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Insight for change: Cultivate your company’s complaints

Acorn sproutingIt’s never a pleasant subject, but chances are whether you work for a small, a mid-size or large company, your organisation probably receives and deals with complaints. Even the most careful and credible of organisations is likely to receive a complaint now and again, and organisations are often (quite rightly) keen to ensure they are resolved well.  In fact, you may well have a specialist team of complaints handlers who carefully pore over each case and ensure that the customer gets a fair outcome.


We often hear complaints referred to as an opportunity.   There’s a school of thought that handling a complaint well can increase customer loyalty.  Whilst this is an important consideration, there is another opportunity for us too.  It’s possible that we could use our complaints and complaints data to inform customer insight. Or, put differently, there could be advantages to using customer complaints as a catalyst for systemic change.  We could use complaints as one element of insight into what works and doesn’t work when we are thinking of kicking off business change initiatives.  On projects, we could use complaints and complaint data to predict potential customer and user needs and requirements by understanding what doesn’t currently work—before we validate this from other sources.  This could be another extremely useful aspect for us to consider when conducting business analysis.


This probably sounds rather abstract, so let me give you an example:


An example: Fixing the problem but not the root-cause

I recently made a purchase from the on-line arm of a leading retail outlet here in the UK.   I reserved the item online and picked it up from a local store. The transaction was fine, but when I got my item home, I found it wasn’t quite as described. I was buying a new in-car Sat-Nav, which was listed as being able to receive live traffic data, but this particular model couldn’t do so.   Not only this, but it was listed as having other features that it didn’t have either.  I was a little annoyed, particularly because the item was “excluded from the 30 day returns policy”, so, being the rather pedantic person that I am, I complained.


As you’d expect from a major retailer, my complaint was dealt with (fairly) well, and the company agreed that they were in the wrong.  The website had been updated.  Yet at no time did I get the sense that the complaints handlers were asking the question “How could we make sure this never happens again?”.  Put simply, I felt that the complaint handlers were focusing on resolving my case rather than fixing the root cause.    And this is perfectly understandable – they are probably measured by the number of complaints they close each day, rather than being incentivised to fix systemic problems.  And, as the expression goes, you often “get what you measure”.


What this means for business and business analysis

That’s clearly one specific example, with one customer dealing with one organisation.  Let’s put aside the fact that that the complaints handler missed an opportunity for capturing an improvement idea.  Putting that aside, let’s scale this up:  I would guess that some mid-size and large companies have data spanning thousands of complaints.  Think of the insight that this could yield:


  • Where are our current products deficient, in our customers eyes? (Great insight if we’re launching a new product, or incrementally tweaking our existing ones)
  • If we’re considering a process improvement, where do our customers think our process fall down?
  • Where are the “fires” – the burning issues that really hurt or upset our customers? And where are the causes of those “fires”
  • Where is our IT causing problems? Could our IT systems be doing more to support our staff and customers?
  • Are there any staff training opportunities that our complaints can identify?


In the world of business analysis, we talk about requirements.  We speak of eliciting requirements from stakeholders, workshops, maybe even focus groups.  However, I think complaints analysis should become part of our repertoire.   It won’t produce fully formed requirements or ideas for business change, but it may inform them.  We may well take insight we yield from complaint data to help us ask the right questions when we interview other stakeholders, for example.


Now clearly, analysing large volumes of complaints is challenging.  Hopefully, our complaints team have categorised or added some type of meta-data so that we can sort through them.  Certainly, having some kind of analytical capability to wade through the data and pick up on patterns will help.  We might want to focus on complaints that relate to a particular process, product or system.  Even so, it’s also important to exercise caution.  It’s beneficial to treat this insight as useful—but it is not conclusive.  Not everyone takes the effort to complain, and you may find that complaint data provides a skewed view from a sub-set of customers.  As mentioned above, it won’t provide us with the final answer – but it might help us to ask better questions to really drive useful change.


So – will you consider complaint data next time you are thinking about a business change initiative?



Do you consider complaints when working on projects?  I’d love to hear your views and insight, so please keep the conversation going add a comment below. And if you like my blog, don’t forget to subscribe!



This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions

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