Every business will face customers who wish to express their dissatisfaction with the services provided. For this reason, it is important to establish an effective complaints process. However, I’ve seen many examples where organisations have made it unnecessarily complex to make a complaint. These processes can be particularly difficult for vulnerable customers to navigate. As a result, the company misses out on valuable insight that could drive positive change.

When we’ve received poor service, we have a right to complain. Now, being at the receiving end of negative feedback may not be desirable, but I believe it is a good thing. That’s because a complaint offers the opportunity to put things right and gather insight.

You can make it easy and accessible for customers to make a complaint, so they do speak up when things aren’t right. Then you can listen, turn things around and learn from the exchange.

Alternatively, your complaints procedure can be difficult to find, complex to action and fully automated, so none of your employees need to be involved. That doesn’t prevent complaints. Instead, it drives customers to publicly share their negative feedback on review platforms, social media or via word of mouth.

In the recent past, I have taken part as a judge at the annual Complaint Handling Awards. From this I know that the best outcomes for both the company and the customers result from:

  • Being open to negative feedback through multiple channels
  • Having conversations with dissatisfied customers to better understand the issue
  • Listening to understand the causes and wider context
  • Accepting responsibility and apologising
  • Asking the customer what will put things right
  • Reporting, evaluating and monitoring feedback to identify trends
  • Using this feedback to inform improvements to the service
  • Thanking customers for raising issues and informing change

The FCA identified that vulnerable customers are more likely to suffer harm as a result of poor service. An issue that might be an inconvenience to some could escalate an already difficult situation for others. Let me give a few examples:

  • A power cut is an inconvenience for most households. However, a person living with a health condition that requires medical equipment might be debilitated by an hour without power.
  • Being overcharged may be a shock to some customers, but for others, it means insufficient funds to pay other bills. This can drive up debt, impact credit scores and cut spending on essentials like heating or food.
  • A delayed response can be frustrating for some. For others, it means that they’ve missed out on an opportunity. That could be a rare chance to escape an abusive relationship.

This increased risk of harm means that companies need to be especially aware of the needs of vulnerable customers. This isn’t an easy undertaking, however, it is easier when companies are open to complaints and the team is equipped in complaints handling.

Do you fully comprehend the risk of harm that poor service or errors could cause your vulnerable customers?

An effective complaints process is accessible. Whether someone completes an online form, calls, emails, speaks to a team member in person or raises an issue with a chatbot, the complaint is noted and responded to.

Clear and simple language and processes are used to encourage open communication.

No complaint is judged as trivial or discarded. If someone has something to say, it is important to listen to understand.

All frontline employees are trained to competently and empathetically handle complaints. However, overall responsibility should be assigned to a team or individual. This ensures that no feedback slips through the net and also provides support if complaints escalate. Training on how to identify and respond to vulnerable customers is an important skill for these individuals.

Complaints are collated, analysed and used to inform business decisions and improvements to customer service.

A complaint doesn’t mean the end of the customer relationship. In fact, it could be the opposite. When people can easily air their views, and when this results in helpful responses, it can increase customer loyalty. Customers do accept that mistakes happen and when you put it right, it builds trust.

Sometimes anger or disappointment is the result of something else. When you take the time and interest to speak to the customer, they acknowledge that the issue was the final straw, rather than the root cause. Simply being heard can help calm the situation and may provide an opportunity to signpost the customer to appropriate support. So, let’s start thinking of complaints in a new light. This is not a negative process, it is an opportunity to build customer relationships, gather insight and inform continuous improvement. Equally, it is an important step in better understanding the needs of vulnerable customers.

About the author.

Helen Pettifer FRSA.

Helen Pettifer is Director of Helen Pettifer Training Ltd and a specialist in the fair treatment of vulnerable customers.

She has a background in call centre management and is committed to customer service excellence. Her training ensures front-line staff gain the awareness and resources to confidently identify and respond to signs of vulnerability.

Helen Pettifer is a British Standards Institution (BSI) associate consultant for BS 22458: 2022 Consumer Vulnerability, a Mental Health First Aider, a Suicide First Aider, a Dementia Friend, and a Friends Against Scams Champion. Recognised as a changemaker, she was invited to become a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 2022.

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