Organisations in both the private and public sectors are continually on the lookout for new ways to balance the challenge of improving customer service whilst containing, or reducing, costs.
Customers’ expectations are continually re-set by higher and higher benchmarks. As consumers, we encounter customer service every day and each good experience we have raises the bar of our perceptions that little bit higher for other organisations to reach.
The public sector faces three extra challenges alongside this tide of rising expectation:
- Customers can’t usually choose to go somewhere else for their services
- Services may be subject to legislative procedures and processes
- Councils can’t choose not to provide services to unprofitable customers.
In customer service, it’s all about your people. Who they are, how they behave and what they say and do at the moment of customer contact defines your council’s service experience. Whilst you can invest in technology to help them (or re-direct customers to self-serve), in the vast majority of cases, the definitive “moment of truth” in customer service comes down to the personal experience between customer and staff member.
As any team sports coach will tell you, it’s how your players perform under pressure that makes the difference to whether you’ll win or lose the game.
The sharp end of customer service: complaints management
With this in mind, let’s take a look at the ‘sharp end’ of customer service – managing complaints. This is where your people can really get put under pressure.
In the quest for improving services, councils should see complaints as a good thing. If your council’s approach to complaints management is focused mainly on getting the numbers down, it may be time to take another look at your strategy.
Complaints are your council’s opportunity to find out where things are going wrong with services, and to put things right.
Think of it as free market research. In an ideal world, you’d actually like 100% of your dissatisfied customers to send you a complaint, so you have the opportunity to fix things. However research in customer behaviour tells us that, in reality, as few as 5 – 10% of dissatisfied consumers tend to complain .
If you’re one of those councils struggling to understand why your residents’ satisfaction survey has stalled or is on a downward trend, take a look at your complaints management. Ask yourself, “how easy do we make it for unhappy people to complain?”
Assuming they choose to complain, what kind of experience do they receive when they offer you the benefit of some free market research and improvement advice?
Will the person they speak to make them feel welcome, understand and listen to their concern or will they feel like they’re about to engage in a prolonged battle with a bureaucracy that’s trying to defend its position?
Employees create your customer service experience
This is where the discussion returns to your staff.
The way they react to a complainant can turn a customer’s emotional state from dissatisfaction into anger. In fact, the reaction of employees handling a complaint can be a greater cause of dissatisfaction than the original service failure itself .
The attitude of your employees defines the customer experience you’re offering. Complaints can be emotional, complex and a source of conflict. A study by FairWay Resolution into workplace conflict in New Zealand showed that 30% of employees surveyed had experienced conflict with a customer. 
This is what makes complaints management the ‘sharp end’ of customer service, with the potential to take a disproportionate amount of time and organisational resources if they’re handled poorly.
Councils' improvement journey should start with complaints
Organisations that deal with complaints effectively experience a greater degree of satisfaction and loyalty from their customers . That concept is something elected politicians and loyalty marketing people both understand.
Creating a positive culture of learning from complaints requires you to do three things:
- Understand your employees’ views. Their attitudes, perceptions and opinions on managing complaints are defining the experience you’re delivering.
- Provide positive leadership from the top. Both elected politicians and managers at all levels set the example that employees will follow in their attitude towards complaints.
- Create a positive, supportive culture toward complaints. Help your people to rise to the challenge and achieve their best in the most difficult of circumstances.
If you’re looking to tackle performance improvement in your council, maybe you should think about finding out what it’s like at the sharp end first?
- Tax, S.S. & Brown, S.W., 1998. Recovering And Learning From Service Failure. Sloan Management Review, pp.75–88.
- Davidow, M., 2003. Organizational responses to customer complaints: What works and what doesn't. Journal of Service Research, 5(3), p.225.
- FairWay Resolution, August 2014. Conflict in New Zealand Workplaces Study.
- Andreassen, T., 1999. What Drives Customer Loyalty with Complaint Resolution? Journal of Service Research, 1(4), pp.324–332.