Magazine article Public Management

Complaint-Free Customer Service

Magazine article Public Management

Complaint-Free Customer Service

Article excerpt

At a recent strategic planning workshop for department heads and division directors in Orange County, Florida, one of the participants suggested that a worthwhile goal would be for everyone to reduce the number of complaints they received. While this at first sounded like a good idea, on further reflection it was clear that this could be a counterproductive measure. After all, there are many ways to reduce complaints: eliminating complaint/suggestion boxes, changing phone numbers or mailing addresses, or just throwing away complaint letters before they are logged in. But of course, what we really wanted to reduce were not the actual acts of complaining but the negative events that were producing the complaints.

Complaints Are Valuable

Complaints are an essential aspect of successful customer service. They are important indicators of unsuccessful service and essential sources of feedback from customers. Complaints simply mean that the customers' expectations have not been met. More important, they almost always mean that customers want to continue to do business with you, that they have not given up on you, and that they are willing to give you a chance to fix things, to put them right. Your customers know you were wrong. What they do not know is what you are going to do about it.

Psychology of Complaints

As a general rule, nobody likes to receive a complaint. Appreciation for complaints is almost always a learned trait. People are quick to accept praise and to take credit for successes, even when they have made only a minor or even imagined contribution to the outcome. In contrast, failure is an orphan for which few are willing to accept responsibility.

The first step in learning to live with complaints is developing the ability to separate the complaint from the feeling of being blamed. A religious fundamentalist would describe this ability as that of loving the sinner while condemning the sin. Complaints are an important kind of feedback, and your emotions cannot be allowed to get in the way of the information you need in order to provide effective service.

Obstacles to Overcome

A good rule of thumb is that only about 4 percent of people who receive poor service even bother to complain. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that for every complaint you receive, 25 other people received similarly poor service but did not bother to complain. While this is only an approximation, the percentage of people who receive poor service from government and who do not complain must be much higher, if anything, than it is for private sector businesses.

There are many reasons why people do not bother to complain about poor government service. Many believe that complaining would be a waste of time because of apathetic bureaucrats, while others know "you can't fight city hall." Some organizations exhibit a subtle but nonetheless complaint-hostile environment, and their customers pick up on it. Such environments are characterized by the absence of complaint boxes, customer satisfaction evaluation forms, name tags on employees or nameplates on their desks, business cards, or information on the name or phone number of the manager who has general supervisory responsibility for the staff. Someone who manages to penetrate these complaint barriers may encounter only defensive supervisors who are more interested in grilling and discrediting the complainer than they are in getting all the facts.

Unfortunately, there is an even more ominous factor that reduces the number of complaints. To the surprise of many public servants, the number-one reason why more people do not complain when they receive poor service from the government is the fear of reprisals. At the national level, a 1995 CNN/USA Today poll found that "39 percent believe that government has become so large and powerful that it poses an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens." A good illustration of this factor at the local government level is the reluctance of some building contractors to complain about inspectors because of the fear that these inspectors and their cohorts will retaliate with extra scrutiny. …

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