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Dealing with complaints

Dealing with complaints can be complex, time consuming and draining for everyone involved. But it doesn’t have to be. A complaint, if acknowledged quickly, understood carefully and managed proactively, can be a learning opportunity to help us continually improve Scouting.

A complaint is an expression of dissatisfaction or concern. They can be raised in a variety of ways and may be related to a one off incident or issue, a set of issues that have built over time or a range of seemingly disconnected matters.

However a complaint is raised, and whatever it is about, line managers have a critical role in managing the situation and process.

I’ve dealt with a fairly significant number of complaints in the various management roles I’ve held in Scouting. The first thing I do when I receive a complaint is to arrange a time for a conversation (usually over the phone) with the person making the complaint. Often we receive complaints by email, and sometimes it’s difficult to really get to the root of the problem so having a conversation where the complainant can share, in their own words, what has resulted in them making the complaint is enormously helpful.

It’s at this point that you often find out that the complaint as written may not be the full story or the real issue. It may become apparent that there is something underlying the complaint such as a communication breakdown or misunderstanding. It may then be easier to resolve by simply getting people round the table to clear the air. Dealing with a complaint in this way early on stops it from progressing into a more formal matter and saves time in the long run.

Once I’ve spoken with the complainant I tend to then email them with some notes of our conversation, setting out what I have understood the issue to be, and what resolution they are seeking. This gives both you and the complainant an opportunity to make sure you are both working from the same page. Playing back your understanding of the issue and getting agreement on it will save time in the long run.

I always attempt to put myself in the complainant’s shoes: trying to see things from their perspective can make a world of difference. I’ve seen in the past where the person receiving a complaint becomes defensive because they have taken personal umbrage. If it feels personal then you probably are not best placed to deal with it as there is a risk that it won’t be handled entirely objectively. Most complaints are not malicious or vexatious - they are a genuine expression of concern or dissatisfaction - and so we need to be objective and open to hear what individuals have to say. Don’t put off having a conversation - it really is important.

But don’t feel you have to take personal ownership of every complaint. Use your team, colleagues and others around you to support you. It is absolutely fine (and in fact I’d recommend it) to ask someone to act on your behalf to look into a complaint. They can speak to all the individuals involved, understand what’s going on and make recommendations to you on the outcome. But remember, the ultimate decision in relation to complaints must be with the relevant District or County Commissioner (or equivalents).

It’s important to say sorry. If someone complains then of course we are sorry that something has happened. We’d never want a situation to arise when someone feels they have no option other than to complain. We want to help find out what has gone wrong and fix it. Saying sorry is not an admission of guilt or negligence. Take a look at the helpful guidance from the NHS on saying sorry.

When dealing with a complaint keep everyone up to speed. If you say you’ll get back to someone in a fortnight, then make sure you do. If things change outside of your control then make sure people know so expectations are managed.

When a review of a complaint is concluded it is so important to write to all concerned. The complainant must know the outcome (have you upheld the complaint, partially upheld it or rejected it) and how they can appeal the decision. Information on the process for appeals can be found in the factsheet Resolving Complaints - The Scout Association’s Complaints Procedure.

The subject of the complaint must also know the outcome. Perhaps there will be additional training or support needed. Or in more serious cases there may need to be a review of the suitability of an individual or the culture of a group. If there is no action at all then they will also need to understand that, as being the subject of a complaint can be a worrying and difficult time.

There is a wealth of guidance in the complaints area of the website that gives detailed information on policy and procedure, as well as useful hints and tips. Take time to read this.

If complaints are dealt with promptly and we speak in person to those involved they are easier to manage. They can take time, in fact it’s important we do spend time on them, as they are a learning opportunity, but if they are managed proactively, others in your team support you in reviewing the complaint and reporting back, and we are timely and clear in our communications we can deal with them effectively and efficiently.

My top tips:

  1. Speak to the complainant (over the phone or in person) as soon as you can - don’t just rely on emails.
  2. Consider delegating the review of a complaint to a member of your team or a colleague in a neighbouring District.
  3. Keep people updated on progress.
  4. Treat every complaint as a learning opportunity - even if you reject the complaint there is almost certainly going to be some learning for someone to take on board.
  5. Don’t take a complaint personally - if you feel it is a personal slight you may not be the best person to deal with it so seek advice from your line manager.
  6. It’s okay to say sorry. In fact it’s important to do so.
  7. Try and negotiate an informal resolution - many complaints, if dealt with early, simply require an acknowledgement of the issue and apology and a willingness to work together in the future.
  8. Make sure all parties are completely clear on the outcome: have you upheld the complaint, partially upheld the complaint or rejected it? Be clear on next steps.
  9. Read the policy and procedure guidance before you get a complaint, and then again as and when your receive one.


And do let me know what additional support and guidance you would benefit from to help manage complaints. Whilst I can’t get involved in individual cases I am happy to hear your ideas on our policy, procedures and processes.

 

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