5 ways to increase the effectiveness of your complaints process

So you’ve got a complaints process but how effective is it?

Is receiving no complaints the best you can hope for as a sign of effectiveness? Or is it the complaint outcome that matters most – ie that you were right or wrong?

Here’s 5 things that we think are important to a good complaints process:

  1. Your policy
  2. Your culture
  3. Accessibility
  4. Your process of escalation, and
  5. Your resolution approach.

1. Good policy

Staff need to understand the process and rationale for your complaints process.  That’s where your policy comes in. It should cover the legal and regulatory imperatives, your commitment to client/customer responsiveness and participation and to organisational learning and improvement. The insertion of some principles like equality, timeliness and fairness will also help staff navigate the process for themselves and with clients/customers.

2. Welcoming and receptive culture

Most of us struggle with criticism and complaints can feel like criticism. So it’s understandable if we feel negative about complaints. But taking a negative approach is deeply problematic.

Negativity can lead to behaviours that stop or prevent people from giving feedback and risks poor quality client service.  It can mean that we don’t promote the process, we might respond defensively to feedback and we could minimise and avoid concerns rather than addressing them.

A tendency towards or risk of negativity should therefore be offset in a workplace by strategies such as these:

  • adopt a broad focus – invite both positive and negative feedback and make it easy for people to give feedback.  Feedback can be as simple for a client as answering a question every now and then about how they’re finding the service and if they would like to see any changes made to improve their experience.  Keep a record, consider the feedback with the client and/or others and respond to it;
  • take a learning and improvement ethos in the organisation where mistakes and complaints, as much as feedback, are regarded and treated as opportunities to learn and improve;
  • share and celebrate feedback and use it to assist team collaboration and planning;
  • ensure that staff understand they have rights in the complaints process and that they will be treated fairly and be able to access support if they are involved personally in the process.

3. Easy access and use

How many times, have you gone to make a complaint or raise a concern with an agency to find that there’s no real mechanism for complaining despite claims they have a process.

This might mean you don’t get complaints. But it’s also disastrous in terms of being able to provide a good service as you don’t end up knowing where you’re customers are feeling let down by your service. Some key lessons then:

  • Lesson 1 – if you’ve got a complaints process, make sure your clients/customers can easily find it and use it. Yes, it’s important to have a complaints process, it’s also important to have multiple channels for clients and customers to give feedback.
  • Lesson 2 – make sure your staff understand the process and can help people with it. It should be part of staff induction and regular staff training.
  • Lesson 3 – anticipate and address potential barriers to clients making complaints by making sure that information about the feedback and complaints process is appropriate to your client group (eg age and developmentally appropriate; different languages); there is access to external advocates and there are multiple ways for giving feedback and complaints.

4. Appropriate escalation

A complaints process needs to recognise that people like to deal with conflict and concerns in different ways. Most prefer early and quick resolution.

Promoting and providing a pathway for the early raising and resolution of concerns is important. Remind and encourage clients/customers to share their concerns directly with staff and offer support if needed. This can be a part of the complaints process or separated out from a more formal “complaints” process.

At the other end of the process, provision should also be made for a right of internal and/or external review if a party to the complaint is not happy with the complaint outcome or the process.

5. Systemic approach

Problems rarely arise in a vacuum. They are likely to be systemic and to reflect context.  Even if there seems to be an immediate and obvious cause and answer to a complaint there will often be more to it. Certainly, it’s worth thinking about.

Consider how wider systems, organisational norms, work schedules etc may have contributed to the behaviour or attitude that is being complained about and what can be done to address the deficiency(ies). This, plus addressing the more immediate cause, will help prevent recurrence of the matter in the long term.


So going back to start – how do you know if your complaints process is effective?  Not receiving complaints is not a reliable indicator. It may indicate top-notch service but if you’re not getting any feedback or complaints then it may well signal the need for more opportunities for client/customers to participate and provide feedback.

Complaint outcome or, who won or lost, is also unreliable. The value and benefits of good feedback and complaints processes are to help an organisation learn and improve and be responsive and relevant to clients/customers.

When assessing effectiveness, think instead about access, use and participation in the process, client/customer feedback on their experience of the process and cost/benefits of resourcing the process against the short and long term benefits of learning and improvement.