The Amazing World of Complaint Handling – illustrations by Escher

escher stairs2“The Amazing World of M.C Escher” was the must see exhibition in Edinburgh when I was up recently to talk about Complaint Handling in the Public Sector. His world is one where things are never quite what they appear to be – meticulous wood engraving offers amazing details of a labyrinth where stairs lead nowhere and hidden in an eye is a shadowly skull. How like the world of complaint handling in the public sector and the question of blame and its attendant culture of negativity that hangs around it – this dark world, the Game of Groans. (Terrible weakness for terrible puns).

Click to download my full presentation titled Encouraging Ownership, a Positive View of Complaints and Challenging ‘The Blame Culture’ – Not Just Surviving but Succeeding(PDF, 400kb)

Let me emphasise one point in particular. I am suspicious of the word culture – overused by consultants and others – often offered as a generalised diagnosis of organisational failure – Francis is the example in all our minds I guess.  All too often, its use signifies a retreat both from finding the root cause of failure and from launching the remedial action that will fix the problem. Culture is too vague and too big – where is the end of the thread that we can grasp to lead us into the centre of the maze of putting the thing right? Instead of fixing what might be in essence a small problem (but one whose investigation and resolution is tricky because it involves more senior and important people), the organisation switches its attention to failings in the process of complaint handling itself – again  a deflection mechanism.

Blame becomes an organisational version of Pass the Parcel whereby the complaint always gets passed but never resolved. Final pass – the Ombudsman and we can all relax with a sigh of relief – for a while at least until the findings come out. My cynical advice to the audience of complaint handlers about the pass available to them – if you can’t beat them, join them – would be the lawyers. They can handle it and anyway get paid more.

I am not sure that we can ever rid complaint handling of its negative connotations – my final advice echoed that of Bruno Bettelheim to parents when he spoke of ‘good enough parenting’. Complaint handlers stay healthier if they see the world as one of incremental, small improvements that improve the world of their customers enough to be noticed and perhaps reconcile them a little more to the mysteries and intricacies of a world that Escher illustrated so well.

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