Customer Complaint Tracking: A Guide To Current Best Practices
by Lynne Campbell on August 24, 2023
If you can track and manage them properly, customer complaints are a valuable asset. It’s always hard to hear criticism, but as the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) points out in its 2010 Review Of Complaint Handling In Banking Groups, engaging with feedback from dissatisfied customers provides you with the opportunity to improve services and enhance your offering.
It’s also important to note that responding to customer complaints can create loyal brand advocates. Research conducted by People 1st found that customers who’d complained about a brand, and then received a timely response from that same brand’s customer service department were actually more loyal than customers who’d had a wholly positive experience.
Similar research conducted by the Harvard Business Review and PwC also found that customers who’d had their complaint resolved in a positive manner would often pay a significant premium to buy from that brand again in the future.
Put The Customer First, And The Rewards Will Follow
There’s a legislative angle to consider here too: Businesses operating in highly-regulated industries may be duty-bound to collect, store and respond to all customer complaints in an organised fashion.
Some regulators - including Ofcom and the FCA - hand down large (£100,000+) fines to companies that repeatedly breach these requirements, or fail to prove that they have a well-documented complaint tracking process.
Ombudsmen and other regulators will also expose underperforming companies in publicly-available reports like the Housing Ombudsman Service’s Annual Review Of Customer Complaints.
A Healthy Complaints Tracking Process Protects Your Organisation
Penalties may be less severe in industries that don’t experience this level of regulation. But the fact remains that there are serious reputational and financial consequences for neglecting your complaint tracking process.
The question is, what is the best way to collect, track and action customer complaints? How are you meant to turn disparate and poorly-organised customer feedback into operationally-relevant data that can be used to improve your services?
There is no right answer to any of these questions. Complaint tracking processes can vary between industries, organisations and even departments, but there are similarities and we
can look to Ombudsman and other regulators for inspiration. These organisations exist to manage and resolve customer complaints at scale. As such, they tend to have robust and well-documented processes that you can use to improve your own complaint tracking efforts.
Looking To The Experts
To help you get started, we’ve reviewed a selection of eight complaint handling procedures and four best practice guides – ferreting out the most salient advice to ensure that you can create an informed process that yields meaningful improvements.
Note: This article isn’t intended to cover the philosophies or principles of proper complaint handling. These topics have been covered in great detail by regulators like the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, and we don’t think there’s any real value in reiterating the need for fair, transparent or accountable complaint handling.
Nor will we be delving into strategies for improving resolution rates – or training staff to treat consumers with respect.
Instead, we want to focus on offering practical advice for large, medium or small organisations that are looking to make tangible improvements to their complaints tracking process – so they can make better use of customer complaints and improve the quality of their service.
For additional reading on the soft science of complaint management, see the bibliography at the end of this article. For now, let’s dive into some actionable advice on improving your complaint tracking process:
1. Set Clear Standards And Goals
(Incredibly) well motivated teams may be able to deliver good customer service without well-defined goals, but it’s unlikely. Note that we’re not talking about “aspirational” goals here though. Try to eschew the temptation to say that 90% of customer complaints should have a positive resolution.
These goals may seem powerful at first glance, but they’re not particularly actionable. Without a decent framework in place, we don’t think they’re particularly achievable either and do run the risk of sabotaging your team’s motivation.
Instead, try to focus on realistic and descriptive goals that give your team something tangible to aim for. You might say that all new complaints have to be categorised and acknowledged within the first 24 hours – or that complaints are always escalated to the relevant department within three days. Some regulated sectors have these targets set for them; the FCA (Financial Conduct Authority) mandates complaint handling time limits for example.
These smaller and more manageable goals pave the way to future success and enable your team to benchmark their performance against measurable targets that tell them something specific about their ability to deliver.
Question is, what do reasonable time oriented goals look like? To answer that question, we conducted a deep dive into the eight complaint handling procedures analysed to produce this article – documenting timescales and trying to find common ground that could be used to create useful benchmarks.
It’s important to note that specifics do vary between industries, but generally speaking, current best practice dictates that complaints:
• Receive some sort of acknowledgement within 24 hours, even if this is just an automated “thank you” message.
