Posted: 16th April 2019

Back in 2016, Huntswood published the Complaints Outlook, the first in what will soon be a series of reports into complaints handling across multiple sectors and industries.

Now, in a world greatly changed by technology and new regulation, we are returning to the Complaints Outlook to uncover how the expectations and experiences of customers have changed and how complaints handling teams across the UK are currently performing.

While the research is hard work, it’s also enlightening work. We do like to think of ourselves as complaints experts, but we’re also not afraid to say that we’ve certainly learned a lot from the process. A major point that has jumped out from the research so far is that there is a disconnect between customer expectations and their actual experiences.

Of course, it’s never going to be a simple matter to close such a gap, at least not without clear and insightful information. The first stumbling block to obtaining this comes in the form of firms struggling to effectively measure their performance and find out just where they might be falling flat.

So, the question is: should firms be benchmarking their performance against their peers, against leaders outside of their industry or against customer expectations themselves?

Here we explore a few of the options that organisations have available to them.

Benchmarking against peers

Traditionally, benchmarking activities have focused on comparative performance between peers within a specific sector, even going so far as to ignore competitors with different business models and approaches.

This form of benchmarking has made it easy to compare performance ‘like-for-like’, but one does have to ask if it has really led to any substantial change or improvements within organisations.

The answer is probably something of a mixed bag. ‘Like-for-like’ benchmarking will likely have been a catalyst for improvement for those not performing well within their peer group. However, it is unlikely to have driven a step change for those businesses that can already confidently evidence that they are performing relatively well.

In many cases, this confidence has only come from being the ‘best of a bad bunch’ and, as customer expectations of service increase, that just isn’t good enough. Consumers do not want a service that ‘isn’t quite as bad’ as that provided by a competitor. They want great service, and will advocate for businesses who provide it.

Benchmarking against customer expectations

It takes a brave leader to choose to move away from labelling their operation as a successful, peer-group leading complaints department. It takes a much braver leader to set an ambitious vision of delivering a service that meets genuine customer needs.

For the brave, the first challenge is measuring and understanding what true excellence looks like.

Being open to understanding what customers really want – something that can be identified through user experience research – and having the confidence to set goals which may feel unattainable, are both essential to driving the operation in the right direction.

Achieving these visionary goals will enable firms to move away from having simply peer-group leading complaints performance to becoming a real example of complaints excellence for other organisations to aspire to. Firms that have succeeded in this will surely be followed by a solid base of loyal customer advocates.

Innovation should be business as usual

No firm ever delivered a step change in their customer experience by doing things the way they always have been done.

This means that, to deliver on the vision of success identified through customer expectation benchmarking, businesses need to foster a culture of innovation.

Now, the word “innovation” has been overused to near meaninglessness, but a truly creative culture should be at the centre of complaints departments (well, any department, really) and be used drive the core behaviours of everyone in the team. Having clear goals about what you want to innovate will help focus thinking and help to encourage new ideas.

But it’s not all about ‘blue sky thinking’. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say. The constraints which will naturally apply to any organisation – whether budgetary, system-based or even geographical – can all encourage the necessity-driven creativity needed to provide better solutions to customers. That is, as long as the team and its leadership are willing to embrace change.

An example of how new technologies are opening up opportunities comes in the shape of robotic process automation (RPA).

RPA enables relatively inexpensive automation without the need for the unwieldy changes to legacy systems – systems which may have long held businesses back from making dramatic changes to their processes in the first place. Successful applications of RPA provide some of the best examples of the power of innovation within constraints.

A “culture of innovation” does not just mean finding the perfect, ‘gold-plated’ solution and implementing it. It is about everyone continually looking for ways to improve and enabling this change to happen.

Measuring success

Firms need to actively support their complaints function in taking these necessary steps, with that support coming from the highest level of senior leadership within the organisation.

The benefits of this kind of leadership should be obvious to the entire business. However, there needs to be an acceptance, at every level, that radical change will be a step-by-step process, and results won’t be delivered overnight.

Success metrics need to be aligned to the journey, and they need to be realistic and far-reaching. Using historic measures will not drive the changes in performance, culture and behaviours needed. The right balance needs to be struck between continual improvement and celebrating success if firms are to keep teams motivated and engaged with the change journey.

The real key to using benchmarking effectively is changing mindsets, from seeing it as a tool to make the organisation look good in its current state to using it as a forward-looking tool that will help steer the firm towards real complaints excellence.

Kate Woollard

Kate Woollard

Head of Communications