Can you influence behaviour to reduce customer complaints?

Behaviour Change AheadI’ve lost count of the number of organisations I work with who have an aim or a value of putting customers first and learning or improving from complaints. I can count on one hand the number who genuinely do.

The problem being most focus on process rather than outcomes. Who should do it and by when. Whole new industries are created with specialist departments and  econometricians hired to churn out reams of metrics and data on process and performance within timescales.

When all along a simple tool to effect behavioural change can deliver a step change in outcomes at a fraction of the cost.

Can you measure Behaviour?

That was the topic for a fascinating online HBR debate I reviewed recently. The general consensus being that you can’t. You can establish metrics to define and measure performance and outcomes, but not behaviour.

The best you can do is rely on perceptions of behaviour, such as 360 degree feedback surveys with staff and stakeholders or customer satisfaction surveys.

The problem with this being that behaviour is key in delivering organisational strategy. Behaviour determines culture. Culture eats strategy for breakfast. Successful strategy execution needs behaviour aligned. So you need to be able to measure and influence behaviour.

Treating the symptoms

Complaints received from customers tell you an awful lot about organisational behaviour and health. They’re the externally visible equivalent of a rash on the skin. The symptoms can be treated so the rash will disappear for a while, but if the underlying cause isn’t established and dealt with, it will keep coming back in different areas.

The healthiest organisations develop a performance and customer focussed culture throughout the organisation linked to organisational aims and values.

They reinforce values in responding to complaints. How they achieve this varies, but the one thing they all have in common is empowering staff to deal with complaints.

But while you can empower staff to deal with complaints, you can’t guarantee they will actually resolve them. Something extra is needed.

Measuring the wrong things

Many organisations get the metrics and measurements wrong – for example by setting targets for responses to complaints being within 24 hours  or 10 working days. This isn’t telling you that the complaint has been  resolved, It’s telling you its been processed. An email response, a holding letter or for those truly in the last century, an acknowledgement post card.

In the worst case scenario, the staff member doesn’t want to actually resolve it or feels they can’t, and is just ticking a box on the production line and diverting it to someone more senior to deal with further down the line.

So off it goes to Stage 2, or Stage 3 of the process, and boards/execs wonder why customer satisfaction with the complaints process is lower than target, and the number of escalated complaints keep increasing  – even though the target times are being met.

Measuring the right things

The simple solution is setting all staff a SMART target of resolving complaints right first time – at the point they are received in their service area and within the target time. 95% as a stretch target, or maybe 80% for those who aim low.

Notice the difference. Resolving. Not responding.

It’s simple, proven and successful.  The onus is on the staff member to demonstrate the behaviours and values you want to see being delivered. Leaders can deliver and measure a clear message and expectation. Not resolving a complaint is a behavioural failure. There will be genuine exceptions, but not that many. It’s a value nudge which allows you to measure and improve behaviour.

Bringing Values to Life

Used intelligently and led well across an organisation, setting each and every staff member a SMART objective and target of resolving complaints right first time significantly increases customer satisfaction with the outcome of complaints. Over a period of time it  also leads to less formal complaints and more right first time service delivery.

It won’t eliminate complaints, but will empower and make staff responsible for service improvement as part of their day job, and contribute to developing a learning culture at a fraction of the cost of leadership or customer service training.

Better still, it will help you quickly identify those staff and leaders who don’t deliver on your values.

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