How to write a complaints procedure

Need to write a complaint procedure? Here’s some ideas, tips and approaches to create one that’s customer-centric and human-centred.

We get to see a fair few complaint procedures in our work. The way you treat your customers when things go wrong isn’t just the difference between keeping them or losing them, it has a huge impact on your teams too. An adversarial, difficult complaints process will – no surprises – give you adversarial, difficult customers. We’ve put together this quick outline to help you develop a complaints procedure that’s human-centred, focused on positive outcomes for customers and that gives teams the guidance and support they need.

What’s your complaint procedure for?

Let’s start with something that seems obvious but doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. The biggest mistake we see is when the customer gets treated as some sort of abstract entity rather than the reason your procedure exists in the first place.

If your complaints procedure is internally focused and based on KPIs irrelevant to customers don’t be surprised if teams treat complaining customers like an annoyance.

Instead, lay out the ground rules with an external focus; giving customers the best possible experience. If you’re including KPIs and targets make sure they’re things that matter to customers.

Remember – the targets you put in place end up acting as the success criteria for your procedure. If they don’t matter to customers then your teams won’t be focused on that either.

At a bare minimum, your procedure should explain:

  • That it’s about putting things right and a real moment of truth to show we care.
  • That’s it’s about getting a fair outcome for a customer as quickly as possible.
  • The experience we give customers when they complain is as important as the outcome.

Perhaps something like…

Sometimes things go wrong. How we deal with it shows our customers what kind of organisation we really are.

This procedure is all about putting things right, getting customers an outcome they think is fair and proving we’ve got their backs.

At every stage of this procedure we’ll ask ourselves, are we:

  • Helping the customer in the best way possible?
  • Focused on showing them we care?
  • Giving them the best experience we can?

Write a complaints procedure that makes complaining easy

With one client, recently, I had to navigate through eight web pages before I came across a link to complain (hidden below a “send your compliments here” form).

Not only does this exasperate customers, it also misses the point of complaints. They’re feedback – simple as that. They’re a rich resource of information about where your service misses customer expectations. You can learn more from a morning spent with your complaints team than a week of market research spreadsheets.


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Engaging, human-centred online learning. Designed to empower service teams to change the way they write to customers.

It’s already common knowledge that only a tiny proportion of people who have issues complain. Most don’t bother and simply choose another supplier.

You can tell a lot about an organisation’s culture from how easy they make complaining. Make it clear in your procedure that customers should find it easy to complain in whatever way they like – and their complaint will be welcomed for the valuable feedback it is.

Perhaps something like…

We will make it easy for our customers to let us know when something’s gone wrong. This means:

  • there are multiple ways to make a complaint.
  • there’s a consistent, onmi-channel experience.
  • we’ll treat every complaint as an opportunity to learn
  • (and we’ll never hide our “make a complaint” options eight layers down on our website.)

Focus on experience and outcomes when you write a complaints procedure

If someone’s complaining, a) something’s gone wrong, and b) they want it fixed.

This makes two things really important:

  • The experience they get now needs to exceed the experience they’ve just had.
  • Your whole approach needs to revolve around getting an outcome that your customer feels is fair.

Customer experience in complaints

We treat the complaint journey like every other experience. It needs to be mapped from the customer’s perspective – taking into account that you are already on the back foot.

If your procedure doesn’t detail the experience your customers should get at each stage of the journey you’re missing a trick. This is a real moment of truth to show customers the original issue was a one off event, rather than being characteristic of how you treat people.

Customer journey mapping the complaints process.
Customer complaints journey mapping

Spend time journey mapping the complaint experience, looking at each stage from the customer’s perspective. Every touchpoint, from the initial acknowledgement to the final sign off, should match that experience.

Acknowledge customer “downtime” in the journey

According to my highly scientific resources (the movie Interstellar) there’s a phenomenon where, the closer you are to a black hole, the quicker time goes by. It’s similar for complaining customers – time looks different to them. It might seem perfectly acceptable for a week to go by, while you investigate, without updating the customer. It won’t feel the same to them.

Learn to spot points in the process where the customer might be waiting to hear something and find ways to update them. Even if there’s no news. A “no news but we’re still on the case” is far better than radio silence. It’ll likely save your contact centre time and cost in fielding follow-up calls too.

