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Complaints about social care services
We all want them, don’t we?

There’s a lot that we can learn from complaints and the feedback our customers give, however difficult it might be to take. Claire Hayward sets out why you should encourage complaints to improve your service and the lives of your clients.

‘We want complaints – that’s how our services improve and develop.’

‘We listen to our customers – their views matter.’

We have all heard the above and we believe it, in theory, but how many of us live by those words when it comes to our own services?

In 2005, Ann Keen MP, the then Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Health Service, stated in the document Making Experiences Count – A new approach to responding to complaints, ‘I want it to be easier and more beneficial for organisations receiving complaints to respond properly and ensure that people’s experiences help to improve services. I fully appreciate that the shift to this new approach may be challenging for some organisations.’

However, a recent report from the Competitions and Markets Authority found that complaints and redress systems still don’t work well with residents finding it very challenging to make complaints.

Why is that, and how can we improve?

Receiving complaints

We know we’re not perfect – who is perfect? What is perfection? In social care, perfection can lead to complacency which can lead to failure. This means that we need to encourage complaints and respond to them effectively.

We all know that there are some individuals who complain to the point of making the process meaningless, even the smallest concern has the same energy and force as the most catastrophic failure.

However, there are others who would rather smile and suffer than cause offence.
Whatever their reasons, they need to be listened to, encouraged to complain if they don’t feel able to and, most of all, their complaints must be taken seriously.

Common barriers to complaining

How an organisation responds to complaints can be a barrier to people complaining.
Some organisations listen to complaints and ignore compliments, others are the opposite.
We are all different but we need to actively encourage feedback and complaints; listen, with the same level of energy and curiosity, to every piece of feedback we receive; and make a considered decision as to the action or inaction as a result.

Here are some common barriers to complaining and how they could be addressed.

A family carer won’t complain about the care provider in case the quality of care declines as a consequence.

This is common and the issue is not about a good, accessible complaints procedure, but the anticipated reaction to the complaint. People need to feel that their complaint will be met by someone who:

Asks about the concern with a genuine desire to find out what was happening and shows empathy regarding either the strength of feeling or the difficulty they may have overcome to speak up.

  1. Has not pre-judged what happened or why.
  2. Does not misread any anger, frustration, anxiety, fear or other emotion or question their intent.
  3. Thinks the complainant’s view matters.
  4. Values the complainant as either a customer or someone who cares deeply for another customer.

A staff member did not think it mattered what the family member said as it was the client who was important.

I have met family members who have not lived with their relative for over 30 years, sometimes more; people who do not see their relative from year to year; parents who want their adult child to remain a child and not have jobs, sexual partners or take risks. However, whatever the situation, I have never seen a relative whose views should be ignored.

A staff member ignores complaints unless they are specifically told it is a complaint.

Often, I hear that a client or a family member has communicated that they were not happy about an aspect of care or support. After doing this, they are then asked if they want to make a complaint.

Why ask this question? Surely, they have just complained. Who said the complaint must be given in a certain way or that key words must be used for it to be deemed a complaint? Their comments need to be listened to, considered and acted upon where necessary.

The complaint is irrelevant if we can prove it didn’t happen as they said.

Organisations can be so scared of complaints that they often try to show that they were not at fault (perhaps so they cannot be sued). This pervades their culture and becomes a barrier to listening.
This has happened to such a degree that the sector now has a duty of candour. It seems sad that we have to legislate an apology when a mistake occurs.

Although defending a complaint may be required in certain circumstances, there should be no triumph in this – the person still used your service, their needs or expectations were not met and this should be recognised whatever the outcome.

My complaint isn’t as important as someone else’s.

When it comes to complaints, there is no group of people that are more important than anyone else. However, you can use stakeholder mapping tools to identify a group’s interest or influence which will always be used consciously or unconsciously to prioritise action.
This means the quietest voice with what appears to be a minor concern, could have the greatest impact when investigated and actioned.

Handling complaints

There is no perfect way to handle feedback and complaints. However, if you don’t feel that you’re getting it quite right, consider changing your approach to complaints, listen to what others are doing and use feedback to improve your processes.

Here are six steps that we’ve embraced with the aim of helping people feel more comfortable complaining and enabling us to improve our services and how we respond to feedback.

1. Set a target to increase complaints

Yes, that’s right. We set a target that all services should see an increase in complaints. This led to services being happy when they received a complaint from a customer, because they met their target and it gave us the opportunity to improve, and evidence that we are listening.

2. Training for staff and service users

We ensure our staff have customer service training and understand the organisational philosophy regarding complaints. We want people to understand that by listening to and acting upon a complaint about the quality of the food or cleaning products, both parties can be given the confidence to discuss more contentious issues.

Our aim is to be an organisation where there is no fear when complaining about staff and no difference in the response they get whether they are complaining or complementing the service, to the point where the barriers to reporting abuse are reduced to nothing.

3. Training for families

We run sessions with family members to let them know that complaints are vital for continual improvement. We listen to their barriers and show we are listening by putting in place strategies to support them.

4. Development of the ‘Happy App’

We developed a web-based feedback tool that asks if people are happy or unhappy and the area that has made them feel that way. We ensure a tablet with the ‘Happy App’ is available within all building-based services.

It is not sophisticated; it does not need to be. It gives us feedback on what we are doing and the impact of any changes we make.

Services also have targets to improve the number of times the ‘Happy App’ is used.

5. Complain (and give praise and as much feedback as you can)

It is really easy to tell others what to do and how they should behave. I can give anyone advice about anything, but it’s not always as easy to follow your own advice.

I realised that I had not complained significantly, or in fact given any feedback with constructive comments for some time. Therefore, my expectations of the people I support were higher than I had for myself.

From this, I made a conscious decision to give feedback and think about what I felt, why I felt it and what it was that made that experience good or bad.

I started with online feedback, then giving positive feedback in shops and cafés. Occasionally, I would add in something like ‘I personally found the sauce a little too spicy, but the fish was cooked to perfection and I really enjoyed it’.

It was hard at first, but this enabled me to have a greater empathy for the person who is making a complaint and their intent.

Our advice is to encourage your staff to give feedback to each other and to other organisations on services and products they receive; this can then be replicated throughout the organisation and encouraged from the people you support.

6. Be proud of all feedback

Value people and tell them how they helped you to learn. Without their bravery, you could not have provided person-centred support; realised that what you had done with the best of intentions, was not what they wanted; or gained more understanding as to how they see the world around them.

As hard as they are to hear, complaints are essential to service improvement. Encourage them, explain why you want more complaints and other feedback. Let’s start a quiet revolution to value complaints and every other type of feedback.

Claire Hayward is the Chief Executive of Freeways. Email: clairehayward@freeways.org.uk Twitter: @FreewaysCEO

Do you welcome complaints? Subscribers share your processes on the CMM website. You can also read our feature from Dr Jane Martin of the Local Government Ombudsman about learning from complaints.

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