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Beyond the Hamper: Complaints as a Source of BA Insight

Complaints Filing Cabinet
Image Credit: © vchalup – #163734280

Even the most customer-focussed organisation is likely to get the occasional complaint. Even the best managed organisations occasionally make mistakes, and those firms that serve a high volume of customers typically have a full-time team that deals with issues that have escalated into a formal complaint.


Customer complaints can be a source of significant insight.  In some cases, complaints point towards inefficiencies that have emerged in existing business processes.  Perhaps a handover between departments is not working well as there is ambiguity over the roles of each team.  Identifying this is valuable—it isn’t a one-off incident, and it is likely that many customers will receive poor service until it is resolved. It might also identify issues where training is required—perhaps a member of staff in a call centre did not record a vital piece of information that a customer gave them.  This might be because the member of staff genuinely didn’t know the significance—and if they don’t receive this constructive feedback (and the relevant training) they will likely make the same mistake time and time again, leading to even more displeased customers.


Analysis of complaints can also help determine where customer expectations have changed (or are changing).  In the past, it might have been considered perfectly acceptable for a courier firm to offer a delivery window of ‘8am to 6pm’.  Yet if its competitors now offer 1 hour slots, this will change the tacit expectation in the market.  This will filter through into the complaints that are received.  Of course, the firm ought to have been looking at the external competitive environment anyway, but complaints sometimes highlight things that are outside of the radar.


Complaints Don’t Have To Be ‘Negative’

It is easy to view complaints as a negative thing—a chore to be ‘dealt’ with, but the reality is that every customer who complains is giving the organisation a gift.  It might not feel that way, but they are giving the organisation the opportunity to put things right for them and also to examine the root cause.  If the complaint is justified, it acts as a useful feedback signal which can prompt changes to processes and procedure.  It can even spark innovation.


Yet, the sad reality is that many organisations treat complaints as an irritation.  Complaints teams focus on “making the complaint go away” and “satisfying the customer’s immediate concern” rather than “resolving the root cause”.  Of course it is important to resolve the immediate issue at hand—to satisfy the customer—but this shouldn’t be the only focus.  Too many complaints teams become “gift certificate and hamper” factories; simply putting the immediate problem right and then issuing polite letters that say sorry and sending a nice box of chocolates and a bottle of wine.  Then, the complaints handler moves onto the next case, as the complaints queue gets longer and longer….


This isn’t, of course, directly the fault of the complaints handler.  It is a systemic issue related to leadership, structure and reward.  Yet it is an area that can yield significant insight for those working in business analysis and those working in business change generally.  Complaints can provide an untapped insight just brimming with opportunities for improvement.


Let’s imagine we were working for a financial services company that was looking to become more ‘digital’.  It wants to improve its sign-up process.  It would be typical to seek customer insight through focus groups, surveys and so forth.  Yet as well as asking customers what they want, why not find out what is really irritating people?  Why not find out which parts of the existing process are rusty, clunky, and annoying enough to cause people to complain?


In fact, by engaging with complaints teams, and asking them for the information, we start to subtly nudge the organisation—we create a subtle recognition that complaints can yield useful insight.  This small intervention, over time, may lead to a shift away from the ‘gift certificate and hamper’ factory that so many complaints teams seem to have become.  We are well placed to work with the complaints handlers (who often have huge insight into where the problems are) and co-create positive change.  And I am sure our customers will thank us for it!

What are your views? Please add a comment below, and let’s keep the conversation flowing! 

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About the author:

Adrian ReedAdrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.

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4 thoughts on “Beyond the Hamper: Complaints as a Source of BA Insight”

  1. Hi Adrian! This is a valuable insight, especially for organizations that are forefront for a lot of customers like ecommerce or retail.

    I have one question…how do you tread through archives of complaints? How do I find which complaints are relevant to the root cause I want to find out? I can not just read all 1,000 complaints per se, how can I identify which ones would help me?

    1. Hi Raymond, thanks for the comment and I’m glad you found the article interesting/useful.

      You raise a very valid point. This really depends on how the complaints are stored, and leads to a related factor. For complaints information to be most useful it needs to be logged/coded/categorised in some way. This leads to people on the customer service front line, as well as complaints handlers, being able to record and categorise problems, ideas and suggestions. For example, if there is a process hierarchy, it would be useful to store (or cross reference) ideas, problems or complaints against the specific process to which they relate.

      If this isn’t possible, then it is sometimes possible to carry out a ‘freetext’ search across complaint summaries to look for specific information. Or, to read through those that look like they are the most likely.

      If none of these things are possible, then it may still be possible either to read through a sample of complaints to get inspiration (accepting that this will only provide a partial view) *and* to speak to those involved in logging and resolving complaints–including those who deal directly with customers. They often have a very good idea of where the problems are!

      I hope this helps, thanks again — Adrian.

  2. Hi Raymond/Adrian, if you want to auto-categorize unstructered textual data, perhaps this can be of help : : did not work with them myself, but know a civilian-democratic-initiative in Belgian that uses it to moderate posted idea’s by civilians grtz Wim

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