Finding fair outcomes

I don’t believe the customer is always right, but I do believe it’s possible to offer fair outcomes for 99% of customer issues.

Fairness, however, is a bit of a movable feast when it comes to customer complaints. For simple service failures (delays, returns, refunds, errors) this is usually straightforward. Most customers what the issue resolved quickly, with minimal effort for them and to be treated well.

For more complex issues you’ll need to allow space for “negotiation”. This means, rather than assuming you already know what feels fair to them, you allow time to ask. This could be as simple as training your teams to ask open questions. “How can we make this right for you?” is likely to get a better outcome than a wooden “According to our policy we will offer you xxxx”.

Explain the steps from the customer’s view

A lot of procedures focus on what happens internally. How you pass the complaint from person to person etc without explaining what the customer’s likely to experience/see. This is unhelpful for two reasons:

  1. You don’t set any expectations for the customer, so they’re often left in limbo wondering what’s happening (often calling you up to chase).
  2. It reinforces to your teams that this is an internal process where the customer is an irritant first and foremost.

Some of the best complaint procedures I’ve seen show the steps in a timeline or visual so customers know exactly what to expect.

Perhaps something like…

Keeping the customer updated throughout the complaint process

Give the complaint an owner

One of the biggest bugbears for customers is when they get passed from pillar to post and have to re-explain their issue again and again.

A good rule of thumb is: the person closest to the problem should have the power to fix it. Whenever possible give someone who can directly fix the issue the ownership for it.

For a lot of organisations, however, that simply isn’t possible. The contact centre acts as a conduit between the customer and the operational/system fix. If this is the case, you’ll need to agree how the flow of information between teams works in your procedure – and be very clear about who ‘owns’ the complaint.

Regardless of what’s happening in the background, try to give the customer a single point of contact. When that’s simply not possible, make sure whoever is fielding the conversation has all the information they need. No more “Sorry, that’s not my department…”

Establish the power/responsibility ratio

We’ve seen a lot of contact centres that try to implement a “fist contact resolution” policy without giving their teams the power to actually fix things. This means the front line are permanently on the back foot and you get plummeting satisfaction scores and irritated customers.

Giving front line teams all the responsibility to fix things but none of the power is one of THE most damaging mistakes.

If your contact teams don’t have the ability and power to solve things there and then it’s far better to be upfront and honest about it rather than give customers a false sense of hope (and your front line teams a huge headache).

Make time to listen

You’d be amazed how many complaint procedures I see which don’t allow explicit time for listening to the customer. Perhaps because it’s seen as more of a ‘soft’ skill to teach front line teams than a quantifiable step in the process.

This misses one of the biggest opportunities to:

  • show customers you care about what they have to say, and
  • get some feedback about how and where the service failure happened.

The Legal Ombudsman makes a point of putting it at the start of their process because they see it as so important.

When you make listening a defined part of the process it highlights its importance to internal teams and gives them the authority to spend time doing it.

Perhaps something like…

Simple customer complaint process
A simple customer complaint process that focuses on listening first

Review your complaint procedure regularly

This is as obvious as defining your complaint procedure with the customer in mind, and hopefully it’s something you check regularly, access against customer expectations and tweak to make sure it’s giving a best experience. Sometimes, however, people forget about procedures like these and they end up gathering dust without getting a proper review.

The key to an effective review is benchmarking.

Focus on metrics that your customers tell you are important and try to dig a little deeper than just CSAT. It gives you a glimpse of what customers think but rarely gives you the insight to make meaningful change.

These are some of the areas we find crop up most often:

Adequacy/Fairness: How well the problem got fixed and how fairly your customer felt they were treated.

Access: How easy it was to find the right person to solve their issue.

Kindness: How friendly, helpful and kind the people they dealt with were.

Effort: How hard it was to get the issue looked at and the problem fixed.

Speed: How quickly you got from initial complaint to resolution/outcome.

We work in all sort of customer complaint areas – helping organisations develop human-centred ways to fixing stuff when it goes wrong. And we love working in complaints, so if they’re something you’re looking at, give us a shout.