Q: What goes bump in the night and wakes the sleepy community engagement practitioner?
Show me an engagement practitioner with major project experience and I’ll show you someone who has spent many restless nights pondering how to best deal with an engaged, knowledgeable, intelligent, passionate community member that has an issue (or three) with said project and isn’t afraid to make it known.
Community engagement and complaints go hand in hand – it’s how you handle complaints that counts
There’s no way around it: community engagement and complaints go hand in hand. But that’s a good thing. The former would be a lifeless pursuit without the latter. And besides, inside all good community engagement practitioners is the spirit of an unbridled community activist.
Looking back over my career in communications and engagement, I can’t think of a more important thing than complaints management for organisations to get right.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen what should be an innocuous issue transmorph into a potentially project stopping affair because of clumsy complaints handling. A mouse turns into a multi-headed hydra. Equally, I’ve seen alarm-bell ringing issues reduced to nothing more than a few lines of text in a CRM because of expert treatment. The hydra is vanquished.
Complaints, however large or small, equal risk. And risk often turns into loss. Lost dollars, lost time, lost resources, lost reputation and goodwill.
What I’m saying isn’t revolutionary and, in my experience, senior managers of major projects completely understand this reality. But it’s often overlooked, or its importance underestimated.
It’s critical that all major projects are underpinned by a robust complaints management framework – the system that guides the handling and management of complaints: the racecar for the professional driver to step into.
The complaints management framework itself is half the battle
Quality people and attention to detail are always important pieces of the puzzle. With complaints, however, the management framework is just as important. A well-designed complaints handling system provides an easy to follow recipe book that your staff follow to open, investigate, close and record all complaints. It increases the speed of resolution; it makes sure nothing is missed; it makes sure risks are identified and escalated; it provides certainty of outcome.
But it’s also deeper than that.
As we say in engagement circles: the process of engagement is as important as the products of engagement. Or said another way, the process is itself a fundamental part of stakeholder engagement. And so it is with complaints management. A well-designed and implemented complaints management framework leads to better outcomes as the complainant has a more positive experience.
As part of my recent work on the NSW Bushfire Clean-up Program – Elton Consulting’s partnership with Public Works Advisory and Laing O’Rourke to clean-up 4,000 bushfire affected properties across NSW – I designed the complaints management system. Given the scale of the project, the nature of the disaster and program works, and high emotions in the community, I thought the system would need to cope with high volumes.
As it turned out, we received a remarkably low number of complaints (I chalk it up to a combination of fantastic on-ground work and exceptional community goodwill). But the exercise piqued some deep thinking about what makes a good complaints management system.
If you need to build a complaints management system, or perhaps you’re wondering if your existing system is up to scratch, here are some tips:
- Value complaints. Good complaints management starts with a good attitude. Complaints shouldn’t be feared; they should be viewed as an opportunity to improve and do things better. Approach the task of designing your complaints management system with this front of mind.
- Keep it simple. Over the years I’ve used some complaints management systems that were technically brilliant. There was only one problem: they were so complicated nobody could use them. Whatever you design should be super easy to understand and follow. You should be able to explain it to a colleague while ordering a coffee.
- Walk in your community’s shoes. It’s equally as important to design a system that works for the person making the complaint. The entire process should be transparent. At every step the person making the complaint should know what is happening, why it’s happening, what the next steps are, the timelines involved, and how it fits into the broader process. Remember: their experience with the process itself is a big part of the outcome.
- Ownership is key. Every action to be taken in the resolution of a complaint should have a single owner. It should be crystal clear who that owner is, and exactly what they need to do. Unclear ownership or unclear action is a disaster waiting to happen.
- Training and audit. As good as your system is, it’s worthless if your staff don’t know how to or won’t use it. Invest time to proper staff training and develop simple one-page user guides. Conduct audits to make sure the system is being used as intended. Without training and audits to ensure consistency, you would be astounded at the different usages of the same system by different people – even for the most minor and straight-forward actions.
- Use a good CRM. I don’t leave home without a good CRM (as you can tell, I’m the life of the party at work social events.) Professional quality engagement requires the back-end functionality of a CRM – one click automated reporting, assign, track and monitor actions, data analysis and visualisation, accessible record keeping, the list goes on.
- Revise and update. Nothing is perfect. A serious complaints management system should be revised to match change in the project landscape – e.g. goals, staff, phases, risks. And in response to feedback from your staff and community members.