engaged workforce, willing to graft for you when the storm hits.

There you have it – and it’s no coincidence that I’ve focused on staff, customers and process. They are the key things that have to work now, and in the future when numbers increase. Any part of this interplay between these three aspects conks out and you’ll have a huge problem.

It can be easy to dismiss these things in quiet times or when we have so much going on already, but really the message to take away from this blog, is that it’s the little bits of accumulated problems that cause an increase in work for those having to deal with complaints. Really and truly, it all comes down to reducing the likelihood of a customer needing to contact you, supporting your staff by reducing that contact and supporting them as they have to work harder to deal with more complaints.

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