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Dealing with complaints

26 Mar 2021 | Richard Casey

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#GoodWorkplaces have clear and transparent complaints processes in place which give security to both employees and the public. In this blog, Richard Casey, President of the Veterinary Management Group (VMG), discusses what he’s learnt about how to handle complaints at work.

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The blame culture within our industry is well-documented and there’s no place for it in life, let alone the workplace. You can prepare for every eventuality and still something will crop up that you’ve not considered. Even with the most comprehensive policies, processes and systems in place, as well as the most competent and dedicated team, mistakes will happen. And this is to be expected because we’re all human.

While blame and shame are far from appropriate descriptors for responses to workplace mistakes, they are often the unintended consequence of efforts to get to find out what went wrong. And yet root cause analysis is an important skill if we are to prevent mistakes and complaints from reoccurring and achieve business success. In this blog I will discuss what I’ve learnt about complaint investigation and show how you can avoid blame culture and turn business errors into business wins.

Clarity is key

If you don’t already have one, the first step is to document a clear complaints policy and make sure it’s cascaded across the business.  It should be visible and easily accessible to all those who may need to use it. If you already have one yet complaints are still occurring or aren’t being resolved satisfactorily, it may be time to review it. A standard policy for clients and customers is often called simply ‘a complaints process’. VMG provides a variety of templates on our RCVS Practice Standards Scheme resource hub.

For internal complaints, you may need to consider both a complaints process and a grievance policy. I recommend checking out ACAS’ website to ensure your processes are in line with employment law. The key principles for both a complaints process and grievance are the same. Each should outline how to make a complaint or grievance, what will happen once it’s received, how long you can expect to wait for a response etc. An appeals process is often included.  Should you receive a complaint or grievance that you’re unable to conclude amicably, depending on the situation you may find it helpful to get independent support. Remember, the Veterinary Client Mediation Service or ACAS can help with this.

Listen from empty

The concept of ‘listening from empty’ means ensuring that you absorb all of the information on offer because your understanding or knowledge bank on the topic is ‘empty’. When I reflect on how I managed complaints early in my career, I often made the mistake of not listening properly and immediately jumping to a ‘solution’ - or, if I’m totally honest, sometimes jumping to an excuse!

Listening from empty is particularly important when you’re hearing complaints with multiple components. When I’m giving feedback, I use the acronym EEC which stands for Example, Effect, Change. I also find it very helpful when exploring complaints so you might like to give it a try:  Ask for tangible examples of what and when things went wrong. Then ask what effect this had on the complainant, the team, client or patient. Then, finally, what changes in policy, process or system would they recommend to prevent the error re-occurring?

Be a role model

If we’re truly to banish blame and embrace a new culture of learning, sharing, and growing, we need to embrace the power of role modelling. For example, when something goes wrong in the workplace, whether with a client, a colleague or a piece of work, acknowledging it early and publicly sharing what went wrong, how you dealt with it and what you’ve learnt is a clear call to action for others. Behaviour breeds behaviour.

Have a conversation with your line manager if this approach isn’t the norm and they can support you with sharing – and perhaps be inspired by your example! Whilst an underappreciated form of leadership, role modelling can be extremely powerful. You can see a great video demonstration on You Tube.  

No-one is perfect, no matter how many letters after their name.  It’s how we respond to mistakes that really matters and a transparent complaints process with an absence of blame and an emphasis on learning and sharing will undoubtedly boost your business.

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