Abusive, persistent, threatening, unreasonable, manipulative, obsessive. We won’t name names, but a name just popped into your head. Perhaps several.
Just when you think you have made a breakthrough – you have resolved what you can resolve, or they have understood that you can’t fix the unfixable or turn back the hands of time – they are back.
The fall-out can be enormous. Staff stress, team stress, productivity drops, other customers getting the short shrift from stressed staff, time and resources taken away from legitimate business. And often the fall-out happens in the complainant’s life as well – family breakdowns, job losses, bankruptcies. There is no win here for anyone.
Last week I attended an excellent training session from the NSW Ombudsman’s Office on Managing Unreasonable Complainant Behaviour. The handbook is available for download here. This guide includes some sample letters and scripts for dealing with complainants, as well as some principles from the people whose job is to be the end of the line for complaints that escalate.
The highly entertaining Paddy and Sheila took us through the principles and some practice exercises. Well worth the time.
Some thoughts from the text:
1. Remember even the most unreasonable and irrational complainant may actually have a point. Look at the evidence first and impartially, irrespective of the manner in which the complainant has approached you.
2. The complaint and how it is to be handled is your decision according to your agency protocol. It is not the role of the complainant to dictate how their complaint will be handled.
3. Don’t make any promises you can’t keep.
4. Ask yourself if you are behaving the way you would respond to any other complainant. If you are doing things you wouldn’t do for others then you are probably being manipulated.
5. Call the behaviour. (The text refers to making it overt.)
6. Clearly set the rules. If it is an hour’s meeting, then it is an hour and nothing else. If you will not accept swearing and abusive language then be clear about that, give a warning and what your response will be if it continues.
7. Take into account the complainant’s background. If their normal language is swearing (and the swearing is not aggressively aimed at you) then you may need to accept it to an extent. If they are illiterate, then don’t expect them to fill in your forms.
8. Having a mental illness does not preclude someone from having a genuine complaint. Again, look at the evidence first.
9. Deal with the behaviour as unreasonable, not the person. On another day and another issue, they may be easier to deal with. On another day and another issue, you might be the unreasonable complainant. They could just be having a bad day.
10. Always treat the complainant with respect no matter what. Two wrongs don’t make a right, you need to set the standard of behaviour you expect.
11. Document, document, document. Take notes on phone conversations. Email follow-ups and summaries of conversations and meetings for confirmation.