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Why is handling complaints so difficult?

So RBS and Nat West have been fined £2.8 million for mishandling customer complaints. This may not come as a surprise to any of the customers who complained but does prompt the obvious question – why is it so hard to get this right? 

The FSA publishes very clear rules about how complaints should be handled, how quickly they should be acknowledged, answered and resolved, what correspondence is required and what options customers should be given. If these rules are freely available in the public domain, why have they not been followed? Especially by a banking group that advertises actively a customer charter called “Helpful Banking” that explicitly says “We will resolve customer complaints fairly, consistently, and promptly”? 

There are probably several reasons. Complaints are unexpected and can come into the bank through every channel. That means across the branch counter, by email, by telephone, via the website and even in a casual conversation. Complaints will often be duplicated. If acknowledgement and satisfaction is not rapidly obtained through one channel, then a second request is understandably made through another causing duplication and confusion. 

A first requirement for effective and efficient handling therefore is to have a single, centralized system which captures all complaints no matter what channel or method was used by the customer to transmit them. By consequence this will allow detection of duplicates, an acknowledgement automatically to be sent to the customer with the added possibility of committing to a resolution time and contact person who will assume responsibility for the resolution of the complaint. In addition, a single centralized system will enable root cause analysis of the complaints and so allow rapid action to correct dysfunctional processes. Indeed the FSA has indicated that root cause analysis and resolution is something the expect to see.

Another requirement for effective complaint handling is the ability to start timers running when a complaint has been received. The FSA sets timelines for complaint handling and resolution with reward for speedy resolution and penalties for unwarranted delays. These timers, or SLAs as they are commonly called, are of huge value in ensuring that complaints are handled in a timely fashion and can automatically trigger escalations if first level deadlines are not met.

Finally a complaints solution with the ability to manage business rules will be able to perform a triage of complaints against policies defining when a complaint can better be economically resolved and written off immediately rather than follow a long, and therefore expensive resolution process. This can further be augmented to determine the class or segment of customer concerned allowing service levels to be differentiated according to customer value.

Is all this a wish list? Absolutely not. It is all possible, it all exists and it is running live in a number of banks. Moreover it can be deployed in months and not years and can easily be extended to cover all types of customer enquiries and requests, not just complaints.

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Comments: (1)

Ketharaman Swaminathan
Ketharaman Swaminathan - GTM360 Marketing Solutions - Pune 24 January, 2011, 11:15Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes

As products and services are becoming more complicated, complaints about them are getting increasingly trickier to convey, understand and resolve. On the other hand, 'cryptc n SMS / IM style of comms reglrly adpted by both sides is excrbting the sitn'.

In a recent blog post, I shared a few examples from my personal experience of how complaints were handled by banks and other companies.  

http://sketharaman.com/blog/2010/11/21/how-humanlike-are-virtual-agents-part-2/

In the final analysis, it appeared that virtual agents could supplant lower-end call center staff for handling many types of complaints.

However, while there's no scarcity of process knowledge, training or technology to improve the complaints handling process, I doubt if this is a high priority area for too many banks and other companies (barring a few exceptions like Zappos.com, which have superior customer service enshrined in their corporate charter). When resources are scarce, is it any surprise that complaints department is not exactly the first in line to receive funding for new initiatives? 

By treating the complaints resolution process as opportunities for upselling or cross-selling additional products and services, banks might be able to find the justification required to secure additional funding for their new initiatives in this space. Depending upon their internal culture and customer profile, while some can afford to do this brazenly whereas others might have to be subtle about it, this appears to be one pragmatic approach of bringing about a sea change in this area.