Just before the nation closed down for an extended period to enjoy a heady cocktail mix of secular and religious celebration, eight of the G&G (the Great and the Good) as seen from the perspective of the corner of the universe we work in, signed up to a declaration that meaningful, comparable complaints information is essential to improving healthcare quality of service. Nothing to take issue with there especially since there was no suggestion that either LINks or HealthWatch England should actually handle complaints – something we are dead against. Most of the signatory bodies e.g regulators like Monitor and the CQC are complaint data users with only the Ombudsman having a principal focus on complaints handling itself. The data collection engine will be the NHS Information Centre and let us hope they have been keeping up with Mr Rosling and his amazing way with statistics. Dull old stats changing and showing the patterns in front of your eyes making the boring brilliant. Complaint data could certainly do with some of that. But who will take that information and run with it? Who will make the impact arguments? Who will take the problem incidence and associate it with survey data showing impact on satisfaction and reputation, stick some money on it as the cost of poor quality (think of the expense of the escalated complaint) and then roll up the report and beat people over the head with it until they do something about service failure?
But poor complaint handling is not the preserve of the NHS or the public sector. There was a classic quote that MAC Partner Val Moore heard the other day from the pleasant Bank of Scotland employee who agreed, apologised and volunteered the fact that “there had indeed been a number of complaints about this procedure and it seemed to be taking rather a long time to put right” – a classic confession of impotence by the complaint handler as they pass the buck at the speed of light to some anonymous customer-distant entity elsewhere in the bank. So lack of action and ownership either of the problem or its solution is not just confined to the Health Service. Let us do an exercise here – read Val’s story and then tell us in the comments box what you think the root cause of this complaint is and whose responsibility it is to fix it?
I have just been chased repeatedly for payment of 75p interest on an affinity credit card which I apparently owed even though it did not at first appear on my statement because the bank made a “late” calculation of interest on a cash withdrawal. My next statement showed 75p outstanding balance which seemed to me to be too small to be worth writing a cheque. However the next statement in March 2011 pointed out the non payment again saying in block capitals “YOU HAVE FAILED TO MAKE A MINIMUM PAYMENT”. At this point I phoned and complained about the bank’s attitude to this tiny debt on a credit card that was miles away from being maxed out.
I received apologies but decided to make a payment of the 75p there and then over the phone and was told the amount had been removed from my account. And so that seemed when I got my next monthly statement dated 7 April saying my account was clear. However I then received a letter dated 8 April from Retail Bank Collections saying that I was being given notice that I had failed to make the full minimum monthly payment in each of the last two months. The letter went on to make all sorts of threatening statements about missed payments and default sums and included an information sheet from the Office of Fair Trading about arrears and the risk of legal action!
I got through on the phone and was given the absurd explanation that my payment of 75 p had “generated” this last letter – what rubbish- and so I said I wanted to close my account. First they offered me the automatic closure number but I said “no way” I wanted to speak to a real person and since I was paying for the call, I thought that was the least they could do. Eventually after listening to several successive music tracks, I was put through to a pleasant and apologetic man who admitted there had been a number of complaints about this procedure but it seemed to be taking a long time to amend. I agreed not to close my account if he assured me he would pass on my complaint and see that it was followed up. He promised and said the bank would credit me £10 for my trouble.
Does the NSPCC know?
You have to give him his due. The escalated-to apologist did his job to the extent that he persuaded Val to keep her account open by offering an unverifiable promise and a tenner. The net result tho’ is a loss of reputation for the NSPCC in whose name the credit card was issued and we must wonder if they ever heard about the aggressive computer-driven recovery procedures filled with threats and based on error.
Ownership is Personal
This is the snag with all these bodies getting together to urge the use of complaint data. They can urge till they are blue in the face but they cannot do. We are back to the problem the Ombudsman raised and we blogged about at the time when she told the stories of awful treatment of older people – why do good people end up doing such appalling things and how to get them to change? Sexy graphs a la Rosling and his Gapminder software may do it for some but for most, the answer may lie in an act of individual daring to re-assume ownership of both problem and solution and not wait for the stats to come in at some point in the distant future. The successful complaint manager does not wait for the red light from the regulator or the local rap on the knuckles from a local HealthWatch or LINks – they do what they can at the time and discover the combination that restores confidence and reputation – their own version of saying sorry and offering a tenner. However just at the moment, everyone has been too busy re-applying for their jobs and looking out for themselves and what will that do to complaint statistics? Actually it may lower them since who could be bothered recording them or doing much about it? After all they may not be around next week.