Leadership: How to D.E.A.L. with a complaint

In whatever your field of work, you are likely to receive complaints. Maybe from customers, suppliers, or even colleagues within your organization. Complaints are not always negative and can be an opportunity for you to find out something which is happening which you were not aware of or the chance to explain why the business operates in a certain way.

A colleague of mine always says, “A complaint is a poorly formed request” and she’s right in that it is that person’s way of telling you that they need something they are not getting or that something has happened which needs rectifying.

It takes effort to complain, and sometimes courage, and all complaints should be taken seriously. Even that person and every organization has one, who will complain about every minor thing — my suggestion would be to get that person on board and turn them into an advocate. Don’t push them away, involve them more. If it’s a colleague, maybe they could sit in on a project meeting or test a new product, and get them to understand how the organization works in more depth. Sometimes complaints come from a naivety of not comprehending the rationale behind processes and decisions. If it’s someone external, consider a way they could get to know the organization better, be involved or make suggestions. After all, they could just walk away, and yet they are interested enough in the company to voice their opinion. A complaint is an opportunity.

So, what do you do if you receive a complaint directly? Whether verbal or written, they can often be angry, emotional and the real message can be obscured. I use this simple acronym to help me DEAL with complaints:

D. — Dignify — Respond to the complaint by giving it your attention, take it seriously, and spend time listening to what the person has to say. Consider it as an opportunity to discover and learn. If the complainant is angry or upset, you may need to just sit back and wait for their initial emotional response to have subsided, and they will need you to give them that time and space as a catharsis, before getting to the truth of the issue. I also always say thank you for a complaint, recognize that they have been brave to speak up, and show I value the information they have given me.

E. — Examine — Delve into the issue and get a clear comprehension of the problem and root cause. Make good notes that you will be able to understand at a later date or could share with a colleague if needed. Ask questions and repeat back to make sure you have understood the key facts. If the complaint is general, ask for specific examples and get as many facts as possible, including dates, names, and locations. If the complainant quotes another person or says anything provocative, e.g. “Your employee called me ugly”, then read it back to make sure you have recorded it accurately.

A. — Action — The complaint may be able to be dealt with quickly, and swift response and resolution will benefit your organization’s reputation, and not risk the damage of word of mouth, negative press, or worse if the complainant feels that you are not acting or have not taken them seriously. Be careful never to promise something you cannot deliver and don’t palm them off with assurances that you have no intention of delivering — this will only come back to bite you later.

L . — Loop — Keep the complainant in the loop and tell them when you will next contact them. If you have no new information then, still make that contact to reassure them that you have not forgotten and it remains an important issue, if possible explain what the delay is. If it is a weekend, consider giving them a quick call to assure you are still dealing with it, that the business is closed over the weekend and you will resume focus on it on Monday. They should never have to contact you again (unless they have new information) — you should always take the lead and be the one to contact them. If you feel too much time is passing and they might be wondering what is happening, then a quick call is better than waiting for them to call you.

If you take each complaint seriously, then you have the opportunity to improve your organization. You will also be more justified if the responsibility for the solution lies with the complainant, perhaps through their misunderstanding or requiring them to take different actions. If the complaint becomes too heated or abusive, you can make a dignified exit from the conversation and either ask them to contact you when emotions are not running so high or stating when you will contact them, if you have their details to do so.

Ultimately, you can choose how you will view complaints and if you look at them positively, it will make them more pleasant to deal with.

Teacher, Writer, Expert in Leadership and Puzzle-Maker in the UK.

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