• Are escalated to the relevant department within 5 working days
• Are resolved within 20 working days.
It goes without saying that resolution may take longer than 20 days in some cases. As long as these delays are communicated to customers and complainants are kept in the loop at all times, there’s no reason to treat these timelines as absolute. They are simply good guidance and provide a reasonable standard that’ll keep your team on track.
The Housing Ombudsman Service also recommend that all landlords set a secondary, communication-based goal to ensure that by the time a ticket is resolved, every complainant receives written communication confirming details such as:
• the complaint stage
• the complaint definition
• the decision on the complaint
• the reasons for any decisions made
• the details of any remedy offered to put things right
• details of any outstanding actions
• details of how to escalate the matter if the complainant is not satisfied with the answer.
Setting an ironclad goal of communicating the above to all complainants may help to increase customer satisfaction. We’ll cover off some of these steps in the Process section of this guide.
Finally, we think it’s worth setting some top-level goals around the regular review of your complaint tracking system. Put plainly, your system will only improve if you keep abreast of what’s going on; how well complaints are being escalated and what completion rates are like across the piece.
It’s also worth noting that you can only action insights and deliver broader service improvements if you’re looking at macro trends in your customer complaints on a regular basis. It’s this process that exposes important failings and allows you to start driving systemic improvements on a regular basis.
At a bare minimum, aim to sit down with relevant teams once a week. Alternatively, task your complaints management team to report back to you with useful insights at least once a week.
If you can set and maintain this standard, you should be well placed to start turning customer complaints into a driver for positive change which is, ultimately, the driving focus of this exercise.
2. Prioritise Visibility
Above all else, customer complaints must be clearly visible to all relevant parties. This includes your customer service team(s), your business development team and the departments responsible for weighing in on various complaints.
If complaints aren’t accessible, they will fall through the cracks – impacting response times and hamstringing your organisation’s ability to turn complaints into positive outcomes.
Most best-practice guides agree that there’s only one way of preventing this: you need to create a single “source of truth” that collates all complaints in one place.
To cut down on operational overheads, you also need a system that allows you to categorise cases according to source and type, the people needed to resolve them properly and the length of time they’ve been sitting in your system.
Some organisations do make use of (large and complex) spreadsheets to track customer complaints and if you’re using Microsoft Azure or similar, these sheets can act as a single source of truth across multiple departments.
However, spreadsheets have limited functionality, and don’t allow you to:
• Send automated alerts and reminders to team members
• Create custom workflows for certain case types
• View the status and progress of all cases and tasks
• Set up dashboards that allow you to track complaints according to type
• Manage any documentation attached to a specific complaint.
They also require user-input, which means it’s all but impossible to track the progress of customer complaints in real time. For these reasons, most organisations should look to implement a proper complaint handling system – designed to significantly reduce the burdens associated with managing customer complaints.
These systems are an investment. But they massively simplify and improve the complaint tracking process, improving outcomes and providing the visibility required to effectively track complaints.
3. Implement A Simple And Repeatable Complaint Tracking Process
Once you have a system and standards in place, it’s important to cement a simple process that is easy for your team to understand and follow. This is the most industry- and organisation-dependent stage of this guide and it’s impossible to outline a process that’ll work for everyone.
However the Scottish Public Sector Ombudsman’s Model Complaints Handling Procedures (MCHP) outline a straightforward process that provides a good foundation. Their emphasis is on quicker and simpler complaints handling with local, early resolution by empowered and well trained staff. We have simplified this - for ease of reading - as follows:
- Receive the complaint
- Acknowledge and categorise the complaint
- Decide whether the complaint is eligible for frontline resolution
- If yes, issue an apology, redress or explanation and close the complaint
- If no, escalate the complaint to the relevant department
SPSO recommend 5 working days maximum for this stage
- Assign the complaint to the relevant person or team
- Write to or email the complainant explaining why you’ve taken this step
- Conduct the investigation as appropriate
- Explain the final decision to the complainant and record the outcome
SPSO recommend 20 working days maximum for this stage
- This final stage will not be needed every time, but allows for appeals by the Complainant or other parties, as well as internal or external case reviews.
