#fail: why all complaints should be public acts
The publication of Nesta's report on complaints and innovation has prompted me to finally get round to writing up an idea.
Essentially it is this. All complaints should be public acts.
It came from a particularly bad customer experience I had a year ago at the hands of a major credit card company. It was one of those Kafkaesque nightmares that have become all too familiar in the modern service economy.
After a dozen phone calls to computerized and off-shored call centres that didn't have the script to understand, much less solve the problem they had created, mounting fines (yes, they were fining me for their mistake), ignored correspondence (from me) and threatening letters (from them), I took to twitter.
Within minutes they responded.
@philipcolligan Hi. We're sorry to hear you're unhappy. Could you please send more info to [email address] so we can assist you?
The next day I was talking to a human being who didn't have to follow a script, apologized and worked with me to sort it out. I still took my business elsewhere, but I can't be anything but impressed with how responsive they were once I got the right person's attention.
What's the lesson?
My tweet transformed my complaint into a public act. Most of the time complaints are private, bilateral acts between parties with very unequal power and resources. David and Goliath analogies abound.
My tweet also meant that it was the communications team in the major credit card company that responded: the people responsible for the company's brand and online reputation. You might argue that anyone dealing with a customer should take responsibility for a company's brand - if only that were true.
It reminded me of my time as director of housing in a north London council. I was responsible for 33,000 council houses and I spent a lot of time investigating and responding to complaints.
Some argued that wasn't a productive use of an executive's time, but it was a great way to understand the reality of customer experience and sent a powerful message through the organisation about our priorities.
I was struck time and again how badly people on both sides of a complaint behaved and how unproductive the process was. The system drove the complainant to exaggerate and embellish on the one hand and the responder to be mistrustful and defensive on the other.
In the vast majority of cases where we had made a genuine cock up, we fixed it, improved our systems and delighted the customer, but the official stats only ever showed how many complaints we had and not now we used them to drive improvement.
Lots of complaints are about cock ups, but quite a few speak to deeper truths, exposing underlying tensions and choices about design and allocation of resources that should be visible and could be a driver for innovation.
So here's my suggestion. Let's make all complaints public acts.
If I want to complain to my local authority, utility provider or credit card company, I should do so in public, online. They in turn should respond in public, online. We should protect confidentiality where that's important, but with a bias towards openness.
It's already started to happen. Innovations like www.fixmystreet.com and www.patientopinion.org.uk have made a great start. We could go much further much faster. What we need is a major public service, utility or even a credit card company to step forward and make it happen. It won't be long before others follow.
The alternative could be a world where if you want anything passing for good customer service then you need 1,000 + twitter followers. We can surely do better than that.
@philipcolligan is the Executive Director of Nesta's Innovation Lab and a Government Adviser on Social Innovation