Staff across the public and private sectors seem to think they are not allowed to admit a mistake was and and say sorry, when often this all the agreived person wants to hear, says Blair McPherson
The NHS is frequently criticised for how it responds to complaints: too defensive, often dismissive and reluctant to apologise.
Then of course there is the non-apology apology – “we are sorry if you feel your experience was unsatisfactory” – which acknowledges your irritation but not our role in it. In my experience as a senior manager there is another way.
‘The choice is more people receiving a poorer service or fewer people receiving a better service’
I was asked to speak at a conference on complaints but the real expert in our house is my wife. She is the tenacious one. She has a simple technique: if the local manager can’t or won’t do some thing about it she goes to the top. She asks for the name and email address of the chief executive or chair of the board. Foolishly some frontline staff claim not to know.
This happend recently to us in the US when the reception staff said there was no manager available and neither did they know the name of the chair or chief executive of the company. Maybe they didn’t, but my wife nows a website where you can find out. She composed her email on the flight back, gave them a week to acknowledge it before she chased up and if they give a timescale for investigating and responding she holds them to it. In most cases it results in a telephone conversation with the top person’s PA or a senior manager who has been delegated to look into the matter.
In most cases the top person appears genuinely disappointed at the performance of their staff both in the initial failure and the subsequent poor response to the complaint. All my wife wants is the recognition that they have not delivered what they had promised and a genuine apology. Shw won’t stop till she gets it.
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The other side of complaints
My experience is from the other side: the senior manager who gets brought in when the person making the complaint is frustrated and disappointed by the service and then by the initial response to their complaint. I too am disappointed if staff have not acknowledged their mistakes and apologised.
‘Use the evidence to give politicians the confidence to promote a controversial strategy’
I don’t know where the idea comes from that the lawyers have decreed don’t admit anything, but some staff seem to think they are not allowed to admit a mistake was and and say sorry. My experience of local government is that senior managers are good at saying sorry but not so good at making changes to ensure it doesn’t happen to other people.
The biggest source of complaints in social services is around the home help service. The number of people using this service are much greater than other services so there is more chance of something going wrong. The most common complaint is the the carer did not come at the agreed time, left early, did not turn up or that the visitor changes so often that they never get to know the client. So why won’t action be taken?
Home care is now provided by 30-plus private providers across the authority. If someone has a complaint they are asked to raise it directly with the private care organisation. If problems continue then people are advised to raise it with the contract managers; they monitor problems with providers and have the ultimate sanction of terminating contracts. But providers willing to deliver a service at the local authority’s contract price are thin on the ground.
Make a strong case
The evidence of complaints should be used in demanding a better service from providers. Better training for staff, higher levels of staff supervision, higher pay to retain staff and not placing contracts with organisations that use zero hours contracts or pay below the minimum wage. But this does’t happen because budget cuts mean that the council has to weigh increased demand against reduced funds so goes for cheap contracts.
The complaints statistics and case examples could be used to show councillors why the commissioning and contracting strategy should be changed to provide a quality service even of this is to fewer people. Use the evidence to give politicians the confidence to promote a controversial strategy.
The choice is more people receiving a poorer service or fewer people receiving a better service.
Blair McPherson author and commentator on the public sector