It’s important to ensure that any relevant documents (inc. screenshots or images from the complainant, receipts, emails or similar) stay with the complaint as it moves through the process, and that the process of reassigning the complaint is as smooth as possible.
But as long as your process follows a similar structure and you review it regularly to see if improvements need to be made, this simple process should serve you well.
As part of this process, you may also want to ensure that a complete record of every complaint is made somewhere in your management or tracking system. Ideally, this record would include:
• the customer's name and address
• the date the complaint was received
• the nature of the complaint
• how the complaint was received
• the service the complaint refers to
• the date the complaint was closed at the frontline resolution stage (where appropriate)
• the date the complaint was escalated to the investigation stage (where appropriate)
• action taken at the investigation stage (where appropriate)
• the date the complaint was closed at the investigation stage (where appropriate)
• the outcome of the complaint at each stage
• the underlying cause of the complaint.
On review, this information will allow you to spot important trends and issues with your services, enabling you to learn from complaints and drive continuous improvement at every level of your organisation.
4. Keep Your Customers Informed
We covered this briefly in the goals and standards section of this guide, but it’s worth reiterating here: Everyone, from Ofcom to the FCA, stresses the importance of keeping complainants in the loop at all times - it is vital that complainants aren’t sitting there wondering whether you’re actually working to resolve their issue.
The Ombudsman Association recommend:
• Acknowledging receipt of a complaint at the earliest opportunity
• Letting someone know every time you make significant progress on their complaint (ie. escalating it to an investigation or resolving it)
• Telling complainants exactly how and why you’ve made a decision
• Informing people about their options and any relevant next steps.
So you might reach out as soon as you get a ticket, again when it’s escalated to a specific department, and a third time when it’s resolved – taking care to tell the complainant exactly what you’ve concluded and what they can do next if they’re not happy with your decision.
Remember, the goal here is to ensure that you are being clear and transparent, minimising doubt, setting expectations and avoiding miscommunication.
And again, it’s important to stress that this does benefit your organisation too: It allows you to keep tabs on a given complaint’s progress through the tracking process you’ve implemented, and also increases opportunities to gather valuable feedback that will improve your procedure.
In simple terms, customer engagement is something to encourage – not something to shy away from.
5. Empower Your Team(s)
All four of the best practice guides that we reviewed to write this article had one thing in common: They all stressed the importance of having a well-trained and well-supported complaints management team.
In simple terms, you need a dedicated department to take ownership of the complaint tracking process – chase the people who’ll be able to resolve problems and keep on top of the customer comms aspect of complaint management.
You’ll also need to ensure that this team has access to the training and tools required to stay on top of the processes mentioned in step three of this guide.
On the training front, this might mean sending team members on an active listening or dispute resolution course, creating guidelines to help them resolve complaints consistently or teaching them how to solve problems without unnecessary escalation to members of your management team.
On the tools front, it may mean investing in dedicated complaints management software that allows you to track and manage complaints from numerous sources.
The specifics will depend on the structure of your organisation and the expertise on your team so try to think critically about what you really need to track complaints properly – and invest in tools or training that’s likely to drive tangible improvements.
6. Publish Your Process
Unless you operate in a highly-regulated industry, there’s probably no (legal) requirement to publish your complaint handling process. That said, this is a recommended best practice for a reason.
Namely that it encourages dissatisfied customers to complain (instead of simply disengaging with your organisation) and improves transparency.
Although it’s completely optional and rarely covered in published complaints procedures, we also think it’s worth thinking about the way you review and analyse the complaints recorded in your tracking system.
Complaints are a fantastic driver of positive change, but they’re only useful if you take the time to identify trends and patterns in your complaint data; use complaints to pinpoint recurring issues and take the time required to collaborate with the relevant department(s) to think up effective solutions to the same.
For this to be possible, you need a robust complaint tracking process that provides proper visibility of all issues.
But if you can establish an effective process and formalise the way you review and learn from complaint data, you’ll have the tools to implement the sort of wide-ranging and effective enhancements referenced in the FCA’s 2010 Review Of Complaint Handling In Banking Groups.
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