Complaints Are OK

Continuous improvement is now the cornerstone of high quality services. Human services are designed for clients, so continuous improvement can only occur if you have a broad range of mechanisms for client feedback and participation. The first part of this chapter focused on client participation.  This section focuses on one particular form of participation: effective and constructive complaints mechanisms.

A quality service does not view complaints as a threat to organizational integrity, but sees complaints as an opportunity to learn. Complaints are not just OK, they are a key source of useful information on which to base service improvements. Quality services encourage and support client complaints.

Translating these lofty ideals into practice, however, is not easy. A good complaints mechanism is more than just a client leaflet or poster on the wall. Those working directly with clients as well as the culture and hierarchy of the organization must support client complaints.  Significant time and resources are required to establish an effective complaints policy and procedure and to ensure the system works for your clients. Once established, however, client feedback and complaints are likely to identify those areas of your service clients most appreciate, and those services they do not value.

 

Key Issues To Consider In Your Complaints Mechanism

 

Organisational Support

There needs to be strong commitment to the complaints mechanism and to acting on client complaints across the whole organization. This can be achieved by creating the mechanism with clients and staff, then gaining management approval of a complaints policy and procedure. All clients should be advised regularly of the existence of the complaints mechanism and be encouraged to use it. This support needs to be reinforced by including discussion of the complaints mechanism in the induction of new staff and committee members.

A budget for the complaints mechanism and promotional material is required to ensure there are sufficient resources to handle complaints. Finally, organizational support needs to be visibly demonstrated to clients through the manner and approach of staff, and ensuring that communication methods are appropriate to your clients.

Access and Equity 

The mechanism needs to be easily accessible to your clients, and needs to demonstrate fairness. This usually requires that clients feel they have been listened to, and that they are clear on what will happen once they make a complaint. It also means equity for the person complained about, who will receive information about the complaint and be given an opportunity to respond. There should be no costs to the complainant – rarely will clients pay to complain! Resources may be required for interpreters and other assistance. Your service needs to encourage contact between your clients and external advocates, to ensure they can be independently supported through a complaint.

Responsive and Solution Focused  

Complaints are best dealt with quickly. Advise the client upfront of the time frames involved (eg urgent - within 3 working days, non-urgent - within two weeks). Once the client’s complaint is clear and documented, the process should focus on solutions. This should occur quickly and easily – no delays, or cumbersome procedures – it’s a complaint mechanism, not a law court. Your complaints mechanism needs to enable your organization to determine and implement solutions.

Accountability and Review

You need to publicly report on use of your complaints mechanism (eg in your Annual Report), including the service improvements and changes resulting from complaints. It is important that someone in your organization is assigned to collecting information on complaints so that recurring problems can be identified. You may review the mechanism regularly, especially after a ‘difficult’ complaint that has challenged your policy and procedure.