Supporting complaint handlers to act fairly

In this blog post Jane Williams discusses some recently published research on how complaint handlers working can be supported to resolve complaints fairly.

As a Senior Lecturer in the Queen Margaret University Business School I do lots of work with complaints handlers working in many sectors – health, local government, central government, ombudsman schemes and in the private sector.  I am always struck by how many skills are needed to deal with complaints well.  You need to be a fabulous communicator, sensitive and empathic, a good investigator as well as having great analytical skills.  You also need to be pretty robust as many of your decisions are going to leave one party unhappy. 

With my colleagues Chris Gill and Gavin McBurnie I recently undertook some research with complaint handlers working in financial services to explore how they interpret the requirement to treat customers fairly.   It was a small case study project and we were interested in finding out how complaint handlers, who also work for the organisation being complained about, approach fairness. 

I think many of our findings are likely to resonate with complaint handlers more generally.

First, while complaint handlers took personal responsibility for decisions on fairness. Their individual constructions of fairness were strongly influenced by the organisational framework and institutional mechanisms around them.  In our case study, this included structural mechanisms such as locating these teams outside the usual structure and giving them the status, space and time to explore what is the fair thing to do, including stepping outside policy where necessary.  Organisational values were also strongly embedded around doing the right thing.

Second, in terms of different constructions to fairness we identified two different approaches by our complaint handlers.  Some took a strong ethical and moral dimension to their complaint handling. Others took a more pragmatic, problem solving approach,  keen to understand what went wrong and provide an explanation and using a ‘family and friends test’ to help them work out what a fair solution would be.  We characterised our complaint handlers as either “philosophers” or “problem solvers” In practice the result was often the same.

Third, our data highlighted the active role teams play in supporting complaint handlers to act fairly.  The complaint handlers repeatedly highlighted the importance of dialogue with their colleagues in terms of developing their thinking and in supporting them to make difficult decisions.  These discussions were facilitated informally within teams and by institutional structures which formalised this process. In this context individual differences in approaches were celebrated.  Team members who were known to take different approaches were actively sought out.  Team conversations became reflective spaces where dialogue was able to take place giving individual complaint handlers the agency to act fairly.

While Covid-19 has changed the way that all of us have worked in the last 18 months, our findings, while exploratory, point to a number of relatively straight forward ways that organisations can support complaint handlers to resolve complaints fairly.  It highlights the value in ensuring that complaints teams embrace diversity and a range of different voices.  Giving complaint handlers a high degree of autonomy and then ensuring that the working environment supports discussion and debate and building time and space for that into the design of complaint processes should also be looked at.

This research has also left us with a number of unanswered questions. For a start, we know very little about who complaint handlers are – their demographics, their experience or the ethical frameworks they use.   In addition while we found that institutional factors, individual complaint handler values and team support and dialogue all influenced fairness decisions the nature of those relationships is not yet clear.    In our case study individual constructions of fairness were strongly influenced by centralised directives on what fairness is.  Is this due to the existence of a high profile ombudsman scheme and an explicit regulatory requirement to treat customers fairly in the financial industry?  Would our findings differ for complaint handlers in the public sector or if the complaint handlers were working for an external ADR body?  We would love to hear from complaint handlers on how you think we should take this forward. 

Jane Williams

Reference

Williams, J., Gill, C., McBurnie, G. 2021. “It’s the most ethical job I have ever had”:  Complaint handling and fair decision making. International Journal of Business Governance and Ethics. DOI: 10.1504/IJBGE.2021.10035729

For a summary of the findings see: 

Williams, J., Gill, C., McBurnie, G. 2020. Complaint handling and fair decision making in the financial industry.  QMU Working paper series. Available from:  https://www.qmu.ac.uk/research-and-knowledge-exchange/working-paper-series/20201/

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